Janmashtami: United colours of Krishna

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A painting depicts Lord Krishna with his beloved Radha in Vrindavan

Wazirabad, an industrial town on the south bank of the river Chenab, in Gujranwala district, Pakistan, seems like an unlikely place to go in search of Krishna - or maybe not.

"Krishna went to the forests, danced among the trees and when he played the flute everyone became 'mast'. For you he is Krishna, for us, he becomes Ranjha," says artist and woodcarver, Shadi Khan, a native of Wazirabad.

When a painter friend gave Khan a set of carving tools more than a decade ago, he started by carving figures from Punjab's rich folk history - figures of Ranjha, of Soni Mehwal and Sassi Punnu. He also started carving tableaux that told the story of Krishna as the cowherd. "I love our old epics" is Shadi Khan's constant refrain.

"You're a Muslim. So why do you carve images of Krishna?" we ask. In response, his earthy common sense simply cuts through the most divisive identity politics of the region.

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He says: "Krishna isi dharti ka banda hai aur Ranjha bhi isi dharti ka banda hai. Donon ki dastaan mashoor hai. Yeh art hai, yahan donon barabar hai (Krishna belongs to this land. Ranjha also belongs to the same land. Both their stories are part of our folklore. This is art. For us both are the same)."

If part of Shadi Khan's reason to carve these figures comes from his personal fondness for the old epics, partly it's a subliminal attempt to reclaim a culture that's increasingly forgotten.

His hometown has many old properties that once belonged to Hindu families and old gurudwaras.

"Many of the old Hindu properties or 'gurukothas' had incredible artwork on them - carvings, murals, frescoes - with elaborate old stories. The work of the older artisans is phenomenal. Today, they are faded, often in ruins. I take pictures of what's left and these inspire me," he says.

His other inspiration is painter Ustad Allah Baksh who was born in 1885, also in Wazirabad.

Allah Baksh was so admired in his lifetime that, in 1939, the Maharaja of Patiala invited him to his palace to paint exclusively for him. Baksh stayed there till the Partition, after which he relocated to Lahore.

Ustad Baksh's works had all the same themes that preoccupy Shadi Khan - a deep love for the rural culture of Punjab and an abiding fascination for Hindu mythology.

Khan asks: "If he (Baksh) could make paintings of Radha and Krishna, why can't I? People used to even call him a Krishna of sorts."

The past, though, is tricky business in Pakistan. Both nationalism and religion make it difficult to delve into history and folklore with any honesty. It's a process, at times, even fraught with danger.

For Shadi Khan though, creating a Krishna that blends seamlessly into a Ranjha, is in no way an act of political defiance. For him, it is just a simple expression of who he is.

Is he afraid he could be charged with blasphemy?

Shadi Khan's nonchalance silences all further attempts to discuss the politics of his art. He says: "Why should anyone be bothered by two cowherds? 'Meinun Krishna bhee changa lagda hai, Ranjha bhee changa lagda hai. Donon bansuri bajaate hai, aur donon pyar mohabbat kee baatein karte hai (I like Krishna and I also like Ranjha. Both play the flute and both speak of love and romance)."

Ranjhan paali, dhuni baali, shaam di lila aan rachali (Ranjha, the cowherd has lit the bonfire and returns now to recreate the leela of Shyam) - Bulle Shah

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In Delhi, singer Madan Gopal Singh, who finds a way, every time he performs, to remind us of shared cultures, tells us how this composition, attributed to Bulle Shah is sung widely in the oral tradition.

It's a perfect example of how the Sufis moved easily, as he puts it, "from one religious register to another" and reinforces the theme of a Ranjha as Krishna.

Singh elaborates: "The description of Ranjha is bansiwallah. That's what Waris Shah calls him. Ranjha is completely inseparable from his flute. So the idea of the flute is very central to both. The whole idea of masquerade, the whole idea of playfulness as an artist and the idea of self-hood, are also shared very concretely, and I think very directly between Krishna and Ranjha. This keeps happening in the poetry of Bulle Shah, especially in the oral tradition."

There's a historical context for this. The end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century is a period when the Sufis began to assertively take on a non-religious identity.

Singh argues that this was a reaction to a period of extreme repression and orthodoxy that was present in the end of the 17th century.

"I think when the space becomes somewhat repressive, people begin to challenge the repression by becoming very fluid and in a sense invoking the other. For instance, I look at the reconstruction of Heer Ranjha in the 18th century very clearly as the reinvocation of Radha and Krishna, but of course differently."

And as Madan Gopal Singh begins to sing the same Bulle composition, the imagery morphs the two cowherds beautifully.

Gayan de vich mukut suhavey, jungle bele bansi bajawe(In the midst of the cows, the Crown looks beautiful; and in the midst of the jungle, the flute begins to play)

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"This is Krishna's crown, only Krishna can wear this as it is specially designed for Krishna in Kathakali", says dancer Maya Rao as she holds up a crown she wore as part of her Krishna costume when she was 5-years-old. From Ranjha's pastoral crown, to Krishna's royal one - the difference is as striking as the one between Krishna the cowherd and Krishna of the Mahabharata.

It's also a journey that takes us from the Punjab of Pakistan and India, to a classical dance form which originated in Kerala.

In Kathakali, Krishna is one of the first characters that a dancer learns to enact.

"I think for me the more I played Krishna, the more he lost his godliness and more of his playfulness came to me. As a child, the moment he pulls out his Sudarshana Chakra, I would be this kid thinking 'yeah, now I'm the powerful one'," recalls Maya Rao.

"In Kathakali we don't have any Gopi-Krishna business. Here Krishna is the master strategist of the Mahabharata war, getting all the five brothers together, to fight. So I had one Krishna I danced on stage and as my mother-in-law is a Krishna devotee, I would come home to a very different bhakti of Krishna."

Maya Rao's first teacher was her mother Bhanumati Rao who danced Kathakali at a time when women were forbidden to do so.

Both a Kathakali and Bharatnatyam exponent, at 87, she's as alive to our questions as she is to her passion for dance. When she danced, she loved to enact the scenes where Krishna counsels Arjuna to war.

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But she strikes a more personal note when we ask her what's the first thing that she thinks of when we say 'Krishna': "A little boy playfully running around, looking adorable. But you also know he's not just a kid but Lord Krishna. And I always love to dance to the song Krishna Ni Begane Baare (Krishna, just come to me)."

As Maya Rao begins to sing, her mother gets up to dance. And when she does, Bhanumati Rao defies her frail frame and her abhinaya brings to life the popular Kannada composition, first written by Vyasarvaya, some time towards the end of the 15th century.

Krishna moves from one avatar to another with ease, allowing anyone to claim him the way they want. For his devotees, he is Lord Krishna but even in the strictly 'religious' space, 'raga seva' becomes the best way to access him.

Srivats Goswami, a well-known religious scholar from Vrindavan explains this.

"Amongst others, there are two forms of worship. One is 'bhog seva' and the other is 'raga seva'. According to the scriptures, there is nothing higher than raga seva, also called 'gaye aradhana'. 'Gaye aradhana' includes singing, playing music or dancing for the Lord. Certainly, for Lord Krishna, there is nothing higher than 'gaye aradhana'," he says.

Perhaps, this is the reason why across the country Krishna Bhakti becomes inseparable from music and dance, especially in the East, the bastion of the Vaishnav culture.

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In his home in Guwahati, singer and composer Angrag Mahanta or Papon as he's known gives us a sample of his musical talents. He moves easily from New Age Electronica to Assamese folk and old devotional Vasihanv songs.

"I come from a Vaishnavite, Khatriya family where it is all about Vishnu and Krishna. We don't do any idol worship. We believe in simply chanting and singing. Somewhere that ethos comes into all my music," he says.

He's inherited the Vaishnav repertoire from his parents, Khagen and Archana Mahanta, two of Assam's most respected singers.

The traditional Krishna repertoire goes back to the 15th century Bhakti movement, brought to Assam by Sankardev, a colossal figure in Assam's cultural history.

"Sankardev's attempt was to propagate a religion and his medium was music," says Khagen Mahanta as he elaborates, through his own singing, how many Assamese music forms like 'bargeet' and 'ankiya', trace their history directly to Sankardev.

Vocalist Lopamudra Mitra, makes the same point about Bengal's Vaishnav tradition.

"The Padavalis, Kirtan, Kamrupiya - so many of our song traditions in Bengal are centred around the love of Radha and Krishna."

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Contemporary poets too are deeply influenced by this tradition. Lopamudra says she became famous after she sang 'Beni Madhab', a piece written by well-known contemporary Bengali poet Joy Goswami.

'Beni' means 'flute' and 'Madhab' is another name for Krishna. The poem is a girl's imagined conversation with a man she loves but the references are clear. It's a text that typically shows how Krishna's lovelore with Radha is used by artistes and writers not just to draw direct sensual imagery but also to play with the complex themes of love and romance in different ways.

For Babli Moitra Saraf, principal of Indraprastha College in Delhi, a love for Krishna and Hindi film songs found an academic framework in a musical project she conceived and performed a few years ago, cleverly titled from Braj to Bollywood.

"What was fascinating for me was the way Krishna was domesticated, appropriated, made intimate in various shades of relationships and moods. I have found three predominant ways in which Krishna appears as a trope in Hindi films."

She illustrates each category with specific songs. At the outset, there is 'vatsalya' or filial love, the concentration on the mother-son relationship. This draws from the Bal Gopal or the childhood phase of Krishna.

With Radha comes the second stage - the Krishna of the Gopis, the Krishna of the 'Raas', Krishna, as the eternal lover. 'Mohe panghat pe' is the famous song from Mughal-e-Azam, Babli says, that best categorizes the sensuality of this phase.

The Krishna bhajans mark the third phase where Krishna becomes the Lord to his devotees. Babli Moitra points out, "One of the greatest Bhakti songs in our films, 'Tadpat hari darshan ko aaj' from 'Baiju Bawra' is the work of three Muslims really - poet Shakeel Badayuni as the writer, Naushad as the composer and  Mohammed Rafi as the singer."

Not surprising then, that lyricist Javed Akhtar has this story to tell us: "I was doing a film 'Yugandhar' which is another name for Krishna. Laxmikant and Pyarelal were giving the music and N Chandra was the director. One day I went to them and both looked embarrassed and sheepishly said they wanted me to write a Krishna Aarti. They were hesitant and I could see on their faces they were wondering if, as a Muslim, I would mind or if I would be able to do it at all. I reassured them."

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Akthar not just wrote the 'aarti' but insisted it have a crescendo for which he listed in stunning rhythm, the many names of Krishna which he remembers by heart. Everyone was taken aback. Pyarelal wanted to know how Akhtar remembered so many names, some which Pyarelal said even he didn't know.

Akhtar replied, "I know these names because I have read Urdu poetry and that's my source."

In a country which takes secularsim as its birthright but struggles with it on a daily basis, it's not surprising that we rush to our films and our arts, when we seek reassurance. It's where India is at its syncretic best and Krishna becomes its universal icon.

But as radical forces grow in every religion, potent cultural symbols are pinned down into narrow frameworks. For these forces, Krishna is either appropriated as an exclusive God, or rejected as a God of the Kafirs.

These are the real forces that continuously need to be fought in battles with perhaps, Krishna as the advisor?
 


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