The 'pichwai' resurgence

Art as devotion

An art form that pays tribute to seven-year-old Lord Krishna, ‘pichwai’ is a pathway to grace and spirituality. Hema Vijay talks to artist Shan Bhatnagar whose practice of this form has changed his outlook on life...

Contemporary pichwai comes across as an oxymoron. Isn’t pichwai the ancient tradition of vivid and mesmerising hand-painted screens created to serve as a backdrop to Lord Shrinathji (the seven-year-old Krishna who lifts a mountain on his little finger) in his Nathdwara haveli in Udaipur? Well, Jaipur-based self-taught artist Shan Bhatnagar demolishes the apparent contradiction through his zealous experiments on pichwai aesthetics — as an artist and as an avant-garde interior designer.

Ten years ago, as a 25-year-old business student in the University of Maryland in Germany, young Shan was often offered this well-intentioned, down-to-earth roadmap. ‘Painting is nice, spirituality is wonderful; but set it aside for your retired life’. But as it turned out, Shan abandoned his business education and turned to Nathdwara Lord Shrinathji in full measure — and to the mesmerising pichwai screens. With that, Shan found his peace and his calling, and the world gets to feast its eyes and heart on some exquisite contemporary pichwai paintings. Though, of course, Shan prefers to call these paintings ‘The holy glimpse’, rather than ‘pichwai’.

The path of grace

Pichwai literally translates to ‘hangings in the back’ in Bhrajbasha. Pichwai screens have been an unbroken artistic tradition at the temple town of Nathdwara in Rajasthan. But it is not just pichwai that has Shan enthralled. He is captivated by the entire construct of Pushti Marg, meaning ‘path of grace’, that has cast its aura in Nathdwara. In a sense, it is because of Pushti Marg that pichwai paintings rose to great splendour and artistic finesse. That is because Nathdwara’s Pushti Marg is as much a celebration of spirituality as of good art, good music, and good food — the good life, in a nutshell.

“The path of grace is not a sacrificing kind of spirituality; it is a relishing kind of spirituality that lets you live life to the full; it is a celebration of life. The seven-year-old Lord favours it because he himself likes it. It is a wonderful faith that lets you feel that a little bit of Shrinathji is inside you, which inspires a sense of responsibility, confidence, and even the inspiration to live a good life and take good care of yourself, and mindfully enjoy the good things in life,” says Shan.

The path of grace pervades every aspect of life at Nathdwara — from the resonance of the rich haveli sangeet derived from Dhrupad gharana to the food served to the Lord. Incidentally, Nathdwara’s haveli sangeet is sung to the accompaniment of the veena and the pakkawaj. “These south Indian instruments occupy centre stage here, as Pushti Marg’s 12th century founder patron Vallabhacharya was originally from Andhra,” informs Shan.

In fact, Nathdwara, that lies on the banks of Banas river, has found its own unique culture that revolves around pleasing the seven-year-old Lord. In terms of architecture, the temple is like a mansion or haveli, quite unlike any temple you would think of. “It is the house of a beloved prince, with colourful textile decor on the walls and the ceiling. The Lord, the town and the faith of the devotees who throng Nathdwara never ceases to inspire me. To me, the Nathdwara experience evokes self-reflection, discovering ways of changing for the better as a person, at getting better at my work...” muses Shan. In an era when educated urban youth in general, and artists in particular, shy away from acknowledging their faith, Shan states it unabashedly. “I am not a ritualist. And technology and beliefs are not mutually exclusive,” he adds.

Pichwai art comes swathed in deep-hued pigments and embellished with gold and silver and precious and semi-precious stones. These paintings are expensive even without the touch of a talented artist’s hand. But Shan keeps a firm leash on his price tag, though there is quite a huge demand for his works. “My aim is not to reach exclusiveness, but to let as many people feel the beauty of Lord Shrinathji as possible,” he says.

Going contemporary

In his paintings, Shan uses oils, not pigments. He paints on canvas, not screens. Unlike traditional pichwais, his versions are not all dark and deeply hued. There are his pastel pichwais; and there are stitches, springs of gold and silver (dabka) stitched on to the canvas, zardozi, semi-precious stones, silver plates and even gold. In terms of intellectual content, Shan takes inspiration from across Nathdwara, from Shrinathji’s 40-day tryst with gulal (from rose petal, the original pigment that Holi originally started off with), Krishna’s various other exploits and poems written in his praise, to the devotees, the city and its streets.

The Shrinathji in Shan’s pichwai is three-feet tall, exactly the same height of the actual deity of Nathdwara. This 14th century idol of Shrinathji at Nathdwara was originally worshipped at Mathura, and brought to Nathdwara to protect it from Aurangzeb’s clutches. “I have not made my best Shrinathji yet, I am still finding my best work,” Shan says. The pichwai effect spills over into Shan’s interior design work too. It emerges as lotus, cow, basuri and kadamba tree motifs that morph seamlessly into contemporary aesthetics and living spaces. And strangely enough, this kind of decor doesn’t look archaic, but timelessly rustic and earthy.

Pichwai was once an aesthetic tradition restricted to the sanctum sanctorum of Nathdwara. The screens sport the tales of Krishna’s boyhood days with spectacularly coloured backgrounds that brought to the psyche not just rustic scenes of bountiful cows, enigmatic lotuses, mysterious forests, intriguing stars and evocative planetary elements, but also the nuances of the changing seasons on it all. “This happened because pichwais were used around the year and the pichwai artists kept their art in sync with the changing seasons,” states Shan. So it came to be that summer pichwais sported trees shrouded in flowers, lotuses in bloom etc, while monsoon pichwais had dancing peacocks and grey skies, while the winter pichwais had the jamawar pattern.

Perhaps no other religious-artistic tradition has celebrated nature so much, as does pichwai. The beauty and mystery of nature reverberates as much in Shan’s paintings. It takes your breath away by their vivid and deep colour that evokes spirituality, emotions and moods. In Shan’s work as in traditional pichwai, the sun, moon, stars, lakes, ponds, rivers, trees, birds, animals, flowers and fruit hold much significance.

“In fact, originally, pichwai was solely about nature, because they were just backdrops to the Lord. It is only in later times that artists started showing Shrinathji in these screens. Pichwai is a living art, and even today, traditional pichwai artists make a decent living in Nathdwara, as these artworks are sought after as souvenirs by visitors to the town,” he says.

At 35, Shan is an artist who defies branding, and defies all conventional models of successful or intellectual art. And the path ahead could be even more interesting.

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