Lord's life in colours

Lord's life in colours

Painting tradition

Lord's life in colours

Nathdwara paintings, distinct to the town of Nathdwara in Rajasthan, revolve around the life of Srinathji as a manifestation of Lord Krishna. Each of these works is considered an offering to the deity, notes Monideepa Sahu

Paintings from the Nathdwara School occupy a special place in Indian art. Many are in the form of pichvais, which were created to be hung behind the idols in the temples of Nathdwara in Rajasthan. Each pichvai painting is considered to be a seva or offering to Srinathji, the seven-year-old balaswarup or child manifestation of Lord Krishna. The artists paint with a sense of deep devotion. The paintings usually depict scenes from the life of Srinathji, expressing the moods of different seasons and festivals.

Their deceptively simple style hides layers of spiritual significance and symbolism. Using basic colours, concepts and compositions, these paintings show how the whole world, including all living creatures, birds and animals, is Lord Krishna’s leela. It is imperative to trace the historical development of the Nathdwara School of Painting and study the factors responsible for its distinctive imagery, holds eminent contemporary artist, scholar and author Amit Ambalal. Delivering the Tasveer Foundation Lecture, he points out the importance of delving into cultural background, the philosophy of the sect, its colourful rituals, festivals and legends.

Nathdwara literally means the gateway to Lord Srinathji. According to legends, the idol of Lord Krishna was transferred in the 17th century from Vrindaban to protect it from the destructive wrath of Emperor Aurangzeb. When the bullock cart transporting the idol reached what was then a tribal village in Rajasthan, the wheels sank deep into the soil and could not be budged. This was taken to be the Lord’s chosen spot, and a temple was built there. Since then, Nathdwara has been home to Srinathji, the chief deity of the Pushtimarga sect. The Pushtimarga sect (The Way of Divine Grace), founded by Shri Vallabhacharya in the 16th century, is based on Bhagwata Purana scriptures.
Pushtimarga does not stress on asceticism, and holds that the way to spiritual salvation is through a celebration of earthly life.

To devotees, the idol of Srinathji is not a stone image. It is a living, vivacious divine child, who is regularly fed, bathed, dressed, sent out to play, and gives darshan to devotees eight times a day. The haveli is symbolic of Braja, and places all around it in Nathdwara are named to symbolise places important to Lord Krishna. Thus, Govardhan Chowk symbolises Govardhan Mountain. All the areas and dimensions of the temple complex are built as a miniature palace, so that child Krishna can feel at home.

Symbolic significance

Many traditional Hindu artists settled in Nathdwara through the centuries. Painting scenes from the Lord’s life is considered a divinely inspired ritual. The earliest paintings and pichvais date back to the 1700s. The Lord is dressed in colourful garments adapted from the attire of Emperor Akbar’s times. His clothes are pictured as flowing with his lively movements. Every detail is rich with symbolic significance, Amit Ambalal points out. In a painting of Radha collecting flowers for evening prayers, for example, Radha is frightened of lightning, and beseeches Lord Krishna to protect her. Here, the lightning is symbolic of Radha, and the dark clouds represent Lord Krishna. Elsewhere, Lord Krishna symbolises the paramatma, and the Gopis represent the atma. The Raas Leela is symbolic of their meeting. In other paintings, vessels filled with water, placed at Srinathji’s feet, symbolise the Yamuna.

Many paintings show scenes from Srinathji’s daily routine, with delicate touches enhancing their charm. In one painting, Srinathji has been awakened and is being fed behind closed doors before the first darshan of the day. His flute is kept away from him, for if the child Srinathji sees it, he will stop eating and run off to play. Another painting depicts Yashoda performing the evening aarti to welcome the Lord returning home with the cows. The artist’s brush brings to life the loving expression on her face. The artists of the Nathdwara School painted animals, especially cows, which hold a special place in Lord Krishna’s lore, with lively details. The Gopashtami pichvai shows cows, each depicted with individual poses, dancing joyfully around Lord Krishna. Some beautiful 19th century paintings show Lord Krishna playing his flute to the Gopis in exquisite detail. Not only the Gopis, but the birds and animals are also attracted to the Lord’s music. Each Gopi is painted with delicate individual features and expressions. Even squirrels, peacocks, monkeys and flowers come alive.

Incidents from the Lord’s life, such as the lifting of Govardhan Mountain, are another major theme. An exquisite 19th century painting shows Goswami Giridharji of Kashi recreating the scene of Krishna insisting that Yashoda replicate the full moon on a new moon night. To please her dear child, Yashoda wore silver. Baby Krishna was delighted because, to him, she was his moon.

Life in Nathdwara revolves around festivals, and these inspire many paintings. On Nandamahotsav, temple priests are depicted dressed as Nandarai as they worship Srinathji. Other paintings show priests performing manorath on Holi, or ladies gathering flowers to celebrate Gangaur, a festival special to Rajasthan.

The imagery and style of these paintings evolved over time. In some early paintings, Srinathji’s eyes are open and looking straight ahead, but later paintings show them partially open and gazing downwards. This, explains Amit Ambalal, signifies the Lord looking benevolently down on the world and showering his blessings (grace or pushti). Animals and birds in earlier paintings have more life and individuality, while those in later paintings are more technically correct but static. Feeling threatened by the advent of photography in the 19th century, Nathdwara painters adapted by incorporating spacial perspectives and their own interpretations of realism. The late 19th century painting of Yamunadashami depicts a festival when water is let into the temple’s corridors. While earlier paintings were two-dimensional, this painting uses the technique of foreshortening to create the impression of depth. Tiny boats and lotuses float, recreating the Yamuna river.

While a few talented artists continue to paint to this day, the style is becoming more glamorous, Amit Ambalal notes with wry humour. Earlier, people were content to worship Srinathji as a child or divine lover. But now, they desire more material things. The gaudier colours and profusion of artificial jewels in many recent paintings of Srinathji reflect this growing materialism.

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