As manager of performing arts at the Freer|Sackler, I’m always on the lookout for interesting images of music in our collections. We use these artworks to enhance our podcasts and as cover art for our concert program notes. An astute intern of mine spent a summer surveying our entire art collection and found more than four hundred musical images and actual instruments. These objects date from ancient Chinese bells (as old as the tenth century BCE) to nineteenth-century paintings and cover a wide variety of musical scenes from China, Japan, India, and Iran.
One of the most unusual images is The Lute and White Snake of Benten (Sarasvati), painted by Hokusai in 1847. At first glance, it seems to show neither a musician nor a musical instrument. What it does depict is a beautiful fabric instrument-case for a Japanese lute called a biwa encircled by a snake, a most intriguing combination.
It turns out that the pear-shaped biwa (closely related to the Chinese pipa) is the instrument of the goddess Benzaiten (aka Benten). This Japanese deity was adapted from the Hindu goddess Sarasvati, who has long been associated in India with music and scholarship. Images and legends of Sarasvati arrived in Japan via the Silk Road sometime between the sixth and eighth centuries. Just as Sarasvati is depicted in Indian art playing the vina (an Indian zither), Benten was given the role of biwa player. She also took on other aspects of Sarasvati, serving as the goddess of language, dance, water, and snakes. In Japan, Benten’s shrines are often located near water; a painting in the Freer collection from the eighteenth century shows her seated on a high rock, playing the biwa, while ocean waters roil below. These elements may not have formed a logical group elsewhere, but in the Hindu-Buddhist context they are all seen as things that flow, making water and snakes close cousins of verbal eloquence and musical virtuosity.