75 x 97 in. (190.5 x 246.4 cm.)
Navin Kumar Collection, New York, 1960s, by repute.
Collection of Karel Appel, New York, acquired from the above, 1988.
Christie's New York, 21 March 2007, lot 360.
University Art Museum, Santa Barbara, "Images of Krishna," 7 January - 22 February 1987.
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Lot Essay

Ten-armed, multi-headed, and boundlessly large, the present figure represents Krishna as he takes on his great cosmic form Vishvarupa, most notably recorded in the Bhagavad Gita. One of the most influential scriptures in Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita presents a spectrum of yogic doctrines within the framework of the bhakti, or personal devotion, movement within Vaishnavism. The 700-verse text, likely written between the 300 BCE and 200 CE, takes the form of a conversation between Arjuna and Krishna before battle, within Book 6 of the epic Mahabharata. It spells out many key concepts for personal liberation and righteous rebirth, including the importance of developing a strong, personal connection to the lord. Unlike the larger narrative of the Mahabharata, the Gita is rarely illustrated by artists, due to its highly conceptual and conversational nature.
The present painting depicts a pivotal moment in the Bhagavad Gita when Arjuna calls on Krishna to reveal his true form, his infinite cosmic form Vishvarupa, “Having All Shapes,” which is otherwise incomprehensible to mortals. Krishna grants Arjuna’s wishes and, according to the text:
It was multiform, wondrous vision, with countless mouths and eyes and celestial ornaments, brandishing many divine weapons
Everywhere was boundless divinity containing all astonishing things, wearing divine garlands and garments, anointed with perfume
If the light of a thousand suns were to rise in the sky at once It would be like the light of that great spirit
Arjuna saw all the universe In its many ways and pats, Standing as one in the body of the gods of gods
The powerful Vishvarupa image evokes the limitless and proliferating universe. Frightened by the majesty of what he witnesses, the totality of the universe within one frame, Arjuna begs Krishna to return to his approachable, earthly form, which the god does before the two head into battle.
Representations such as the present pichvai painting demonstrate the best attempts the capture the sense of the image described in the text, despite its true infinite nature. The artists here depict the cosmic man with deep blue skin, seven heads, with fangs and nostrils of human heads, colonnades as eyelashes and ten arms holding various weapons and attributes. His arms are covered in eyes, his veins conveyed as rivers running through his forested arms, while his finger nails are of elephant and horse heads. Vishvarupa stands tall upon Vishnu’s divine serpent, Shesha. Oceans encircle his belly and a great mountain housing Brahma with devotees rises in his torso. He dons paduka sandals, a shawl, and a tall crown, all comprising palatial expanses with vignettes of court scenes and worship. His entire image is enclosed within a Cosmic Egg, with a cartouche depicting Vaikuntha, Vishnu’s paradise, and animal-headed attendants at either side. The scene is floated upon a deep blue bond filled with lotuses and bordered by a charming floral vine.
Scenes from Krishna’s life unfold throughout the painting. At Vishvarupa’s feet, Krishna appears as a charioteer, preparing Arjuna for battle as they engage in the conversation that becomes the basis of the Bhagavad Gita. At the center of the belly Krishna and his beloved gopis are engaged in the rasamandala, or cosmic dance in which Krishna duplicated himself in order to dance with each milkmaid at once. Within the uppermost cartouche Krishna is depicted several times more: as his foster mother Yashoda nurses him, as he returns at the hour of cow dust with his brother Balarama, with his beloved Radha in a garden, and as Shrinathji in the center of another dance with the gopis. These scenes perhaps serve to remind us of Krishna’s accessibility, despite the frightening form presented here, he is one to be loved as a child, as a warrior, and as a lover.
The painting also includes several scenes of godly pleasures. Anantashayana, a scene with Lakshmi massaging Vishnu’s feet as they recline on Shesha, is depicted on Vishvarupa’s left. To his right, Shiva and Parvati cuddled in their humble Himalayan abode. Brahma is depicted several times, between Vishvarupa’s legs, upon his chest, and atop his palatial crown. The small scale of these figures only further conveys Krishna’s vastness and supremacy over other gods.
There are several known depictions of Vishvarupa in sculptural, miniature painting, and pichvai painting format, though none quite compare to the present example in terms of quality and scale. An early sculptural example from the ancient Kingdom of Kashmir, and dated to the 6th century, can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (acc. no. 1986.506.15). In this depiction, Vishvarupa is carved with ten arms, and three faces- those of Vishnu, Narasimha and Varaha. Among the earlier examples in painting is a Pahari miniature from the Bilaspur School, dated to circa 1740 in the collection of the National Museum of Asian Art (acc. no. S2018.1.3), bestowing Krishna with sixty multicolored heads, and a mountain landscape throughout his body with smaller depictions of the other gods. A miniature painting of Vishvarupa from Jaipur, circa 1800, in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum (acc. no. v IS.33-2006), is a more stylistically similar example, depicting Vishvarupa with yogic figures throughout his body, and similar to the present example, depicts humans emerging from his flared nostrils.
The present lot can also be compared to a large 18th century painting on cotton from Udaipur depicting a Krishnalila Mandala, in the collection of the Museum Rietberg Zurich (acc. no. 2007.176). Similar to the present painting, the Krishanalila Mandala uses palatial structures to portray the cosmic universe. The mandala also depicts similar scenes from the life of Krishna, including the rasamandala. Another large scale 18th century cloth painting from Udaipur in the collection of the Museum Rietberg (acc. no. 2007.177) depicting a Lokapurusha (“The Cosmic Man”) Mandala carries similar iconographic qualities of the present painting of Vishvarupa. In the Lokapurusha painting, the cosmic man likewise stands firmly on the serpent Shesha. He is similarly encircled by a flat disk representing the continents and oceans. Scenes of Krishna’s life are again depicted surrounding the figure, and comparable minute depictions of Shiva and Parvati, Brahma, and Vishnu and Lakshmi can be found within the cosmic torso.
There are several examples of Vishvarupa in pichvai painting, in which case the central figure of Vishnu can be compared to the present painting, though the comparable examples lack in quality and scale. One such example, a 19th century pichvai from Nathdwara in the Julia Emerson collection was recently exhibited at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, and published in Beyond Bollywood: 2000 Years of Dance in the Arts of South Asian, Southeast Asia, and the Himalayan Region, San Francisco, 2022, cat. 24, pp. 41, and 130-131. At 52 inches high, and 36 inches wide, this example measures considerably smaller than the present lot; however, much of the iconography in the central Vishvarupa, the cosmic egg, and the cartouches remains consistent, albeit with less details and figures than the present example. A similar example, although attributed to the workshops at Kotah, is also published by J. Cummins, in Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior , Brooklyn, 2011, cat. 122, pp. 220-221.
The artists of the present painting was particularly inventive, having incorporated the summer lotus motif into the background of the image. This is an usual depiction, as Vishvarupa is not commonly set upon a lotus motif. Other lotus themed pichvais include an image of Krishna Venugopal in the collection of Amit Ambalal, published by M. Ghose in Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings, Chicago, 2015, cat. 38, p.98, and a painting of Krishna and Radha sold, Christie’s New York 22 September 2021, lot 473.

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