Yesterday was Krishna Janmashtami, Lord Krishna’s birthday.
Among the Hindu gods, Krishna is by far the most human for me, and that’s why I like him. He is a god of paradoxes, like us mortals.
As noted by mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik, Krishna challenges all conventional notions of divinity and proper social conduct.
His name literally means ‘black’, challenging the traditional Indian uneasiness with being dark-skinned. He is depicted as either a cowherd or a charioteer, never a priest or king.
Krishna’s mother is not his real mother, his mistress is not his wife, and the women he saves are neither his subjects nor members of his family.
His lovemaking isn’t really lovemaking; his war is not really war. There is always more than you think. And so, of all the avatars, only Krishna sports a smile, a mischievous, meaningful smile. There is always more than you think.
Krishna embraces worldly life with its myriad sensual and spiritual complexities rather than trying to reject or control it.
A very “religious” attitude for a god! And that makes him very interesting and personable.
In these very polarized times, I have two stories about Lord Krishna that should remind us that we can be better Indians. They are stories about how art and society benefit when kindness and acceptance take precedence over religion.
Salabega was the son of a Mughal Subedar in the 17th century Odisha. He followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Mughal Army, and during a war campaign Salabega was badly injured.
Since his mother was a Hindu and a devotee of Lord Jagannatha, the other name for Krishna, he prayed to Lord Jagannatha. He recovered and was so grateful that he went to Puri to visit the Jagannatha Temple. He wasn’t allowed in because he was a Muslim.
Salabega was heartbroken, but he didn’t give up. Instead, Salabega expressed his thanks by composing and singing bhajans in praise of Lord Jagannatha. Then he waited to have his darshan during the Rath Yatra when the deity of Lord Jagannatha is brought out in a huge chariot that allows the public to have darshan.
The story goes that Salabega received his darshan but was denied entry to the temple, so he built a hut on the Rath Yatra route to see his favorite god every year.
Salabega was out of town for a year; he fell ill and did not make it back to the yatra in time. He prayed to Lord Jagannatha to wait for him. After all, he only sees him once a year as he is not allowed to enter the temple.
Unfortunately, the Rath Yatra began, and when Lord Jagannatha’s chariot was driven along the usual route, the wheels got stuck. The yatra stopped. It happened to be stuck right in front of Salabega’s hut.
No one knew how to fix the problem immediately, so the chariot stopped in front of Salabega’s hut. After a few days, while they were trying to fix the problem, Salabega came and for the first time he was allowed to approach the deity.
He prayed to his heart’s content and then resigned. After a while, suddenly the wagon wheels that didn’t want to move started to move!
Even today, 400 years later, the chariot of Lord Jagannatha, one of the most famous gods in the Hindu pantheon, only stops for one mortal, and that is for a Muslim man!
This is the beauty of India. Yes, modern politics makes us forget that humanity comes first.
The second story is a personal one that I have written about before, but it is important to present an abridged version about Krishna Janmashtami.
In 2020 I got a present for the New Year. It was a beautifully wrapped, slim package. The note on it said it was by RG Singh of Ramson’s Kala Pratishtana Art Foundation.
The gift was a hassle to unwrap as it had too many layers. When RG Singh called to ask if I had received the gift and what I thought of it, I asked him if he had sent me Draupadi.
Confused, he asked me, “What do you mean? I replied, “Because unwrapping your gift seems to be endless.” Finally, at the end of the joke, I ripped it apart and Viola! A beautiful painting of Lord Krishna playing with his friends was in front of me.
But what made this painting a great gift was not only the image of Lord Krishna but also the painter whose work I always wanted but could never get – Kamal Ahmed from Gadag.
The artist Kamal Ahmed has developed a unique style of painting that does not correspond to any of the well-known Indian painting schools, but is beautiful. His life story is as admirable as his paintings.
Kamal was born into a poor Muslim family in Gadag, North Karnataka. The fact that he had six other siblings did not make life easy for him. The financial strain hampered his education until he was accepted into the Thontadarya Mutt in Gadag.
At Mutt he got free education and food. And here he was exposed to Hindu mythology that inspired him to begin his artistic journey.
Today he is a practicing Muslim who loves to paint Hindu gods and their stories! In the case of Kamal, he likes to paint, especially Bala Krishna.
Thanks to an open-minded Muslim family who took their son into the home of a Hindu mutt who preferred their child’s education to religion, and thanks to a mutt who saw a poor boy in need of education rather than an ideal candidate for conversion, we have today Art .
Thanks to a non-threatening environment, a young boy took up the stories of a new religion without prejudice or suspicion, and today we have an exemplary artist with a unique style.
An artist who, while performing Namaz at his local mosque in Gadag, travels all the way to Udupi to visit Krishna Temple and get inspiration.
This painting hangs before me as a symbol of what India should be. This painting is a new addition to a painting by Mohammed Osman, also a Muslim artist from a village near Hyderabad, who also enjoys painting Lord Krishna, but decorated more Basava during Sankranthi.
In these turbulent times when people have become so divisive and as we celebrate Krishna Janmashtami, let us draw hope from the stories of Salabega and Kamal Ahmed. And let’s take inspiration from Mutts like Thontadarya Mutt, who have chosen to spread knowledge, acceptance and kindness rather than covertly plot conversions.
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