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As the Bhagavata Purana has it, the incident of Krishna consuming forest fire occurred on the same day when he subdued serpent Kaliya and the viper was evicted of Kaliyadah, a spot in the river Yamuna which the serpent had been occupying and was polluting. When playing with his ‘sakhas’ – mates, their ball slipped towards Kaliyadah. Krishna followed it and along the ball fell into the serpent’s abode. Infuriated by such sudden turmoil Kaliya got up and held Krishna into its coils. The news reached Brij and the entire village : men, women and cows, rushed to the spot. Krishna’s friends were boosting their friend’s morale and all men and women, as also the cows as much in love with Krishna, were praying for his safety. By evening Krishna got hold of Kaliya but before he crushed its hood, its consorts appeared and prayed for mercy. Krishna spared the viper on condition that it would vacate the river and retire to sea that could bear the serpent’s volume and venom.
It was already evening when Krishna subdued the serpent. With a sigh of relief inhabitants of Brij decided to celebrate the occasion on the Yamuna’s bank itself. It was quite late in the evening when the celebration came to an end. Hence, they decided to stay at the Yamuna’s bank itself for the night, something quite common for when they grazed their cows during nights they used to stay there nightlong. In the centre of the grove of trees along with their cows they all retired, and tired and tense as they were, all fell into deep sleep. Around midnight they felt unbearable heat and when they opened their eyes, a huge fire was seen engulfing them and the entire surroundings. When there was hue and cry all around and all cried for help, Krishna, too, woke. It took him no time to understand that it was yet another mischief of Kansa. He instantly invoked his divine power and caught a flame and began sucking the fire through it into his mouth. Soon he consumed the entire fire and as he expected not even a leaf of a tree was burnt.
Though miniaturized, each figure, a Gopi, Gopa or cow, or even a form of tree, has been crafted with rare clarity, soft touches and lifelike vigour. The gesture of Krishna’s left hand, conducting the flame into his mouth, and his curved figure reveal a rare drama. Many of the Gopas and Gopis, unable to see Krishna fighting the mighty fire all alone and fearing that the fire might harm him, have either turned away their eyes from Krishna or have covered them with their palms. This human sentiment passes into the attitude of cows too, as many of them turn away their faces from Krishna while others look with a worried face towards him. In most paintings on the theme river Yamuna is not painted. Here the artist has painted Yamuna as also the sky grown fiery by the heat of fire reaching it. Contained in an oval frame with corners manipulated with floral arabesques the painting is able to draw the eye to its central theme without letting it wander or split.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.