Try to picture this: you are an artist and you‘ve been a devotee for two or maybe three years … or even six months like Bhakta Mark, Muralidhara. There were Jadurani, Bharadwaja came from Montreal, Muralidhara and Devahuti came from L.A.
The Challenge- capture Krishna’s beauty
You are tasked with painting something that is supposed to exceed the greatest works of art ever known to man. You are supposed to paint something that is more beautiful than Raphael or Da Vinci or Rembrandt has ever painted in their lifetimes because you are painting the beauty, the unlimited, infinitely unlimited beauty of God. So what is the beauty of Mona Lisa compared to God … what is anything compared to that? So these poor artists are shuddering: ―How in the world can we accomplish this?
What Prabhupada is giving the world is so great and our skills and our abilities are so small they don‘t match. It is not even close—and then a letter comes and now he wants a painting a day? So, there was a lot of concern, and as they were talking amongst themselves they wrote to Prabhupada that they did not
feel adequate or up to this challenge: ―We think that our skills as artists are not that great, and we think we need to study seriously and go to an art academy. We need to learn the greatest techniques of the greatest art in the world, and maybe then we will be able to do something that might be slightly worthy of what Prabhupada is going to give to the world. A vision of God: how can we paint that? We barely know even how to paint.”
Srila Prabhupada’s vision to capture Krishna’s beauty
Prabhupada explained to them: “Your whole concept of beauty is mundane. Actually, you don‘t even know what real beauty is. There are two parts to understanding real beauty. The first part is that everything in the painting must be authorized and authentic. There can be no imagination, no fabrication, no fanciful imagination like poets and artists of the world who are trying to create something that is beautiful based on what they have seen in the world.”
The second definition Prabhupada gave them is this: “The only way you are going to achieve beauty is through your heart, through bhakti—devotion to God and not through anything mundane. If you don‘t paint with bhakti, I don‘t care what it looks like it will not be accepted”.
How to Capture Krishna’s beauty?
So now we come back to the problem that the artists had and how they proposed that they wanted to go to art school. And Prabhupada had said that was not how they were going to learn how to paint beautifully: “They may teach you how to paint in a mundane way, but that is not what I am looking for. This is how you are going to learn how you are going to paint. You are going to sit in front of your canvas, eight, ten, twelve hours a day. Day after day and the entire time you are going to be painting, you are going to be chanting Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare. I understand that you feel helpless and totally inadequate and you are in great anxiety that you cannot do this. Yet that is exactly the mood that I want you to be chanting with. I want you to be in so much anxiety, so anxious, in so much desperation that when you call out to Krishna it is from the core of your heart.” It should be the greatest desperation that anyone has ever felt in life. That is how I want you to chant Hare Krishna while your hand is moving, and if you do that day after day, crying to Krishna for help, every single day then you will learn how to be an artist, that is all the training you need.”
Rising to the challenge
These are pictures of the ISKCON artists working in Boston in 1970. Bharadraja is painting Lord Caitanya taming the wild beasts in the jungle by His chanting of the holy names. Murali-dhara is touching up a picture of four-headed Lord Brahma in Satyaloka. The devotees hadn’t been painting so long, but they were learning by working….They worked in a rather large area on a second floor with lots of windows. About six painters could work at one time, with lamps clamped to their canvases. They’d listen to Prabhupada’s lectures or bhajans of him singing while they painted, and they considered their lives blissful. Working on the Press in separation from Prabhupada while he toured the world produced intense dedication.
The painters felt dedicated. During this early time I was the manager of the painting department. I didn’t have many duties. I assigned the pictures, managed the personnel and my main job turned out to be how to restrain the devotees from working too much. Painting was a service that gave the painters great enthusiasm, and they worked all day and night, and I had to tear them away from their canvases. They were in a mood of painting in a marathon spirit, and Prabhupada encouraged it. When the paintings were completed and used in the books the originals were put in simple frames and hung in the temples. Prabhupada personally gave instructions by mail as to how exactly the characters should be painted.
The result- A Miracle
Not bad for no art school. That is the power of the order of the pure devotee because embedded within the order is the potency to carry it out, the empowerment to carry out the order. There is no other way to explain this miracle. Eightyseven paintings in the Krishna book, forty-eight paintings in the Bhagavad-gita and that had to be finished by the end of 1971. And in between they had to paint the second canto, two volumes so seven paintings each. They had to paint for the Nectar of Devotion, and because Prabhupada was introducing art in the books they had to now reprint the first canto, 1st volume and three paintings in those.
There are eighty-seven paintings in the Krishna book, forty-eight paintings in the Bhagavad-gita, twenty-one paintings in the first canto and fourteen paintings in the second canto. And all of this had to be finished by the end of 1971 because then they had to return to the third canto because Prabhupada was already translating the fourth canto. So they painted one hundred eighty paintings in two years, which is unbelievable. By being empowered by Srila Prabhupada, these paintings have a type of bhakti that is impregnated into them by Prabhupada‘s order.
The form of the Lord is understood by the paramparā system… His description of the bodily features of the Lord is not an imagination. Sometimes we give instructions to our students about the bodily features of the Lord, and they paint Him. Their paintings are not imaginary. The description is given through disciplic succession, just like that given by Nārada Muni, who sees the Lord and describes His bodily features. Therefore such descriptions should be accepted, and if they are painted, that is not imaginative painting.
What Srila Prabhupada revealed on how to capture Krishna’s beauty was so heart-touching that I read it repeatedly and I felt inspired to share it with everyone. The state of our heart needed to capture Krishna’s beauty or Krishna Himself in our heart is now an open secret, the question is do I have the laulyam, the transcendental greed, to want to capture Krishna!
All glories to Srila Prabhupada.
P.S.: The painting on the top is from the first edition of Krishna book.