Close to divinity

Pichhwai art

Close to divinity

Temples have often inspired a range of devotional as well as decorative arts. The exquisite Pichhwai paintings and embroidery from Nathdwara Temple in Rajasthan are representative of the genre of art that originated in medieval era under Rajput dynasties.
Centred mainly around Shrinathji, an incarnation of Krishna, the art permeated several mediums viz, painting, embroidery, mochi work, appliqué work, zardozi and sequins. The motifs represented the ecstatic celebration of Krishna’s worship rather than conventional deprivation, penance and hardship. The Pichhwais have therefore sought to portray jubilation and ecstasy either through paintings or embroidery on usually large-sized textile hangings that are hung behind the seat of the deity. The work is extremely intricate covering every conceivable patch of the base textile material. Use of shimmering silk yarn in contrasting colours and prominent borders are essential hallmarks of this school of sacred arts. Krishna is invariably in blue colour and is often surrounded by placid cows looking at him adoringly and with dancing peacocks thrown around the vegetation. The Pichhwais have traditionally portrayed myriad facets associated with and narratives woven around Lord Krishna such as Vraj yatra, Raas lila, Nikunj lila, Sharad Purnima etc. 

Under a spell
As the work is of miniature dimension and the hangings are large, the outcome is panoramic. Heavy silk or cotton cloths, and more rarely brocade, are prepared to receive paint. They are finished with multi-coloured borders, silk tassels or gilt embossing. These can even be painted with actual gold or silver paints to lend a gleam of gilt or moonlight. Usually a single piece would bring to relief a particular scene from the mythical lore to recount it through tiny, fine hand-painted characters and symbols. Some Pichhwais are dyed or printed, others use embroidery with various knots and stitches and material like mirrors or gems. Whatever they may be, embellishments are extraordinary. The gorgeous hangings thus making the backdrop of the sanctum in the shrine serve a visual feast and cast a mesmerising spell on the onlookers.

Pichhwai art is said to have developed between 15th and 16th centuries and may have been taken from the Mughal court to Nathdwara temples by a few practising families during the times of Emperor Aurangzeb, who discouraged fine arts. In Mughal courts, though it mainly depicted floral motifs, it had all the material characteristics. Of late, the artists have been receiving a number of learners from neighbouring Pakistan.

Exclusive to Nathdwara
Since Pichhwai remained exclusively confined to Nathdwara Temple dedicated to Shrinathji, its practitioners formed a miniscule community. According to Jagdish Parihar from Udaipur, who continues the legacy, he learnt the art from his grandfather in the family shop. The Parihar family has one of the finest collections of Pichhwais ever produced. According to Jagdish, a painter, an art historian, a conservationist and promoter of the art, he garnered the technique not from the academic instructions or literature, but by sitting at the knees of his grandfather. He guides an array of artists, painters and embroiders who relive the hoary tradition of embellishing the textile with sacred drawings.

In recent years, the Pichhwais have caught the eye of Karan Grover, a famous architect from Baroda, who has taken upon himself the task of getting the art recognised by the UNESCO. Says Grover, the man behind the conservation of the fabled city of Champaner-Pavagadh in Gujarat, the Pichhwai art survives through a slender link with the past and the artisans need support both from the connoisseurs of art as well as the government. “Only a few families have been practising the art form through centuries. If indeed a generation is removed from the middle, it will be rendered extinct,” says Grover.

Having been handed down through nearly 20 generations, the Pichhwai art has survived over the centuries. Most of the artists have taken meticulous care to preserve sketches of previous works by documenting details of their buyers who are part of an international clientele.

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