Art of Asia
- What is South Asia?
- Challenges, opportunities, and approaches for studying South Asian art
- Geographic regions of South Asia
- Understanding divine “blueness” in South Asia
- Representations of Krishna
- South Asian religions, an introduction
- Introduction to Islam
- Beliefs made visible: Buddhist art in South Asia
- Development of the Buddha image
- Bodhisattva Maitreya
- Mudras in Buddhist art
- Mahakala, Protector of the Tent
- Conservation: Indian Jama
by Dr. Cristin McKnight Sethi
Unknown artist (Madhubani district, Mithila, Bihar, India), the Hindu god Krishna playing his flute while standing on the back of a multi-headed serpent (perhaps the demon Kaliya), mid-20th century, ink and color on paper, 27.9 x 44.1 cm (Cleveland Museum of Art)
Representations of Vishnu. Left: Ceremonial Cover (Rumal): Vishnu on the Cosmic Ocean, late 18th or early 19th century, cotton plain weave with silk embroidery, made in Chamba, Himachal Pradesh, India (Philadelphia Museum of Art); right: Vishnu as Vishvarupa (cosmic or universal man), c. 1800–20, watercolour on paper, early 19th century, Jaipur, India (Victoria & Albert Museum, London)
Vishnu has a blue or dark complexion because he reflects the color of the cosmos. Vishnu’s complexion is also understood to be the color of dark storm clouds and the color of the moon. Some scholars believe that Vishnu’s “blueness” is a result of Krishna’s dark complexion, as Krishna is an avatar of Vishnu. In other words, it may be that Krishna’s “blueness” came first.
Different representations of Krishna. Left: detail from a painting of Krishna and Nikumba, Harivamsha, c. 1590 (Mughal Empire), opaque watercolor and gold on paper (Victoria & Albert Museum, London); center: detail of Ceremonial Cloth with the Ten Avatars (Dasavataras) of Krishna, first half of 19th century, silk plain weave with discontinuous interlocking weft, Assam, India (Philadelphia Museum of Art); and right: Krishna Playing the Flute (Venugopala), c. 1920, phyllite with pigment, Calcutta (present-day Kolkata), West Bengal, Bengal Region, India (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Krishna is known as “the dark one” and his name translates as “black” or “dark” in Sanskrit (also spelled Kṛṣṇa).
According to Hinduism, Vishnu (and by extension Krishna) is the cosmic or divine power of the “Dark Age” or Kali Yuga. Some believe that Vishnu previously appeared in different forms (and with different complexions) during previous ages (yugas) of the universe: white in Krita Yuga, yellow in Dwaparaa Yuga, red in Treta Yuga, and black in Kali Yuga. Accordingly, Vishnu’s (and Krishna’s) appearance during the Kali Yuga is “black” in complexion.
Sri Krsna with the flute, Pahari School. c. 1790–1800, opaque watercolor and gold on paper, India, Punjab, 20.9 x 23 cm (Freer Gallery of Art)
In artistic renderings—whether on paper, stone, or cloth—Krishna’s “dark” skin appears in a variety of shades from pale silvery blue to midnight black. In fact, different artists interpreted the exact hue of Krishna’s complexion in different ways, depending on region and time period.
Some stories describe Krishna’s birth occurring at night and during the late August / early September monsoon storm season. So, Krishna’s dark skin reflects both the time of his birth and the color of monsoon clouds.
Krishna’s physical appearance reflects the geography of his hometown of Brindaban and the region where he grew up, a place known as Braj. Accordingly, his body is the color of the landscape of Braj, dark like the surrounding mountains.
Krishna’s complexion may also be related to moments during his life when he drank poison as an attempt to vanquish evil forces or purify the world. One story related to Krishna as a baby describes him sucking the poisoned milk from a bird-demoness who disguised herself as a beautiful woman and visited the baby soon after he was born, in an attempt to kill him. Some believe the poison caused his skin to turn dark or blue.
Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa on mount Prasravaṇa, from the Mewar Rāmāyaṇa, 1649–1652 (British Library)
Rama, the protagonist of the epic story the Ramayana, similarly appears in artistic renderings and textual descriptions as having a dark complexion. Rama’s dark skin (often depicted as blue) connects him to the divinity of Vishnu.
Kali, c. 1885, opaque watercolor on paper, Kalighat, Kolkata, India (Victoria & Albert Museum, London)
In addition to Vishnu (and his avatars including Krishna and Rama), many divine figures in Hinduism are depicted with dark complexions. For example the fierce form of the mother goddess known as Kali (a name which translates as “black”) often appears with jet black skin. The god Shiva often appears with ashy blue-gray skin, perhaps a result of his ascetic nature and spending time at cremation grounds. The Princess Draupadi (an important female character in the Mahabharata) is described as having skin the color of a “blue lotus” and is sometimes referred to as the “dark beauty.” The author of the Mahabharata, the sage Vyasa, is also described as having a dark (“krishna-like”) complexion.
Raja Ravi Varma, Kali trampling Shiva, c. 1910, chromolithograph, 50 x 35 cm (The Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation, Bengaluru)
Blue minerals and pigments—such as aquamarine, indigo, and.
—have long been culturally and commercially valuable materials, not only in South Asia, but also around the world. The choice to depict Krishna as blue (rather than black) may have been a result of the availability and popularity of these materials.
While we don’t necessarily know what the term Kṛṣṇa meant to early artists (“black,” “dark blue,” “green-blue” etc.), it is clear that specific colors have been used for centuries in South Asia to convey information about artistic and religious subjects. Whether creating objects and depictions for use in Hinduism, Esoteric Buddhism, or Jainism, artists were conscious and intentional about which colors to use when depicting divine and sacred figures.
Jenny Balfour-Paul, Indigo (British Museum Press, 1999).
Banerjee, The Life of Krishna in Indian Art (National Museum New Delhi, 1978).
Jonah Blank, Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God: Retracing the Ramayana through India (Grove Press, 2000).
Pawan Deshpande, “Changes of Skin Color Preferences in India: An Analysis from the Ancient to the Modern”, unpublished manuscript (available on Academia.edu), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), May 2006.
Jinah Kim, Garland of Visions: Color, Tantra, and a Material History of Indian Painting (University of California Press, 2021).
Barbara Stoler Miller, Love Song of the Dark Lord: Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda (Columbia University Press, 1977).
Cynthia Packert, The Art of Loving Krishna: Ornamentation and Devotion (Indiana University Press, 2010).
Essay by Dr. Cristin McKnight Sethi