Battle of the Gods: A Comparative Study of Narrative Techniques in Nepali Painting

Location: OCHS Library
Speaker: Dr Neeraja Poddar
Date: May 31, 2018
Time: 2:00pm to 3:00pm

While exploring the collections at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), I was struck by four dazzling illustrations where splendid architecture and dramatic landscapes in rainbow colours serve as backdrops as Krishna hunts, marries beautiful princesses, and engages in combat. The depicted episodes from the Latter Half of the Tenth Book of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa were familiar to me from illustrations produced at the Rajput courts, in the Punjab hills, and in Central India. But here, Krishna had been transposed into the rich and brilliant world of Nepali paintings and occupied the cities and palaces of the Kathmandu valley, his presence bearing testimony to the wide sphere of the Bhāgavata’s circulation and influence.

The four PMA illustrations and the lavish Nepali manuscript to which they belong have never been studied in detail. This is despite the long history of Vaishnavism in Nepal, the ubiquity of artworks dedicated to Vishnu and his incarnations, and the manuscript’s participation in a broader North Indian engagement with the Krishna legend. Moreover, the manuscript is visually spectacular and a singular example in Nepal’s canon. In this talk, I will examine the manuscript’s depiction of the “battle of the gods” between Krishna and Shiva alongside a Nepali scroll that portrays the Harivaṃśa’s version of the encounter. By comparing arrangement of text and image, visualization of space and place, storytelling techniques and style, I will probe how the manuscript’s organization and narrative rhythm derive at least partially from the features it shares with contemporary Hindu (and Buddhist) scrolls. My larger goal is to prompt a revision of the dominant narrative of Himalayan art where “Himalayan” is seen as synonymous with Tibetan Buddhist art; such a characterization fails to account for Nepal’s rich canon of Hindu-themed works and its entangled socio-cultural history where deities, religious practices and artistic styles are shared between Hinduism and Buddhism.

Dr. Neeraja Poddar received her Ph.D. in Art History from Columbia University. She was the Andrew W. Mellon—Anne d’Harnoncourt Postdoctoral Fellow in South Asian Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and is now Curator at The City Palace Museum, Udaipur. Poddar’s publications and research focus broadly on South Asian illustrated manuscripts; she is particularly interested in the materiality of books, the relationships between text and image and the transmission and circulation of narratives. She also studies the painting traditions of Nepal with particular emphasis on Vaiṣṇava imagery. Poddar co-curated the reinstallation of the South Asian galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She is currently working on a book project related to illustrated manuscripts of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa as well as a catalogue of The City Palace Museum, Udaipur’s silver collection.