Updated on June 21.

After the publication of this piece on June 20, the author of the piece heard from the curator at Smithsonian that this painting was in a private collection that has been gifted to them. It had not been in public domain so far but has now been placed on the Smithsonian’s FS blog. Please also see the detailed note at the bottom of the piece, which includes the relevant passages from the Bhagavata Purana.

Since the day before Eid, the digital reproduction of a miniature painting has gone viral on social media. It shows an animated group of people within an undulating landscape, looking up at the sky. This is a motley crowd of wizened old men, elderly women, beautiful girls and plump children, but the figures that stand at the fore are easy to identify. There is Krishna, with his blue skin, yellow pitambari garments and a golden crown. Just behind him is the white-skinned Balarama, also crowned and wearing his usual sky-blue dhoti. Krishna looks back, and rests his hand on the chest of a bearded elderly man who is dressed in a white jama and striped pajamas. Both Krishna and Balarama are gesturing towards the sky in which there is the glimmer of the faintest new moon.

Someone identified this painting as Krishna sighting the Eid moon and pointing it out to his Muslim companions. Many people on the secular side of the political divide were quick to see this as evidence of interfaith harmony in earlier times. This turned the picture into the perfect Eid greeting for them. “Let’s resolve on this Eid to win back the spirit of India the picture depicts,” said Yogendra Yadav as he tweeted this picture on June 16. Soon, Shashi Tharoor posted it on his Twitter feed with the comment: “A lovely painting depicting Lord Krishna looking at the moon with the Rozedars, Rajasthan, early 1600s. May this Eid bring peace, harmony, tolerance and acceptance to all!” William Dalrymple exulted, “When the world was one: Krishna points out the Eid moon. Kangra, 18th century.” Shabana Azmi tweeted the image with the caption “Hindustan ki Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb ko lakhon salam.” The painting was variously identified as Mughal, Rajasthani and Pahari and given dates from the 16th, 17th or 18th century. But regardless of where and when they believed it was made, those who circulated the image saw it as proof of an historical precursor to modern India’s constitutional secularism.

There were reactions from the other side. A Twitter user with the handle @TrueIndology retorted, “This picture is a fake. There is no such 18th century painting. I challenge you to reveal its whereabouts.” @TrueIndology could not believe that Krishna’s image would have been used within the tradition to mark the advent of Eid. As the Twitter debate gathered force, a Twitter user named Dipankar Deb (@ddeb30) claimed it was he who had brought the painting into the limelight in his book on Muslim Devotees of Krsna and in an article on Krishna as depicted by Muslim artists that he had published in Swarajya magazine. Deb describes himself as an associate professor in an engineering institute in Ahmedabad; a practicing Vaishnava; and a right-wing Hindu. His book traces the lives and works of significant Muslim figures in the 16th-18th century who came under Krishna’s spell. In several miniature paintings, Deb believes, Krishna is shown offering protection and largesse to Muslim figures. For him these stories and paintings are satisfying proof of the universal appeal of Krishna, whom he describes as “the Supreme Lord”.

But this was not appreciated by others on the Hindu right. @TrueIndology challenged Deb,was certain that “our special secular painting [was] produced in secular factory”, believing that the painting was concocted to create false evidence of a long history of Indian secularism. In the manner of all things Twitter, the debate quickly descended to the depths. Deb was soon calling @TrueIndology “an ulcer in the name of Dharma” while @IdolWorshipper1 felt labeling the picture as Krishna sighting the Eid moon was blasphemy “worth a death sentence as per Pakistan and Gulf laws”.

What is this painting that has so excited the twitterati on both sides of the political divide? Where is it from? Is there really a relationship between this painting and Eid? If not, why were so many viewers – including ones who are knowledgeable about Indian painting – willing to believe that this did show Krishna sighting the Eid moon? And what does this controversy tell us about relationship of images with the contexts of their presentation?

A Pahari painting

When I saw this image, it was immediately recognisable as a Pahari painting of the Bhagavata Purana. It comes from a set that was most probably made in Kangra in the 1770s or 1780s, and is attributed to the sons of the celebrated Pahari artist brothers Manaku and Nainsukh. The style and the characterisation of this newly-controversial painting so closely resembles others from the Bhagavata set that there is no doubt they belong together.

Compare Krishna Pointing to the Moon with The Road to Brindaban in the National Museum collection. The Road to Brindaban shows the denizens of Gokul migrating to Brindaban to escape Kamsa’s ire. At this point, Krishna and Balarama are endearingly chubby toddlers who are seated in a bullock cart with a pink canopy. The background of both paintings is defined by a similar undulating horizon line and the crowd repeats many of the characters across the two illustrations. There are cowherds in striped underwear and close-fitting caps, elderly women with greying hair, men wearing heavy black rain capes, and stooped men in turbans, all rendered in the same delicate and naturalistic style.

The Road to Brindaban, Pahari (Kangra) c 1770. Collection: National Museum.

Both paintings prominently show an ageing man dressed in a white tailored jama and coloured pyjamas. It is the presence of this man and his Mughal-looking costume that must have misled viewers into thinking Krishna was addressing a Muslim man. In fact, this is meant to be his stepfather Nanda. As he was known as the “king of the cowherds” or Nanda Raja, the artist has dressed him in the costume of the wealthy and powerful people of the day; this would be the jama and pyjama worn in Mughal and other related courts, with the patka sash tied around the waist and the atpati turban wound around his head.

In fact, Mughal influence permeates the painting. The verisimilitude, the interest in portraiture, and the delicate shading that allows forms to appear three-dimensional were learned by Pahari artists from some Mughal source. Whether this came from Mughal artists fleeing the chaos of the plains in the early 18th century, or from Pahari artists who had worked in Mughal ateliers and learned their techniques before coming home, or whether these were absorbed from Mughal paintings that the Pahari rajas – many of whom were Mughal mansabdars – had brought with them, the result was an absorption and an adaptation of Mughal naturalism for local ends. Most often, the painstakingly rendered faces and surfaces in Mughal painting testified to the glory of the monarch.

In the Pahari region, the careful delineation of the curves of cheek or tufts of hair or gnarled tree-trunks served to make real the sense that the gods had walked upon this earth. We can see the results in the way the artist domesticates a subject as fantastical as the death of Putana. This demoness had taken the guise of a beautiful young mother who offered to suckle Krishna, in order to poison him in the process. When she was killed by Krishna, Putana’s body reverted to its enormous, horrific and malodorous form. In this marvelous painting on the theme from the same Bhagavata set, Krishna is in a pavilion, with Yashodha and her helpers who are bathing the child and waving a cow’s tail over his head to ward off the evil eye. In the foreground, Nanda, again in a bullock cart and dressed in a jama, supervises labourers as they hack the demoness’ body and carry it away to be burnt. While Putana’s hideous appearance and cut-off limbs are grotesque, the rest of the painting shows closely-observed realities of everyday life. The workers who hack at her body are no different from local woodcutters doing an honest day’s work.

The cremation of Putana, Pahari (Kangra) c 1770. Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi.

It is worth noting how the artist takes care to inflect Nanda’s appearance in each of the paintings we have seen. In the Putana scene Krishna is an infant and Nanda’s beard is more black than grey. By the time of the migration, Nanda is older and greyer, and by the time Krishna points to the moon, his beard is entirely white.

Krishna and the moon

What is being depicted in the scene that has been interpreted as Krishna sighting the Eid moon? Naturally the presence of Muslims or Islam in a Bhagavata story would be anachronistic, but Krishna is indeed pointing towards a thin sliver of the moon in the sky [Since then identified actually to be admiring a solar eclipse, please see note at the end of this article – Ed.] When asked about this controversy, the great scholar of Pahari painting BN Goswamy suggested that this might relate to an episode in the Bhagavata when Nanda was wrongly imprisoned by Varuna’s emissary. When Krishna approached the wind-god to free him, the wind-god admitted his mistake and bowed to Krishna whom he acknowledged as his superior. Nanda, who only knew Krishna as his beloved child, was puzzled by Varuna’s obsequiousness towards his foster son. For a moment, Krishna gave him and his companions a glimpse of his true self by allowing them to see his celestial home in the sky. But this scene is depicted quite clearly in another painting in the National Museum. Here, the elderly and bearded figure looks emaciated and frail. Is the artist trying to show the effect that the days of captivity had upon Nanda?

Krishna gives his companions a glimpse of Vaikunth. National Museum.

Perhaps the painting of Krishna pointing to the moon does not refer to Nanda’s captivity, but illustrates a slightly earlier point in the story as Krishna and his family prepared for Govardhan puja. This was to take place on the night of the new moon, and Krishna and Balarama might just be telling Nanda that the opportune moment has arrived. Krishna holds his hand to Nanda’s chest – over his heart, in fact – because he will soon persuade Nanda and the others to break with tradition and do the puja in an entirely new way.

Lost miniature paintings

I tried to take up @TrueIndology’s challenge to locate the painting, and scoured through dozens of books, museum databases and online repositories like ArtStor, with no success. This does not mean that the painting is not genuine, but it does point to one of the great difficulties in studying miniature paintings.

The Bhagavata Purana set we have been discussing is known to scholars as the Modi Bhagavata after Jagmohandas Modi, the industrialist who owned the series till the 1950s. He was persuaded to give some 20 of these paintings to the National Museum, but 100 other leaves from the same set are now dispersed among collections across the world. A great Ramayana series in a similar style and possibly by the same artists is called the “Bharany Ramayana” after the art dealer Chhotelal Bharany, who acquired and then dispersed an estimated 150 pages to museums and collectors worldwide. These particular sets of the Bhagavata and the Ramayana are considered the crowning achievements of Pahari painting, along with other series – all as beautiful and as extensive – illustrating the Gita Govinda, the Nala-Damayanti and a Sat-Sai of Bihari which are all estimated to have been made in the last quarter of the 18th century for the Kangra ruler and great patron of painting Raja Sansar Chand.

Till the 1950s, the Gita Govinda and the Sat Sai were in the collection of the Maharaja of Tehri Garwhal. It is believed it was brought there by Kangra princesses who married into the Tehri family. These paintings too are now dispersed among private and public collections all over the globe. No -one thought to keep a photographic record before breaking up the series and selling them page-by-page. Worse, information about the movement of these (and other) paintings might have been willfully suppressed. Once the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act came into effect in 1972 and made it illegal to sell Indian antiques abroad, the paintings that left the country did so through clandestine sales. Even paintings that stayed in India were tucked out of sight by owners who wanted to keep open the option of selling their paintings in the international market at a future date. As a result, vast quantities of these paintings – and other art treasures – have disappeared from public view.

Inauthentic miniatures

If we could locate the original painting, we would probably find an inscription on the reverse that would help us identify the textual passage it illustrates. Without such information, paintings are often mute and a new caption can bring a new meaning to the image. [Please see note at the bottom of the article – Ed.]

But even as we puzzle over these 18th century images, and try to decode them and understand their original intention, new paintings are being made today that deliberately adopt archaisms to appear as though they come from the past. In her thesis, my student Varunika Saraf points out how French journalist and well-known supporter of Hindutva ideology, Francois Gautier, is sponsoring a Foundation for the Advancement of Cultural Ties whose museum has been commissioning miniature-style paintings of scenes that were not illustrated in history.

These show Aurangzeb demolishing temples, or Shivaji pledging to defend Mother India. Even as we look for authentic information about the presence and interpretation of paintings from the past, it would be well to take note of things being produced in the present that will soon appear to us as authentic documents from the past.

Updated to add on June 21

The original painting has been located. The Smithsonian provides the following details.

Krishna and his family admire a solar eclipse, folio from a Bhagavata Purana
India, Himachal Pradesh, Kangra, 1775–80
First generation after Nainsukh
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper
Purchase from the Catherine and Ralph Benkaim Collection—Charles Lang Freer Endowment
Freer Gallery of Art, F2017.13.5

The Bhagavata Purana contains the most revered and authoritative narrative of the life of the Hindu deity Krishna.

This folio depicts a little known event in Krishna’s life. After he defeated the evil king Kamsa and embarked on princely adventures with his brother Balarama, Krishna reunited with his adoptive family at the banks of a river in Kurukshetra (modern-day Haryana). Together they observed a solar eclipse, an event described in the Bhagavata Purana (BP 10.81–82). Although such celestial events were traditionally considered inauspicious, this particular eclipse was predicted to bring blessings to all who witnessed it.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the tenth book of the Bhagavata Purana became one of the most frequently illustrated manuscripts in the Hindu courts of north India. This folio is from a manuscript illustrated at a small kingdom, probably Kangra, in the Pahari region. With its lucid line, luminous colors, restrained shading, tender mood, and harmoniously grouped figures, this Bhagavata Purana folio is attributed to one of the sons or nephews of the renowned artist Nainsukh.

The tender relationships Krishna has with members of his adoptive family serve as religious metaphors for ideal interactions between devotees and the divine. In this painting, the mood is sweet, as it must be to evoke the bhava (mood) of devotion to Krishna, but the variety of sensitively observed figural types precludes mawkish sentimentality. The villagers’ act of looking, and their sheer joy at seeing, can also be appreciated as a metaphor for the act of beholding the painting. 

Kavita Singh adds the following details from the Bhagavata Puran:

(1) Śrī Śuka said: ‘When Balarāma and Kṛṣṇa lived in Dvārakā, there was one day [*] an eclipse of the sun as great as the one at the end of the kalpa [a day of Brahmā]. 

(2) The people knowing that beforehand, oh King, came from everywhere to the field of Samanta-pañcaka [’the five lakes’ at Kurukṣetra] in the hope that that would work in their favor… a great number of people of Bhārata came there on a holy pilgrimage. Vṛṣṇis like Gada, Pradyumna and others as also [the elders] Akrūra, Vasudeva and Āhuka [Ugrasena] who all wanted to eradicate their sins, went to that holy place... They also saw their dear friends, the gopas andgopīs headed by Nanda who had been aching [to see them] for so long. 

(14) Meeting again, with their hearts and faces blooming as beautiful as lotuses because of the emotions, they embraced each other firmly and thus experienced the greatest delight with streams of tears, goose pimples and a choked-up voice. 

(15) The women looking at one another, with great eyes filled with tears of pure love, smiled with the greatest friendship and closed each other in their arms, pressing breasts to breasts that were smeared with kunkum paste. 

(16) Thereupon they paid their respects to the elders and received obeisances from their younger relatives. Having inquired after their well-being and having discussed the comfort of their journey, they next started to talk with each other about Kṛṣṇa.

— Chapter 82 - All Kings and the Inhabitants of Vrindāvana on Pilgrimage Reunite with Kṛṣṇa

Kavita Singh is the dean of the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University.