Srila Prabhupada placed great spiritual value on the sometimes crude paintings of ISKCON's first artists.
TWENTY-SIX SECOND AVENUE, New York City, 1967: Govinda Dasi had recently painted Srila Prabhupada's quarters blue walls with gold borders. His desk was his trunk from India. He sat on second-hand mats donated by his disciples.
Prabhupada showed me a beautiful print of Radha and Krsna with the eight principal gopis, standing together in the moonlight in a garden in the Vrndavana forest. He wanted me to copy the scene onto a large canvas.
Prabhupada told me that the gopis in the picture had Bengali beauty because they'd been painted by a Bengali artist. The flowers at Krsna's feet didn't seem very clearly painted to me. They looked like colored blobs. I asked Prabhupada what kind of flowers I should paint. "You can take any flower and transport it to Vrndavana," he answered.
"What color should I paint Krsna's eyes?" I asked. Sometimes we read that Krsna's eyes are red.
"They are reddish, reddish black," he said.
"It's stated that Krsna is the color of a fresh raincloud, but exactly what color is that?" I asked.
"They say that Krsna is the color of a fresh new raincloud… " Prabhupada began. Then he lowered his head a little and covered his face with his hand. Bringing his hand down slowly and lifting his head, he said in a muffled and innocent voice, "But I do not know what color He is."
Of course, he did know. He was seeing Krsna personally face to face at each moment but he was so humble.
Prabhupada also told me to make Krsna a little shorter than He was in the Bengali painting, where He was much taller than Radharani. Prabhupada also said that in the original, Krsna looked "a little fatty."
Later in Boston I worked on the painting, a 4' by 5' canvas. When I was about half done, Srila Prabhupada arrived. After his evening lectures he would invite some of the leading male devotees to his quarters. He didn't invite me, and I wanted to see him, so I was envious and a little angry. But I remembered Prabhupada saying that he is present when we serve him. So I ran over to the painting, confident that if I became absorbed in service I would have his association. As I painted I prayed to the gopis in the painting to make me a pure devotee.
After his month-long stay in Boston, Prabhupada went to Montreal and asked me to send the painting there. When it arrived, Prabhupada wrote me, "The picture which you sent to Montreal is well-received here, and everyone is speaking highly of your painting capacity, and I am so pleased to see the picture. You have improved very much in your painting capacity also by serving Krishna so faithfully by the talent which Krishna has endowed you with. Yesterday there was a meeting of the Indians, and all of them spoke very highly of your picture. Please try to paint the following pictures in quantity, namely the 'Mohan Madhuri' which you have sent here in Montreal, that is to say, Radha and Krishna with the 8 principal gopis; the Samkirtan picture of Lord Caitanya; and Panca Tattva [Lord Caitanya and His four main associates]. These pictures should be popularized in our movement and try to paint them very nicely. I am anxious about you because you are conducting one of the important departments of our activities, namely painting of pictures, and this will make your life successful."
Months later, on August 31, 1968, Prabhupada arrived in New York. A devotee called us in Boston saying, "Prabhupada would like to see you." So we all went down to New York.
On the next day, the New York devotees, Boston devotees, and guests were in the temple with Prabhupada. He began talking to me about the Mohana Madhuri painting right in front of everyone.
"That painting you did of Radha and Krsna and the gopis is so nice… " Then, after a short pause, he said, "I have no capacity to repay you."
I was bewildered, amazed, flattered, and flustered. His words reminded me that Krsna had said the same thing to the gopis when He was leaving Vrndavana to go to Mathura. Yet I knew that by his mercy Prabhupada had dragged me into some semblance of devotional service. There was no credit on my part.
"And if you preach," he continued, "then everyone will be happy."
Then he turned to all the brahmacaris and said, "You should not see these girls as objects of your sense gratification; you should see them all as associates of Krsna."
A year or so later Muralidhara Dasa in California wanted to do a painting of Radha-Krsna with the gopis for the Los Angeles temple. He wrote to Srila Prabhupada to ask his permission.
Prabhupada replied, "You have mentioned a picture of Krishna and the Gopis, but Krishna and the Gopis without Radharani cannot be. If you mean to say the picture of Radha-Krishna and the 8 Gopis, then that is all right. I do not know what is this Krishna with the Gopis. There are many unauthorized pictures painted by so-called imaginative artists, but we don't want such pictures in our temples."
The next year, when the Boston temple moved to North Beacon Street, I did another painting on the same subject. I thought it was technically better, but my consciousness was much worse. After I'd completed the painting and devotees showed it to Prabhupada, he commented, "Why has she painted this in such haste?"
Because I had not taken less time to do the painting, I could understand from Prabhupada's comment that he could read our consciousness when he saw our work. My first painting of Radha-Krsna and the gopis was later printed in Prabhupada's Krsnabook.
Yadurani Devi Dasi is project head of CIVA (Cultural Institute for the Vedic Arts), which is producing Krsna conscious picture books and comics.