A Krishna Art Renaissance
Reprinted from Back to Godhead Magazine. Interview conducted by Svahadevi Soni.
What inspired you to begin painting Krishna art?
I joined ISKCON in 1970, and even though I already had some training in painting, my reason for joining was not to paint. I had serious questions about life: Why am I here? Why is society divided into so many religious and political factions? Whose wars are we fighting? And so on. I was involved in anti-war protests with some friends from Reed College in Oregon. My artwork came in handy for making demonstration posters and banners. I wanted to do something to contribute to awakening our world and making it a happier place. When I met the devotees and became initiated by Srila Prabhupada, I realized I'd found the real peace formula, which came through Srila Prabhupada's lectures and books.
How did you get involved in painting for Srila Prabhupada's books?
In 1972 Mukunda Goswami (then Mukunda Dasa) happened to come to the Portland temple while I was there. He saw a painting of Lord Chaitanya I did, so he mentioned that I might be interested in painting for Prabhupada's books in New York. I was excited about that idea, so I flew to New York and soon I was helping illustrate the Chaitanya-charitamrita and Srimad-Bhagavatam series of books. I also began painting bigger canvas versions of the popular ISKCON artwork of the time. These were sent to temples starting up around the world.
Was it rigorous work to produce so many paintings?
Not really. It was my service to guru. Probably because I painted fast and could make big paintings look almost identical to the smaller originals, someone nicknamed me "the human camera." I always felt encouraged in the association of the other artists I worked with: Bharadraja Dasa, Parikshit Dasa, Jadurani Dasi, Pushkara Dasa, and Muralidhara Dasa.
Did Srila Prabhupada ever give you personal instructions or encouragement in your service of painting?
He would sometimes come to the Brooklyn temple and would be eager to see the artists' latest paintings. We would gather in his room, and I remember the first time he saw one of my paintings, the Bhaktivinoda Thakura painting, he smiled and said, "Very nice." We worked on many paintings like assembly line workers, each artist assigned to a particular part of each painting. Those paintings were not signed.
As time moved on we all made our own paintings and signed them. I got more into temple wall mural painting on a big scale.
In 1976 at the Manhattan temple Srila Prabhupada saw my airbrushed murals of Krishna's pastimes all around the temple walls. I had worked intensively on the last mural from 9:00 P.M. until 4:00 the next morning. I wanted to complete the final wall in the temple before Srila Prabhupada came into the temple for mangala-arati. So this new mural of Lord Chaitanya dancing was of particular interest to him, as it hadn't been there the day before.
He stopped and said to the devotees there, "He has done this so fast?"
That morning on Srila Prabhupada's walk with devotees he asked, "What is that boy's name who has done the paintings?"
A devotee said, "Vishnudas," and Srila Prabhupada said," He should come to India and do paintings there."
I am paraphrasing, but he told the temple president to send me to India. Unfortunately, I was not on that walk with him, as I was exhausted after my mural marathon.
Please say something about your experience in India.
The most memorable experience there was speaking with Srila Prabhupada a few times. I asked him the best way to paint Krishna so that people realize that He is the Supreme Personality of Godhead and a real person.
Srila Prabhupada replied, "First understand that He is the most beautiful, the strongest, and never alone. He is always with His associates."
I asked if Krishna could be shown with just some animals and trees, as these are mentioned as being also His associates.
Srila Prabhupada said, "Yes, even the trees, flowers, birds, and cows are all His devotees. You can paint them."
I asked if I should try to create better high-quality paintings.
Srila Prabhupada explained, "You know the art. I have seen. But your service has no limit. So flood the world with these paintings, everywhere."
I was incredibly inspired by Srila Prabhupada's vision of flooding the world with art about Krishna and His pastimes. I felt like I was part of a great new renaissance of Krishna art. I wanted to bring my Krishna art to the next level, so to speak, so I began applying the techniques of the nineteenth-century masters, which was my background and favorite subject in art.
Prabhupada called Krishna paintings "windows to the spiritual world," so his vision helped his artists develop a style I like to call "transcendental realism." These windows to the spiritual world take you to a reality that transcends time, space, and place, beyond this objective world of our mundane sensual experience.
Is that why your "All-Attractive Couple" painting (above) has such a quality of realism and detail?
That painting was my first limited-edition lithographic print, and yes, by then I was applying fine-art techniques of the masters to create it.
It took me about a year to get it to the printer, as I kept repainting over certain areas until I was satisfied. Nowadays I work slowly and carefully. I guess I'm no longer the "human camera."
How many prints of the "All-Attractive Couple" have you sold?
Last we checked it was over nine thousand. I'm just one artist, and this is my small contribution to honoring Srila Prabhupada's request to flood the world with Krishna art. With new temples springing up around the world, I can foresee lots of opportunities for artists to help Prabhupada's mission to inundate the world with Krishna art.
I noticed that Radha and Krishna in "All-Attractive Couple" and Krishna in your new painting "Sri Krishnachandra" are looking directly at us, the observer, which you don't see too often in Krishna art. Is there a purpose behind this?
Yes, the purpose is to inspire the desire for a personal relationship with Them. When studying the masters of portraiture, I noticed how they bring you into the subject's personal world through the eyes. I've had this same experience, as many have, by looking at the deities in temples. They are looking at us, inviting us into Their realm, into a personal relationship with Them. The greatest masters of portraiture have the ability to capture a person's image in 3D on a 2D canvas. In the case of a portrait of Radha and Krishna, the same ideas are there, as They are the original inspiration of pure devotion and are forever inviting us into Their divine abode. Krishna is Paramatma and Bhagavan, the observer from within and without, so He is always seeing us and through us.
Is there a certain style of art that should be used to best illustrate Krishna art?
Krishna deserves the very best that artists can provide with their skills, which need not be limited to one style or another. Only sincere devotion attracts Krishna. And that is always the goal of a Krishna artist—to please the spiritual master and the Lord with works of devotion.
I became very interested in Sri Krishna's astrological birth chart and wanted to know more about His moon, as I have seen so many paintings with Sri Krishna shown with a full moon in the background. I found that at the time of His appearance in this world, Lord Krishna's moon appeared full and in the nakshatra of Rohini, exalted in Taurus, the sign of the bull. The bull is the symbol of dharma, the constitutional spiritual function of the soul.
Krishna appeared just at the proper time to fulfill His mission to establish dharma, enliven His devotees, and do away with the tyrannical rulers and demons. Then I remembered that somewhere I had read that Krishna's likeness is like that of the full moon. I thought I should paint Krishna in this way. As I continued my research to find references for this painting, I found descriptions in Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya-lila, Chapter 21, texts 125 through 132. There Lord Chaitanya describes to Sanatana Goswami the wonderful moonlike features of the Lord. This was the information I needed and was inspired by for this painting.
Here's what it says there:
Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is identical with the Vedic hymn known as the Kama-gayatri, which is composed of twenty-four and a half syllables. Those syllables are compared to moons that arise in Krishna. Thus all three worlds are filled with desire.
The face of Krishna is the king of all moons, and the body of Krishna is the throne. Thus the king governs a society of moons.
Krishna has two cheeks that shine like glowing gems. Both are considered full moons. His forehead is considered a half moon, and the spot of sandalwood there is considered a full moon.
His fingernails are many full moons, and they dance on the flute in His hands. Their song is the melody of that flute. His toenails are also many full moons, and they dance on the ground. Their song is the jingling of His ankle bells.
Krishna's face is the enjoyer king. That full-moon face makes His shark-shaped earrings and lotus eyes dance. His eyebrows are like bows, and His eyes are like arrows. His ears are fixed on the string of that bow, and when His eyes spread to His ears, He pierces the hearts of the gopis.
The dancing features of His face surpass all other full moons and expand the marketplace of full moons. Although priceless, the nectar of Krishna's face is distributed to everyone. Some purchase the moonrays of His sweet smiles, and others purchase the nectar of His lips. Thus He pleases everyone.
Krishna has two reddish, widely spread eyes. These are ministers of the king, and they subdue the pride of Cupid, who also has beautiful eyes. That face of Govinda, which is full of happiness, is the home of the pastimes of beauty, and it is very pleasing to everyone's eyes.
If by devotional service one gets the results of pious activities and sees Lord Krishna's face, what can he relish with only two eyes? His greed and thirst increase twofold by seeing the nectarean face of Krishna. Due to his inability to sufficiently drink that nectar, he becomes very unhappy and criticizes the creator for not having given more than two eyes.
How long did it take to complete your painting "Sri Krishnachandra"?
It took me about two years of off-and-on work to complete. He did not appear quickly to me, but it took a lot of research, meditation, and patience.
The spiritual world is a timeless place, so if I can continue painting there when I leave this body, I won't need to worry how long a painting takes, will I?
"Sri Krishnachandra" is such a beautiful painting, and He really does defeat the beauty of the moon. Do you feel this is your best work yet?
To me this painting is the culmination of all I have learned in fine art over the years, although I feel there is always room for improvement, especially when glorifying the Supreme Absolute Truth. We should always feel humble in our attempts to understand what Krishna really looks like, but we can always remember what His pure devotee, Srila Prabhupada, once said: "First understand that He is the most beautiful, the strongest, and He is always with His associates."
At one point I walked away from this painting and thought, "I will never finish it." I came back later that day and scrutinized it again. Then something inside me said, "It is done."
Others had told me months before that it was already finished. Only Sri Krishnachandra knows for sure.
(Please visit Krishnaland to learn more about Vishnudas and his transcendental artwork.)