Krishna and the Naked Cowgirls
India (Uttar Pradesh, Garhwal), 1775-1800
Pigments on paper, 8 7/16 x 5 7/8 in (21.5 x 15 cm)
Always the prankster, the young Krishna never misses a chance to tease the women of Vraja. This is perhaps the most daring, if not the most outrageous, of his pranks, but it is also pregnant with profound spiritual meaning. Having spied the cowgirls (gopi) bathing naked in the water, Krishna quietly picks up their clothes and climbs onto a kadamba (Anthocephalous cadamba) tree. The hapless women beg Krishna to give their clothes back, but he compels each to come out of the water naked to receive her garments. In the text, Krishna then tells the women that he was simply teaching them the importance of bathing naked in the water, which is the habitat of the god Varuna, but the preferred symbolic explanation is that the gopi represents the individual mortal soul (atman), which cannot merge with the immortal soul (Brahman) carrying any kind of baggage.
Curiously, in this beautiful picture, the gopis are not naked at all, but only topless. They have their saris tied around their waist sarong-like, which is how women wrap themselves when bathing in a public place. Therefore, what the gopis plead for are their light scarves, although even that has been retained by one lady in the middle of the composition. She is clearly more ashamed than the others, for not only does she cover her head with her scarf but bows towards the water as if wanting to protect herself from Krishna's gaze. The crowned prankster sits calmly on the tree and extends his left arm to offer a garment to a gopi. The waterpots below the tree indicate that it is probably mid-afternoon and that the gopis have come to fetch water, which, however, proves too tempting. They do not realize that their savior is lurking in the bushes.
Thus, it is clear that the artist had considerable latitude to provide
nuance to the story, which becomes evident from a comparison with other
versions of the incident. This particular picture is close in its composition
to three others that have been attributed to Garhwal (Archer 1973, vol.
2, pl. 89.32-33; Aijazuddin 1977, pl. 34.2). However, in all three,
as also in an earlier and more elaborate composition from a Kangra workshop,
ascribed by Goswamy and Fischer to the first generation after Nainsukh
(Randhawa 1963, pl. Xl), the gopis are all fully naked and Radha is
not so prominently identified, though she is isolated in the center
of the composition. If, indeed, the four closely related versions of
the theme were painted in a Garhwal workshop, there can be little doubt
that the original drawing must have been executed by the same master
responsible for the Bhagavatapurana series first published by Randhawa.
(For another version of the subject attributed to Kangra, see Spink
2000, pp. 146 - 47, no. 81.)
all text and images © The Trustees of the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore