Where gods come alive...
Long before mass-produced, printed posters of gods and goddesses began being employed as instant puja corners in homes, the hand-painted mata ni pachedi played a fairly similar role.
Created on cloth, it was a narrative — similar in concept to kalamkari panels of Andhra Pradesh — about the devi or mother goddess, and was recognised as a temple scroll. During worship it was hung in the backdrop and thus its name, mata ni pachedi, which colloquially means, ‘in the rear of the mother goddess’. On occasions, it became a portable temple with four-five cloth panels being erected to form an enclosed space to enshrine the devi.
A sacred art typical to Gujarat, dating back to about 300 years, it is considered to have originated among the semi-nomadic rural clans and ably served as a temporary altar for a community constantly on the move. With industrially-produced equivalents having pushed it out of sight, it’s now seldom seen in its pivotal revered position, having evolved into a textile craft and become an item of home décor.
According to belief, the devi is seen as the personification of shakti or universal energy. She is manifested with three core gunas or attributes and each of these is worshipped through corresponding avatars: Durga (strength that’s physical, mental and spiritual), Lakshmi (wealth of character) and Saraswati (intellect). Among tribes, where an informal nature of worship is common, the presiding devis are usually all forms of Durga, looked upon as an embodiment of Supreme power and the preserver of honour and virtue. The mata ni pachedi too hails her shakti.
The traditional scroll is always rectangular and the art it’s adorned with has a structural format. Within a bold border, usually seven, nine or eleven blocks are created, with each being a stand-alone narrative besides being a part of the big picture. At the centre is a temple representation within which is the image of the mother goddess. Around the central deity are smaller frames connected to her legend as well as episodes from daily living — performing the garba dance, harvesting, etc — the juxtaposition reflecting the prime importance of sacred rituals within the community. The column dimensions are freewheeling, and so is the choice of myths connected with the deity. It’s the will and vision of the artist that defines the final outcome. For semi-literate people, the pictorial-grid format made it convenient to understand the legends.
A conventional mata ni pachedi uses only three hues: maroon (believed to be the colour of earth that has healing power too), black (to ward off the evil eye and strengthen divine energy), and white (which stood for purity). The maroon and black colours were vegetable dyes while white was the base fabric. The colours were applied with locally-made paint brushes, bamboo stylus, and at times, with a cottonwool wick. The reason this art is colloquially known as the ‘kalamkari of Gujarat’.
In more recent times, meticulous painting gave way to quick block-printing and chemical colours replaced the more tedious and expensive natural dyes. The easy availability of synthetic pigments found the introduction of a few more hues in modern pachedis which, however, were dismissed by purists. More artistic freedom led to the tweaking of pattern within the traditional matrix. Keeping market demands in mind, miniature pachedis, quite really just a single block of the main frame, also began being created.
The religious significance of mata-ni-pachedi had declined years ago and with that the long-established artist, usually belonging to the Vaghri community, went out of business.
Today, crude workmanship has led to its rare appearance in the craft mart. Small but significant efforts are being made for its revival in a bid to save this charming icon belonging to the legion of India’s sacred art on textile. Next time you visit a handicraft fair, keep a keen eye for mata ni pachedi.