Kṛṣṇa and Rādha Exchange Clothes:
Study of a Sūrsāgar Folio at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
In the lower right hand corner of this folio, the blind poet and supreme bhakta of Kṛṣṇa, Sūrdās is witnessing a series of līlas in which Kṛṣṇa and his beloved Rādhā cross-dress and exchange garments and gendered roles they traditionally play in the game of love. The illustration reflects the poem lāla tumārī muralī nainka vajāun (“Dear, let me play your Muralī for a moment”), which bears the signature of Sūrdās but is absent from the Nāgarīpracāriṇī Sabhā edition of the Sūrsāgar. The painting’s inscribed poem is drawn from the enormous corpus of devotional poetry ascribed to the poet Sūrdās (1478–1573) and his followers. It was presumably not written by Sūrdās himself, though it bears his characteristic signature — as it first appears in the extended Sūrdās corpus in a manuscript dated 1686 written at Chatsu by a scribe from Gokul.
The composition is in Rāga Naṭa, and begins thus: ‘Laal, tumhari murali nekey bajaaoon / jaun taan tum gaavat ho piay, tey hi taan banaaon . . .’
The words are Rādha’s, and she addresses Kṛṣṇa: ‘Let us exchange roles, my love. Whatever melody you are playing on your flute, let me strike it first.’ And then the poem goes on to detail each reversal of role: ‘Let me do your hair, and let me wear your peacock crown, with me wearing your jewellery, and you wearing mine,’ she says. ‘You turn into the proud and offended beloved, and let me sit, appeasingly, at your feet; you cover your face with a veil, as I did, and let me take the veil off you with love.’ And so it goes on. The sport generally goes under the name viparīta rati, meaning love with the roles reversed, quite beautifully stated in verse.
The cross-dressing too is a longstanding aesthetic conceit. In a way that is sometimes approximate, sometimes exact, the two lovers act out the sentiments expressed in a poem on this subject that is attributed to Sūrdās. The painter apportions a bower to each scene, beginning with the one in which Rādhā asks to play Kṛṣṇa’s flute Muralī, and he ends with a bower devoted to Sūr himself in which he is shown seated and singing his verses to the accompaniment of golden hand-cymbals. Scholar of Indian art and aesthetics B. N. Goswamy in his book ‘The Spirit of Indian Painting’ describes the disparate scenes in the folio: “Beginning with the top-left, Kṛṣṇa and Rādha are in their normal rupa, so to speak: Kṛṣṇa playing his flute, and Radha listening enraptured. But then, in vignette after vignette, the roles change: Kṛṣṇa, instantly recognizable on account of his dark complexion, turns into a woman, and Rādha takes on the role of her lover. Krishna has his hair done by Radha; they exchange clothes and jewellery; they walk about in the forest, she leading him; there is mock anger and appeasement; the lovers bend in an erotic embrace but the roles stay reversed. Finally, after the eye has travelled over the page and traced their movements, in the bottom register — Rādha playing the flute and Kṛṣṇa listening — they stand, unmoving in time, as it were, very close to where Surdas is seated, singing.”
Just as the poet typically announces his own name in each of his compositions — his “seal” (chāp), as it is called — in the last verse, so also does the artist reveal the identity of the poetic observer last frame. That final bower seems to ensure that no mortal might intrude upon the intimacy of the divine couple, but evidently the poet’s blindness also removes that danger.
B. N. Goswamy remarks that the usual visual conventions that are associated with Mewar painting can also be observed in this painting: “the rich and luscious groves of trees, spreading their leafy crowns like a peacock’s plumage; the bold red ovoid shapes against which the figures are etched; lotuses blooming in ponds; cows grazing and calves frisking about. But here, the effect is overpowering. One can almost smell the fragrance, and hear the melodies fill the air.”
The use of visual metaphors in Indian art was especially prevalent in images associated with Vaiṣṇava Bhakti traditions popular in northern India during the 14th–17th centuries. Numerous poems and prose expressed the core belief of the Bhakti movement that a devotee’s loving adoration for one’s personal deity was a metaphor for the ultimate union with a transcendent god. This interchangeability of the soul with supreme being is aptly conveyed by the inscribed poem on a well-known painting in the exhibition from a Sūrsāgar series:
“Darling, just a little, let me play your flute.
The notes that you’ve been singing out, Love —
let me produce them all.
The jewelry you’ve been wearing, I’ll put on —
and dress you up in mine.
You’ll sit aloof, a woman angry with her lover;
I’ll come and plead with you, touch your feet.
You’ll retreat to a hut in the forest;
I’ll tug at the edge of your clothes to lure you out.
I’ll pull back the veil from the love of my life
and hold you close, take you in my arms.
You’ll be Radha; I’ll be Madhav,
Madhav — everything upside down.
I’ll make a braid in the hair on your head
and on that head I’ll place a crown.
Lord of Sūrdās, you’ll become Radhika
and Radha — let me call her Nanda’s son.”
Sūrdās was a contemporary of the bhakti saint Vallabhācārya of the Nath sāmpradaya. As a simple singer of devotional songs, Sūrdās used to chant bhajans in honour of Krishna, sitting each evening on the banks of the Yamuna. His moving, melodious music began to attract widespread notice, and Vallabhācārya himself once came to listen to him. When Surdas learnt that the great Vallabha was in the audience, he approached the great teacher with folded hands and asked if he had liked what he had heard. He had indeed, said Vallabha, but then asked Sur why he was constantly begging Krishna for his favours, beseeching Him to take him across the ocean of sorrows. ‘Why do you not simply celebrate Krishna, sing of his glory: his beauty, his childhood, his loves, his lila?’ ‘But I am blind,’ said Surdas; ‘I have never “seen” him’ is what he meant. At this, Vallabha whispered a mantra into the poet’s ears, as a guru does, and said, ‘Go, from now on you will be able to see him, but only him.’ From then on, the legend goes, Surdas’s compositions took on another ‘colour’, as it were. And in pāda after pāda that he composed, he celebrated Kṛṣṇa, and all his līlas with exemplary vividness and intensity. It was as if he was actually seeing his iṣṭa with his own eyes. ”
One of Vallabh’s grandsons, a man named Gokulnāth, is traditionally believed to have been the author of an interconnected series of religious biographies called Caurāsī Vaisnavan kī Vārtā– “Accounts of Eighty-four Vaishnavas,” including Sūrdās. This is the Sūrdās biography everyone knows, and the singing of Sūr’s poetry — along with that of other poets regarded as constituting the “eight seals” (aṣṭachāp) initiated by Vallabh into the sectarian fold as one of the central acts of Vallabhite worship.
Another atypical iconic, rather than narrative, representation of Kṛṣṇa and Rādha exchanging their accoutrements is the following painting titled Radha and Krishna Dressed in Each Other’s Clothes attributed to Kangra, c. 1800–1825. It portrays the divine lovers in a lush forest setting that has been interpreted as suggesting the spring season in Braj. At the top of the painting is a silver crescent moon in a star-filled sky. Thus, the white background behind Krishna and Radha must be that of a moonlit night rather than a bright spring day. Accordingly, this charming night scene may also evoke Kṛṣṇa’s last night of dalliance in Braj before leaving his adolescence to journey to Mathura and begin his adulthood.
In Hawley’s ‘At Play with Krishna: Pilgrimage Dramas from Brindavan’, he describes one of the two representatives theme in the bansi corī Iīlā of Kṛṣṇa as being that of cross-dressing. Abrogation of gender roles, symbolized by dress, is seen as a matter of amusement, which the Iilas take advantage of. Often, Radha disguises herself as a cowherd and goes off to test Krishna’s love for her. Krishna can play this game too: he eludes the careful guard kept by Radha’s motherin-law, and tries to fool Radha as well by dressing up as a woman selling mynah birds, or some other common female role. Ultimately they may even take each other’s roles, as they do in the paraspar mān Iīlā, or, with complete exchanges of dress, in the rājdān Iīlā. The transferability of all sex roles between Radha and Krishna illustrates the extent to which they are themselves interchangeable, two aspects of a single reality. Each time such a change takes place the spectators contemplate that fact, one whose implications are far-reaching enough to suggest that even humanity and divinity are but different costumes for an undifferentiable nondual reality.
- B N Goswamy; The Spirit of Indian Painting
- The Memory of Love Surdas Sings to Krishna by
- At Play with Krishna: Pilgrimage Dramas from Brindavan by John Stratton Hawley
- Divine Images, Human Visions: The Max Tanenbaum Collection of South Asian and Himalayan Art in the National Gallery of Canada, Pratapaditya Pal
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