February 10, 2023

Divine Love for Valentine's Day

         Valentine’s Day is coming up next week, so here is a pair of romantic woodcuts from nineteenth century India.  Since I’m no expert in Indian epics or Hinduism, I’ll just give a brief background that these pieces represent Krishna and Radha, major deities of Hinduism who are so closely linked that sometimes they’re considered to be paired aspects of a single divine.  Radha is the goddess of love, compassion, and devotion, and the love between Radha and Krishna is what their pairing is all about.  So here are two relief block prints celebrating that love.
        To begin with, I share both pieces because I like the way seeing them together makes us see the relationship as mutual, equal, and reciprocal.  In the first Krishna is rubbing Radha’s foot, and in the second Radha is rubbing Krishna’s.  The second thing I like about these pieces is all the interesting patterns.  Radha is wearing her traditional northern Indian garb consisting of skirt, blouse, and veil, and each one has a different detailed pattern and border.  Krishna’s cloak has another pattern, and the trees another.  Krishna and Radha both have peacock-feather crowns, which is one of Krishna’s attributes (and I believe that’s a bansuri flute he’s holding).  The border at the edge of the chair seat is particularly intricate.  Compared with the delicacy and precision of these patterns, some of the other aspects of the 
carving seem rather unsophisticated.  The hands are quite clunky, and there’s something very strange indeed about the perspective of the chair.  (I also think it’s kind of funny that although the seat of the chair in both pieces looks the same, it has a different leg, so I guess it isn’t really the same chair!)  Each piece also has a little bit of writing on the ground, but I don’t know what they say.
        Another thing I find particularly interesting about the carving of these pieces is that it looks as if some of the repeated geometric designs were made with a punch of some sort.  I’m particularly looking at the tiny flower shape that appears in the trees and on the gods’ arms, and the tiny circles of Krishna’s necklaces.  Compare the appearance of these areas with European metalcut prints here.  The reason this style usually appears in metalcuts is that it actually doesn’t usually work very well in wood.  I’ve tried it myself, and the stamps tend to break the woodgrain with a ragged edge.  I think for it to have worked on these pieces maybe the stamps were much sharper than what I tried, and/or the wood was very hard-grained.  (When carving rubber blocks the patterned punches just sort of bounce, but I have used small tubes to make tiny circles, and in fact my most recent piece actually has a necklace made of little punched circles just like Krishna’s!)
        As for the artist, the only information I have on him is that he was active in northeastern India in the late nineteenth century.  I hope you enjoy the glimpse of this devoted couple, whether as an image of beautiful love, or simply as an image of beautiful wood block printing.

[Pictures: Krishna Stroking Radha’s Feet, woodcut by Shri Gobinda Chandra Roy, c. 1890 (Image from Cleveland Museum of Art);

Radha Stroking Krishna’s Feet, woodcut by Shri Gobinda Chandra Roy, c. 1890 (Image from Cleveland Museum of Art).]

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