By Srila Thakura Haridasa Dasa

Two of Srila Prabhupada’s artist disciples teach transcendental art at an annual Vrindavan seminar.

[Visit the accompanying image gallery here.]

Vrindavan 2003: On the appearance day of Srila Prabhupada, I was sitting in a garden after lunch thinking, “If only I could paint Krishna while staying in Vrindavan during the holy month of Karttika—how wonderful it would be!”

I was attracted by the amazing atmosphere of Vrindavan, where Lord Krishna performed all the pastimes I craved to depict on canvas. My dream to paint in Vrindavan came true in 2007, when I was selected to participate in an art seminar organized by the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT).

Srila Prabhupada created the BBT, which he called his heart, to publish his own books and other Gaudiya Vaishnava and Vedic literature translated from Sanskrit and Bengali into English. Most BBT books include paintings. To fulfill the growing demand for qualified linguists and artists, the BBT has introduced several training programs. To train devotees in the Sanskrit language and in the skills required to translate Sanskrit into English, the BBT founded the Bhagavata Vidyapitha at Govardhan, about thirty kilometers from the town of Vrindavan. There, students study the intricacies of Sanskrit grammar and the commentaries of our acharyas. To train devotee artists, the BBT conducts annual art seminars where students learn to draw and paint the Lord’s transcendental pastimes as described in the scriptures. One of these training programs is conducted in Vrindavan for three weeks during the month of Karttika.

Two of Srila Prabhupada’s artist disciples, Ramadasa Abhirama Dasa and his wife, Dhriti Devi Dasi, teach this seminar. Ramadasa holds a degree in fine arts, and both have painted many masterpieces for BBT. To my great benefit, I attended my first seminar in 2007 and then returned for the next three.

Welcome to Vrindavan

Our venue is Radhe Dham, a spacious hall in Chaitanya Vihar, about five minutes’ walk from ISKCON’s Krishna-Balarama temple. With me are about twenty-five international students and artists. After a short introduction, our teachers, Ramadasa and Dhriti, read to us some of Srila Prabhupada’s statements about the BBT art department. Then they show us some of their paintings.

Next, the teachers begin by demonstrating how to do a basic pencil sketch for composition, then a color sketch, and finally how to use the sketch to create an oil painting on canvas. Even great artists like Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and William-Adolphe Bouguereau followed this procedure.

In the studio we learn how to depict basic human anatomy by sketching a live model from different angles, we learn about shading and light, and we learn something very basic—how to hold a pencil! On field trips we select a scenic spot of beautiful Vrindavan forest, quickly sketch the landscape on canvas, and then paint with vibrant colors—all within two hours. Then, synthesizing our anatomy sketches with our landscape paintings, we learn to create the transcendental form of the Lord using knowledge from ancient Indian scriptures on sculpture, known as the shilpa-shastras.

At every step Ramadasa and Dhriti carefully guide each student.

Every morning at ten we assemble in the studio and work on drawing human anatomy using a model. We learn to capture the essence of a particular pose within seconds by doing rapid sketches. It’s common for aspiring artists to spend a lot of time with details and miss the essence. These rapid sketches help us grasp the pose, understand it, analyze it, and then sketch it—all within blocks of three, five, or ten minutes. The noon sessions are for portraits, paintings in which the person’s facial expressions are highlighted.

We encircle a human model and quickly draw the face, using limited colors. After the session, the models preview their portraits. “O my God! Certainly, that’s not me!” they say with a laugh. We too peek at each other’s illustrations and burst out laughing. I remember a comment Srila Prabhupada once made about laughter, which I heard from his secretary Syamasundara Dasa: “Laughter is the difference between the ideal concept and the ground reality.”

I meet many devotees and make a few friends. There is Abhay, a gurukuli in his late teens. He lives in Mayapur, and his mother, Hrimati Devi Dasi, is a disciple of Srila Prabhupada. Although he has no art background, he has attended the art seminars for three consecutive years and now wants to make a career out of art.

Anandamayi Devi Dasi, on the other hand, has received training from several Russian art professionals. She is twenty-two and comes from Canada. She finds the detailed teaching of every aspect of drawing and painting substantially useful and plans to paint for the BBT and the Ottawa temple.

Sixty-year-old Australian Rasanandi Devi Dasi came to the seminar with a master’s degree in Fine Arts and years of painting experience at Australian temples. She now plans to train artists in Australia and wishes to paint for ISKCON temples.

Vijaya Madhava Dasa, twenty-five, is from Mumbai. Although he has a degree in art, it didn’t give him much confidence to paint. The seminar has given him lots of encouragement. He now helps BBT Mumbai in the art department.

Training and Encouragement

It takes a lot to be an art teacher. Most of us do not reach the expected results while painting. But both teachers come to each of us and heartily encourage us for even the smallest good thing in our work while gently correcting our mistakes. With a smile on their faces, they have been doing this every day we have been here. I am reminded of a statement by Srila Prabhupada: “Just like there is a small fire in the charcoal. You fan it, and it will gradually become a big fire. So this Krishna consciousness movement is fanning that spiritual spark to come into full consciousness.” (Lecture, Los Angeles, December 22, 1973) Our teachers make us feel appreciated—as if we are already contributing significantly to the illustration of BBT books.

In academic settings, art instructors rarely paint alongside their students. Here, our teachers not only instruct us but draw and paint with us—sketches, landscapes, portraits—and like the rest of us, work to fulfill the seminar’s goal: that we each complete a painting.

Humility, the Hallmark of a Vaishnava

With the last day of the seminar approaching, we are busy with our work, the final painting in which we show what we have learned during our three weeks here. The studio is a mess. On the last day, I find our teachers carrying brooms instead of paintbrushes. They begin cleaning the studio, and I am amazed. They are accomplished artists, direct disciples of Srila Prabhupada, who have been rendering valuable service to ISKCON for more than three decades, yet there is not an iota of pride in their hearts. This is real humility. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura said, “Humility is the hallmark of a genuine Vaishnava.” Immediately some of us pick up brooms and join them. By cleaning the studio we feel satisfied.

Gaining a Perspective

I thank Ramadasa and Dhriti at their residence, expressing my deep gratitude. I then give an interview on how I benefited from their seminar. I had problems with painting perspectives. In painting a landscape, to gain perspective one paints objects in the foreground clearer than those in the background. Before attending this seminar, I was painting all the objects with the same colors and clarity, creating a flat image. Our teachers took us outdoors so we could observe for ourselves how things that are far away appear. By my understanding these nuances, my recent paintings have clear and vibrant foregrounds and hazy backgrounds, making the paintings appear three-dimensional.

I learnt about transcendental art while drawing human figures. How does an artist paint the transcendental form of Lord Krishna while using ordinary human models? As an artist you naturally understand the proportions of a model, but when painting a transcendental figure you have to stretch those proportions. For example, what does it mean to paint eyes that look like a lotus petal? If you simply stretch the eyes out until they are the right shape, they seem artificial. But if you paint ordinary eyes, then they’re not Lord Krishna’s eyes. So you have to see how much to stretch. Similarly, Lord Krishna’s body is transcendentally tender and delicate, so you have to decide where to cut or add muscle tone so that the art becomes transcendental.

Srila Prabhupada says that we make thousands of times more spiritual advancement by serving Krishna in Vrindavan during Karttika than at ordinary times at ordinary places. That is the glory of Vrindavan. I am indeed grateful for having received training on how to portray Krishna in Vrindavan, where art blends with devotion to Him.

[Visit the accompanying image gallery here.]