Unknown | India | Krishna the jubilant butter thief 13th century (late Chola period) | Bronze | 38.8 x 24 x 14.3cm | Purchased 2012 with funds from the Henry and Amanda Bartlett Trust through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery
Krishna the jubilant butter thief 13th century (late Chola period)
The Chola kingdom (c.880–1279 CE) reached its height in the eleventh century, when it controlled much of south and east of the Indian subcontinent and formed one of the most important artistic periods in Indian history. Bronze statuary took on a new significance, made to be portable for processions and festivals outside the temples, as they were believed to be actual embodiments of the deities.
One of the most celebrated Hindu gods, Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu, appears in many forms: as king, lover, flute player and dancer. In the sculpture of southern India, Krishna is frequently represented as bala Krishna, a child. He was raised in the cottage of a cowherd to escape his uncle King Kansa, who had imprisoned his parents and killed his brothers after a premonition that he would be killed by a nephew. The sculpture in the Gallery’s Collection depicts Krishna as a mischievous youth in a cheerful dancing pose, holding a small ball of butter in his hand. The butter was stolen from his foster mother, Yashoda, who on discovering the devious act, asked Krishna to open his mouth. Peering in, she could see the entire universe: a revelation of the child’s divinity.
The sculpture shows Krishna posed in a relaxed and balanced position emulating Indian folk rather than classical dance. His body has the rounded softness of a child, and is decorated with fine necklaces, anklets and belts, with tassels on his shoulders, heavy jewelled earrings and a detailed chignon emphasising his height. This figure was later appropriated to depict the child saint Sambander, portrayed almost identically but with the protruding right hand pointing towards Uma who had given him milk as a hungry three year old. Following the Chola period bala Krishna came to be popularly portrayed as a crawling child. The figure expresses both the happy mischievousness of the act as well as the grace and divinity of the incarnation.