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The many moods of Krishna

A show in Delhi hopes to bring back the focus on the disappearing tradition of Pichwai paintings

Temple map on paper, 2 feet by 3 feet, Rs 1,50,000

Temple map on paper, 2 feet by 3 feet, Rs 1,50,000

Veenu Sandhu
As a child, Pooja Singhal would often see young Pichwai artists bringing their intricate works to her mother in Udaipur. They knew she had an eye for Pichwai paintings and would promote their art. "Many friends or friends of friends would ask us to help them get an authentic Pichwai work," recalls Singhal.

As the years went by, the number of artists diminished and so did the quality of their work. "In the later years, I could not find a single work that I felt was attractive enough to tell my friends that 'This is a fabulous piece, buy it'," says Singhal. Thus began the quest to find out what had gone wrong. The revelation was disturbing. Instead of the traditional stone colours, pigments were being used because the process of grinding the stone was laborious. Besides, traditional colours were expensive. Stories emerged that many artists were using spray guns to make Pichwais, which otherwise take months to create, within a matter of days. As they became the main export of the holy town of Nathdwara in Rajasthan, to which the Pichwais originally belong, their mass production started. The size of the paintings, which portray Krishna - Shrinathji (a form of Krishna) - in different moods, postures and attire, also shrunk.

Temple map on paper, 2 feet by 3 feet, Rs 1,50,000
Temple map on paper, 2 feet by 3 feet, Rs 1,50,000
Singhal got down to work. She put together a team of 25 Pichwai artists and encouraged them to stick to the traditional form. "Pichvai: Tradition & Beyond", an exhibition of paintings from the Nathdwara tradition, is the result of this effort. The revival show in Delhi, which does not include originals, is inspired from ancient works, some of which are now with collectors. One of them is "Mughal Shringaar" from the collection of artist-collector Amit Ambalal - a composition the kind that few artists now make because they perceive it to be too "clean". The strokes are bolder and the focus is on the idol.

In contrast to this, occupying almost an entire wall in the adjoining hall is a traditional Nathdwara Pichwai that depicts the chaubees swaroop (24 miracles of Krishna). Each of the 24 panels tells a story. But not every work in the exhibition, which is spread across two floors, is of this scale and size. Singhal has made some interventions to scale down the size for younger collectors.

Shrinathji in a woman's attire, 6 feet by 4 feet, Rs 1,10,000
Shrinathji in a woman’s attire, 6 feet by 4 feet, Rs 1,10,000
Shrinathji on paper, 10 inches by 12 inches, Rs 18,500
Shrinathji on paper, 10 inches by 12 inches, Rs 18,500

In places there are other interventions too, where a Pichwai and a Mughal miniature have fused to give the artworks a whole new language.

Pichwais, which hang behind the idol of Shrinathji in the Nathdwara temple, depict three things: rituals in the temple, shringaar and stories from Krishna's life. The god's clothes change according to the waxing and waning moon; there are different shringaar for different seasons, time of the day and festival. The adornments change and so do the clothes, headgear and crown.

Mor Raas, 4 feet by 5 feet, Rs 1,31,000
Mor Raas, 4 feet by 5 feet, Rs 1,31,000
The Pichwai "Offering food at Ankut", which celebrates Krishna lifting Mount Govardhan, depicts the god in a special shringaar wearing a "Gokarna mukuta or crown with raised edges similar to the ears of a cow. A hybrid style of painting, influenced by Mughal motifs, is used in this composition.

Also fascinating is the reproduction on paper of 19th century composition "The Haveli of Shrinathji". The artist "shows the streets and alleys, people and crossroads, processions and rituals that constitute daily life in the pilgrim town of Nathdwara both in two- and three-dimension," explains Singhal. Each room, courtyard, balcony, archway and pillar is painted with great detail, with the artist at times offering an aerial view of the haveli.

The exhibition includes Pichwai paintings in the Deccan style, with indigo cotton as base and gold and silver foil used in the stone colours. There are also some rare pieces in red and green versions. And then there is the Kota style, which is known for its minimalist approach and brisk brush strokes.

"There are about 60 festivals in Nathdwara; so there is a lot of festivity around Krishna," says Singhal. Pichwai lives on to capture that.

"Pichvai: Tradition & Beyond" is on at 24 Jor Bagh, New Delhi, till October 9

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First Published: Sep 26 2015 | 12:27 AM IST

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