By John Drew
Philosophers and theologians warn us about the danger of becoming distracted and misled by images. In the age of the selfies, with photography being used to sell us so many things we do not want or need and convincing us that smiling celebrities are gods and goddesses, we have reason to take their warning seriously.
But what of images that warn us of the same danger, even while they enchant us? I ask this question while looking at a beautiful wall-hanging of the gopis seeking out Krishna in the forest of Brindaban.
The wall-hanging is composed of 38 episodes, each framed by a woodland glade, laid out in six horizontal lines of 7,6,5,7,7 and 6 frames. At the top, Radha and seven other gopis leave the city, pots of curds on their heads, and wave farewell to their husbands as they enter the forest of Brindaban. After their many encounters with Krishna, the story concludes with Radha and Krishna haloed and seated together in a pandal beside a lotus-filled River Yamuna.
The trouble is, when you try to follow the story of their search for love’s fulfilment line by line, top-to-bottom on the wall-hanging, the frames don’t follow one another in any recognizable sequence. Almost all the frames show three gopis confronting Krishna, apparently arguing with him and either turning away or being turned away but in no particular order.
The gopis emerge from the city in the third frame of the top line. Amid scenes otherwise always sylvan, the towers and rocks of the city are seen in the first frame of the third line and the rocks alone in the fourth frame of the final line. This phased departure from the city suggests these may be the first three frames of the story. Yet the gopis, who accompany the protagonists in each are in different-coloured saris and, apart from this glimpse, don’t appear again. We are left without a clue as to what might be the fourth frame in the sequence.
It seems it might be easier working backwards. The last frame of the last line is so obviously the culminating frame and the one before it has Krishna and Radha, both haloed, walking through the forest. But then the only other frame with the pair haloed is fully a line before this and they are seated on a rather different pandal decorated as if for a wedding and with a more ornate base. Something is not quite in order.
The colour of the saris is one obvious determinant. Most prominently, there’s Radha in her green-and-red sari and her friend Lalita (let’s call her that) in green-and-yellow, often with a third gopi in blue-and-red behind. But sometimes there are suddenly gopis in brown-and-yellow and black-and-yellow instead and once or twice gopis in blue-and-yellow and black-and-red. Sometimes the figures obscure one another and we have a glimpse of just one colour of a sari and this may belong to the eighth (otherwise missing) gopi. And why, if the colour of the saris is indicative, does Radha once appear twice in the same frame? And why, when the gopis emerge from the city, are seven of the eight figures wearing Radha’s colours?
These concerns may appear rather silly: after all, the painter’s palette may account for such occasional discrepancies. However, the larger picture may suggest we are being deliberately misled by an artistic representation of the magic of the Ras lila. We try to make sense of what is going on in the pursuit of love’s goal and we simply get lost in the forest?
It is not totally baffling. There is some downward and, less obviously, left-to-right movement in the development of the story. Right in the very centre of the wall-hanging there is a frame where Radha steps out to engage with Krishna. This is in the third frame of the five-frame third line and given that the story culminates in the sixth frame of the sixth line, it is tempting to construct a diagonal across the matrix: Radha in the first frame of the first line engaged in a conflicting hand-to-hand pull-and-push with Krishna; in the second of the second, Lalita approaching Krishna, hand on curd pot, whether as confidante of Radha or as rival – or both – is unclear; in the fourth of the fourth, three gopis, two in Radha’s colours, turn away from Krishna; and, in the fifth of the fifth, Radha, now potless, submits herself to Krishna. This diagonal might serve as a plot for the whole story, however jumbled the frames all around.
Radha and her two main friends figure most prominently in the frames of the first line but there is no easily discernible order to the frames. The first four frames of the second line foreground different gopis and it may be that the particular story of each in turn is to be tracked, however tentatively, zig-zag down the wall-hanging before we return to the next frame as a starting-point?
The last two lines of the wall-hanging are distinct from those before in that all their frames (bar those of Radha-Krishna haloed) show a gopi approaching Krishna with a pot no longer on her head. The fifth line starts with a frame where Krishna is himself removing the pot from (if not replacing the pot on) Radha’s head (presumably as a token of his choice); in the next frame he is fanning a potless Lalita; and in the others receiving gopis who have discarded their pots. Should we take this to be an act of collective submission following Krishna’s choice of Radha or are they the final frames of individual stories that have threaded their way down through the thickets further up the wall-hanging?
Images from nature are also tricky. Initially monkeys, one springing in from the left and another from the right, promise to show us a sequence: in the end they at best indicate only mood. This may also be true, given their place in Indian iconography, of trees and flowers. Perhaps like the ever-shifting designs on the saris, changing from dots to dashes to crosses to ovals, they too are decorative, deceptive only in a suggestiveness that ultimately reveals nothing?
We do not know whether or not the painter is following the poet he has placed seated on the rocks in the top right-hand corner of the painting, he has wrought cunningly. Looking to piece together individual stories of the search for love, we have been baffled by their erratic course. But, however erratic, the course is perhaps common to all the gopis, however much or little we can see of each. The advantage of a closer look, however bewildering, reminds us that, instead of being distracted by a surface that leads us to a merry dance, we should discover the common pattern that underlies all and is concentrated in the composite figure of Radha, one that is ultimately subsumed in that of Radhakrishna.
We may then tell ourselves that, even though we cannot say how we got here, we are no longer lost in the forest.
Ras Lila: Dance of Radha, Krishna and Gopis
Gopi: Handmaidens of Radha
Pandal: An ornate tent
John Drew, author of India and the Romantic Imagination, was married in India, has worked in Singapore and now lives in Cambridge with his wife Rani.
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