Krishna in the Garden of Assam

Body mask of the five-headed serpent demon, Kaliya (2015), made in the workshop of Hem Chandra, Chamaguri monastery, Majuli island, Assam. Funded by the Luigi and Laura Dallapiccola Foundation © The Trustees of the British Museum

KRISHNA IN THE Garden of Assam: the Cultural Context of an Indian Textile explores the cultural history of Assam through an exhibition at the British Museum centred on a rare 17th-century woven silk textile from Assam in northeastern India called Vrindavani Vastra, the largest surviving example of this type. As a historical centre for silk and cotton weaving, Assam produced sophisticated figurative silk textiles in lampas weave from the 16th to 19th centuries, woven on wooden draw looms using two sets of warp and weft threads for the background and design in relief, although this technique of weaving is now extinct in India.

Assam was a centre of devotion to the Hindu deity Krishna during the late mediaeval period, a movement founded by the Assamese saint Shankaradeva, which has continued to this day with re-enactments of scenes from the Life of Krishna taking place in Assam during the Ras Lila festival, especially on the large island of Majuli in the Brahmaputra river. Shankaradeva preached that unconditional devotion to Krishna was the highest form of religious engagement.

These Krishna narratives were captured in the local performing artistic traditions, as well as in woven textiles such as the scenes on the Vrindavani Vastra textile on display. This textile is over nine metres long, constructed from 12 strips of woven silk with repetitive illustrations of the incarnations, or avatars, of the god Vishnu, the eighth avatar being Krishna, as well as captioned scenes from the life of Krishna as recorded in the 10th-century text, the Bhagavata Purana, and dramas written by saint Shankaradeva, which are performed up to the present period during the Ras Lila festival. It is named after the forested region of Vrindavan in north India, where Krishna is believed to have lived as a cowherd in his youth. The narrative scenes of Vishnu depicted on this textile include the defeat of the snake-demon Kaliya, the battle with the crane-demon Bakasura swallowing the forest fire and hiding his female followers’ (or gopis) clothes in the trees.

The textile was originally in the form of 12 separate silk strips used in a shrine to wrap copies of the Bhagavata Purana and later taken to a Buddhist monastery in Gobshi, southern Tibet near Gyantse, along the main trade route from eastern India to Lhasa in Tibet where they were sewn together with Chinese damask and brocade attached to the top with metal rings to allow the textiles to be suspended and displayed within the monastery.

To compare and contrast the British Museum’s Vrindavani Vastra textile, the ‘Chepstow Coat’ is also on display. This is an 18th-century English gentleman’s floral, Chinese damask, blue-green silk banyan (dressing gown), owned by a man who would probably have lived in Asia, but is now in the collection of the Chepstow Museum in Wales. The lining of this banyan is unexpectedly of strips of Vrindavani Vastra textile, woven in the 17th-century in Lower Assam. It consists of representations of scenes from the life of Krishna such as the story of Krishna defeating the serpent demon Kaliya on the lining of one of the sleeves, whilst below it, woven upside down is the quotation from Shankaradeva’s drama, Kaliyadamana, that is also present on the British Museum’s Vrindavani Vastra textile.  However, as these feature on the lining of the coat which has remained closed over time, the colours are remarkably vibrant indicating how the British Museum piece may have looked like when it was originally produced, before it was used in the Tibetan monastery.

The British Museum acquired their textile through the Younghusband Expedition – this was the British military expedition to Tibet in 1903-04 whose purpose was to form a trade route from British India to Tibet. It was a friend of Rudyard Kipling, Perceval Landon, The Times newspaper reporter covering the expedition, who acquired this textile from the Gobshi monastery in Tibet and presented it to the British Museum in 1905, although it was identified much later – in 1992 – as a Vrindavani Vastra textile from Assam.

 

Supplementing the Vrindavani Vastra textiles is a selection of paintings, dance drama masks, illustrated manuscripts serving serving to contextualise this textile. On entering the exhibition, one is faced with a large, striking painted body mask of the five-headed serpent demon Kaliya made in Chamaguri monastery in Majuli, where Krishna’s life is re-enacted annually in masked dance forms during the Ras Lila festival. The defeat of Kaliya is a key theme repeatedly represented on Vridavani Vastra textiles, acknowledging Krishna as a supreme being.

Thangka scroll paintings used in Buddhist meditation and ritual practice presented by Sir Charles Bell to the British Museum that are also on display include a Bhutanese thangka illustrating Bhutanese monks that highlights the link between Assam and neighbouring Bhutan. For example, a thangka produced in Assam with the reverse constructed of fragments of the Vrindavani Vastra textile illustrating the story of Krishna whilst the front shows the portrait of the Bhutanese monk Sharab Sangye.

Manuscript folios from the Brahma Khanda, the collection of the finely illustrated Assamese manuscript from the British Library, the Brahmavaivarta Purana, are also on display. This section relays stories of creation including lively illustrations of Krishna and his gopis and is made of a material unique to Assam, that of sanchipat made from the inner bark of the sanchi tree. This material allows for the unique representation of a stepped formation of the image space as shown on the manuscript depicting Krishna and Balarama dancing in the luxuriant foliage of the Vrindavan forest. Scenes on display include Vyasa and the wish-fulfilling cow Kamadhenu, naga snake deities approaching a female figure in a shrine, Krishna dancing with his gopis, and the four armed Vishnu with his incarnations of the fish, Matsya, and tortoise Kurma.

This small exhibition also includes two film elements – an introductory film about Assam and contemporary devotion to Krishna filmed at the 2014 Ras Lila festival on Majuli island, plus a new video artwork made for the exhibition by the Guwahati-based group the Desire Machine Collective. This new artwork is funded by the Gujral Foundation.

 

BY JASLEEN KANDHARI

 

Aspects of this display will be on show at the Chepstow Museum following its run at the British Museum, from August 2016.

 

Until 15 August at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, www.britishmuseum.org
Free related talks at the museum are on 8 and 9 April and a free performance of Indian music is on 15 April. A catalogue accompanies the exhibition.

• Chepstow Museum, Gwy House, Gwent, Bridge Street, Chepstow