Neeru Mishra's book unearths the lesser-known illustrated manuscripts of Sursagar, a voluminous collection of bhajans by Surdas. The Bhakti movement that took place in the 16th Century witnessed the birth of Sursagar, a collection of 1,25,000 verses set to contemporary ragas. Surdas, an ardent Krishna devotee and saint-poet, composed these bhajans to Krishna.

Perhaps no other Hindu God or Goddess' life has lent itself with such ease to visual interpretation as Krishna's. His raas-lila, with the milkmaids and Radha dancing around him as if under a spell, surrounded by lush foliage, verdant trees beneath the blue-lit sky, came to epitomise the ultimate in shringar and bhakti rasa, thus inspiring a slew of artists belonging to various miniature schools — both nurtured under royal patronage and independent practitioners — to recreate those moments in their own distinct styles. Lyrical Kangra creations from the Pahari school, the palm-leaf paintings of Orissa and the Rajasthani miniatures often had Radha and Krishna, as central to their imagery, depicting events borrowed from the Blue God's life as described in Jayadeva's epic poem Gita Govinda and in the Bhagavata Purana.

The Bhakti movement that took place in the 16th Century witnessed the birth of Sursagar, a collection of 1,25,000 verses set to contemporary ragas. Surdas, an ardent Krishna devotee and saint-poet, composed these bhajans to Krishna.

Now, this compilation too, not many would know, led many artists, amongst whom Ram Prasad and Muralidhar figure prominently, to create paintings based on Surdas' musical work. Neeru Misra, art historian and Senior Programme Director, Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), has chosen to highlight this development in her latest academic work “Krishna in Indian Art: Sursagar paintings of Awadh School” (Shubhi Publications) released recently at the India International Centre.

The book, Misra informs us, is based on the two original manuscripts in the possession of the National Museum. “It's interesting to note that such an exercise was undertaken in Awadh because it was primarily a Ram Katha region and Sursagar was about Krishna. These paintings executed under the patronage of Moghul nawabs show the secular conditions present at that time. Things like these prompted me to take up the subject,” says the author, who through the exercise also intends to bring to the fore the practice of illustrated manuscripts existing in a few schools like Alwar and Awadh.

“Besides other stories from his life, a large number of tales are from the various incarnations of Vishnu. And all of those are illustrated by the artists. And that's not something done by all the miniature schools,” she adds.

Misra analytically looks at these paintings, done between 1812 and 1834, from purely a visual perspective, examining the tonality of colours, pictorial depiction of the story, the elements and the motifs. She also examines it from the socio-cultural angle. The manuscript incorporates over 300 paintings done by artist Ram Prasad, patronised by Nasir-ud-din Haider, then Nawab of Awadh, whereas more than 200 paintings come from Muralidhar, independently functioning as an artist. “While the court painter's style is rich and ornate with abundant use of gold, the grandeur of Moghul and Rajput gardens with architectural edifices forming the backdrop give it an effect of urban setting. In contrast, the popular paintings done by Muralidhar are more folkish in nature. Of course, Krishna is the theme there too, but expansive pastoral lands, foliage, and the use of pastel colours set them apart,” notes Misra.

“The portrayal of Krishna and Radha as Nayak-Nayika is something taken from the Raga-Ragini paintings of Rajasthan,” she elaborates. “The style of depicting the sky and clouds bears similarities to the other Rajasthani schools. And just like in Rajasthani miniatures, here also, you see a lot of side profiles.” The visual narrative based on their style can be divided into three types: single event painting, multi-event painting, and the third type — a sequence of paintings showing a single event, like a comic strip. While ‘Godohan' is classified as a single event painting depicting Krishna milking the cow, his wedding with Rukmini portraying different scenes from the event is an example of multi-event painting.