Radha & Krishna – In Indian Dance, Music & Art!

It is a historical truth that Sufi thinkers and miniature painters helped to immortalize the rich and all-pervasive romantic lore of Radha-Krishna. Muslim Ustads and Hindu Pandits of several Gharanas (schools) of classical music, Sufi poets, great classical dance masters as well as folk dance and music traditions have helped to spread the legends of the Radha-Krishna love-lore to every nook and corner of the world….

By Vimla Patil


Vandana Prapanna, curator of the Indian miniature painting section of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai (formerly Prince of Wales Museum of Western India), has conducted exciting research in miniature paintings on love stories from various eras of Indian history. “Indian literature as well as the oral tradition of India is full of beautiful legends of famous romances,” she says, “The visualization of these stories in art started with the development of Indian miniature paintings, particularly from the 16th century onwards. Innovative artists from all schools of miniature painting worked tirelessly to create visual images of the heart-touching theme of romance.”


Radha and Krishna in rain under a veil

Vandana further explains, “The immense popularity of romantic literature in India can be attributed to the wide spread of Sufism in this country after the 14th century. Sufism’s basic tenet is: ‘Raise thy veil and thou shall see thy beloved’ (meaning: Raise the curtain of ignorance and you will see divinity). Sufi literature uses the picturesque imagery of erotic love between the hero and the heroine to symbolize the love of the individual soul for the supreme soul, i.e. a human being and divinity. Love stories provided an excellent vehicle for communicating this philosophy to the elite as well as the masses and hence were often illustrated. Paintings based on this Sufi principle include many love legends from Islamic as well as Hindu literature.

Roopmati and Baz Bahadur

These legends immortalize romantic couples like Roopmati-Baz Bahadur, Laila-Majnu, Shirin-Farhad, Yusuf-Zuleikha, Nala-Damayanti, Dushyant-Shakuntala, Sohni-Mahiwal, Dhola-Maru, Urvashi-Vikramaditya, Sassi-Punnu, Sawan Singh-Bani Thani and above all, Radha and Krishna, the eternal lovers of Indian culture.

Radha and Krishna, Kangra School

“The poets and painters who followed the teachings of Sufi saints perfected the Avadhi and Brijbhasha mediums. The saints, their teachings, the songs, the legends and the paintings had a deep, indelible effect on Indian society through the centuries. Even today, Indian art and culture follow this strange mixture of Sufism and the Bhakti cult, both of which believe in the supreme love between the atma (soul) and the paramatma (universal soul) – Radha and Krishna. No wonder then that the art, music and dance of India – both in the classical and folk styles – is suffused with the Shringar or romance of Radha and Krishna.”

Radha and Krishna in Geet Govinda

Closest to the Sufi philosophy was the Madhurabhakti cult, which flourished in Bengal, Orissa and most of North India between the 12th and 17th centuries. Poets and saints in these regions wrote some of the finest love poems about Radha and Krishna during these centuries. Among them was Jayadeva’s Geet Govinda, which formed the basis for Orissi classical dance in the eastern states of India. The Krishna Geeti by Manaveda, a Zamorin of Calicut, was inspired by the Geeta Govinda and became the basis of a dance form called Krishnattam in Kerala. Equally, if not more, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada poetry and prose masterpieces written by Vaishnav saints and poets – such as Purandaradasa, Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar, Swati Tirunal, Andal and others – became the basis of Bharata Natyam, Mohini Attam and Kuchipudi dance styles. But the deepest influence of Sufism and Madhurabhakti was seen in Kathak, the pre-dominantly North Indian classical dance style. It received patronage from the courts of the Nawabs in Avadh – so much so that Wajid Ali Shah, the colourful Nawab of Avadh, devoted most of his time to learn and promote Kathak and claimed that Krishna himself appeared to him in visions to reveal to him the rhythms and music he should choose for dancing. Even today, the Radha-Krishna theme runs through the Kathak, Bharat Natyam, Orissi, Kuchipudi and Krishnattam dance styles like a thread that strings many beads together.







Mian Tansen'

Music was not far behind. With Tansen – a Hindu master who converted to Islam and was counted among the ‘Nava Ratnas’ or Nine Jewels of Akbar’s court – leading the movement, the classical music of India became enriched with the Radha-Krishna theme and Brij Bhasha became the preferred medium for describing their love legends. In the 18th century, Sadarang and Adarang, two great musicians patronized by the Muslim king Mohommed Shah Rangeela, changed the face of classical music by inventing khayal gayaki and created a sweeter, slower method of presenting each raga with its romantic spirit, so that the love legends of Radha and Krishna could be given a more beautiful form. After them, till the present day, scores of Muslim composers and master Ustads like Allauddin Khan of Maihar State, Abdul Karim Khan, Faiyaz Khan, Bade Guam Ali Khan, Amir Khan, Azmat Khan, Alladiya Khan, Vilayat Khan and many others as well as pundits like Omkar Nath Thakur and others continued to write songs in Brajbhasha (folk style Hindi spoken around Agra and Mathura). These included classical cheezas, thumris, jhoolas, kajris, chaitis, horis and other compositions. They used pen names like Sabrang, Prempiya, Krishnarang, Daraspiya and so on.

Tansen and Akbar with Swami Haridas

A beautiful miniature painting of Akbar’s reign offers a glimpse into this unique mix of devotion, respect and love. It shows Akbar standing respectfully behind while Swami Haridas, the Guru of Mian Tansen, teaches him music. Akbar considered Swami Haridas the greatest musician because he sang for no earthly king, but only for the supreme king – namely god! Most compositions sung by even younger musicians till today are written by Muslim Ustads who saw little difference between the love preached by their Sufi saints and the saints of the Madhurabhakti cult.

Bismillah Khan played at Kashi Viswanath temple

Indeed, for all artists, Radha and Krishna became the archetypal divine musicians and dancers, the inspiration of all forms of art. With this quaint mix of Sufism and Vaishnavism, it was possible for the famous Dagar Brothers to sing in the temples of Krishna though they were Muslims and it was a beautiful ritual for Bismillah Khan to play his magical shehanai at the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi, India. Also, Hindu devotees sang quawwalis at famous dargahs with equal vigour and energy as millions prayed at the durgahs.


Folk dances about Krishna



If classical music and dance were enriched incredibly by the Radha-Krishna legend, folk dance and music too became influenced by their romantic escapades. Community dances of village folk on festive occasions like Holi, Janmashtami, Diwali and Basant Panchami were based on the Radha-Krishna theme. So were village ditties and folk songs.

Sant Dnyaneshwar, Maharashtra

Thousands of devotional songs written by saints such as Dynaneshwar (1275-1296) with his lovely song Chandanachi Choli, (sung beautifully by Lata Mangeshkar), Surdas, Tulsidas, Meerabai (with her famous song ‘Ghungat ke pat khol, tohe piya milenge’), Kabir, Chandidas, Vidyapati, Andal, Tukaram, Namdev and literally hundreds of others across the length and breadth of India, made an indelible impression on the minds of millions of Indians – irrespective of caste, creed or religion. India, as a nation, became one nation in celebrating the love of Radha and Krishna, the archetypal, eternal lovers. Musicians, dancers and artists – even weavers of textiles – saw Radha as the Shringar Nayika (romantic heroine) and Krishna as her Nayak (romantic hero) in all the nine classical moods of art (the Navarasas). They perceived Radha as ‘ashtanayikas’ – variously as a submissive woman, an angry or sulking beloved, an erotic heroine, a languorous lover, a bold woman who ventures into the jungles to meet her lover and an ever-waiting woman in love or a woman enjoying erotica. They even went so far as to call her a ‘sorceress’ who cast her magical spell on the love-lorn Krishna. They created images of fragrant bowers, mango forests, verdant springtime gardens with peacocks and parrots dancing around, lakes dotted with lotuses and swans, and carpets of flowers for the lovers’ erotic escapades and their passionate embraces through paintings, songs, dances and even textile weaving.

Radha and Krishna, Kishengarh School

But on a higher plane, even ordinary Indians understood the true kernel of the Radha-Krishna love legend, which symbolizes Advaita, the oneness of a human being with his/her god. Even today, they see the relationship of the two lovers in its true light when they sing of their eternal union. A thumri sung by many masters crystalises this thought beautifully: “Tum Radhe Bano Shyam….Sab Dekhengi Brijbham…” say the lyrical words. These words mean: “Become Radha yourself, oh Krishna and let the people of Brij see that God and devotee are one and the same.”

Radha as Bani Thani, Kishangarh School

To sum up, Radha – to every Indian – is the devotee who achieves divinity through surrender and love rather than through the analytical power of the intellect. As M.S. Randhawa and John Kenneth Galbraith say in their book Indian Painting, “Eastern philosophy seeks God through feeling. Those who seek Him in the sterile sands of intellectuality, seek Him in vain. Nor is mere brilliance of intellect highly regarded; emotion is the key to the realization of God… Poetry and music have refinement as their aim. Divine love is the sublimation of sexual love. It is the music of the human soul…its most vivid expression is in and through sexual union. This gilds the vision, lends an aura of magical enchantment even to the most prosaic person.”

No wonder then, that the very soil of India is fragrant with the legends of the romance of Radha and Krishna. Because romantic love, with its powerful flame, burns eternally in every Indian heart.


Did you know?

Anna L. Dallapiccola, former Professor of Indian Art at the South Asia Institute at Heidelberg, Germany, is an expert on Krishna paintings in South India. She has lectured extensively on the Kalamkari paintings, Tanjore paintings and the Chitrakathi artworks of Krishna in different avatars like Balaji, Vithoba and Baby Krishna or Krishna and Radha. The southern states of India like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala and the western states of Gujarat and Maharashtra host some of the most popular shrines of Krishna/Vishnu. Among these are the famous Thirupati Balaji temple in Andhra, the Guruvayur temple in Kerala, the Srirangam Temple in Tamil Nadu, the Vithoba temple in Maharashtra, the Srirangapatanam temple in Karnataka, the Shrinathji temple in Gujarat and the Padmanabhswami temple in Kerala are visited by millions every year. Each of these states has a treasure of art, music and dance as well as textile and embroidery art on the images of Krishna in various forms. Precious jewellery recreating Krishna is very popular. However, the Radha-Krishna romance features less in South Indian art as the peninsular Indian culture is slightly more conservative. Thus, instead of being the lover, Krishna is often addressed as having the motherly qualities of compassion, grace and unconditional love. Thus, the divine mother spirit and the child in every human being is one and united in this non-duality.

Guruvayoor Appan of Guruvayoor Temple, Kerala

Balaji in Thirupati, Andhra Pradesh

Vithoba and Rakhumai in Pandharpur, Maharashtra





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