Pichwai Made Popular Again
I remember being captivated by a Facebook post about an exhibition of Pichwai paintings at a house in Jor Bagh, New Delhi sometime in 2015. It was as part of Pooja Singhal’s effort to revive the dying art form. The show was well received and it helped to turn the spotlight on this art form. Subsequently, these beautiful paintings were seen at the India Art Fair 2016; needless to say, the booth was sold out. The Kochi Biennale 2016 is their next stop.
I caught up with Pooja at her Lodhi residence to chat about all she is doing to revive this art form. She credits her mother, her upbringing and her ties to her hometown Udaipur for her interest in Pichwai. As a child in Udaipur, she saw her mother interact, guide and support the local Pichwai artists, who till date have great regard for her family. Being immersed in art and specifically Pichwai since her childhood helped her absorb and develop a great love for this art form.
For the uninitiated, Pichwai’s are cloth or paper paintings depicting scenes from the life of Lord Krishna and also the rituals that take place in his temple. These were originally created as a form of devotion by artist who belonged to the ‘Pushtimarg sect’, founded by the philosopher Vallabha Acharya. The paintings were used as backdrops for the Srinathji Idols (a child form of Lord Krishna). Pichwai is a Sanskrit word; ‘Pich’ means back and ‘wais’ means hanging. The story goes like this- in the 17th Century, the Idol of Srinathji was being moved from Mathura to Rajasthan to protect it from a raid by Aurangzeb. The Idol was accompanied by priests, the caretakers, the halwais (cooks) and also the Pichwai painters. During this journey, the wheels of the cart got stuck in mud in a village in Mewar and couldn’t be freed despite various attempts. The priests took this as a sign that the lord had chosen that particular place for his temple and this is how Nathdwara with the famous temple of Srinathji was established under the reign of Maharana Raj Singh of Mewar.
A few years back, Pooja noticed that the art in its original form / technique was dying and in fact a baser version had started to appear in the market. This was due to the fact that the patronage for Pichwai had disappeared and demand had lessened. Moreover, the new buyers belonged to a different segment of society and had different tastes. These were mostly devotees who wanted cheaper artwork. The artists therefore, were working to satisfy this demand; the result was, hurriedly made Pichwai’s that looked like poor imitations of the originals.
To remedy this not only has she trained her atelier in the original style but has also supported the artists financially. This helps her artists feel secure enough to take their time finishing a piece of artwork, thereby, not compromising on the quality. She is also involved in the process of sourcing the colour, fabric or the basli (handmade paper) as well as the marketing of the final product.
In addition to this, she has studied the current market conditions and has worked on creating Pichwai artwork in the style & size that would appeal to the contemporary art buyer. For example, she had added Mughal miniature jaali’s to traditional Pichwai artwork and reduced the size as well.
For the Nathdwara Miniatures, her artists who are trained in miniature paintings have adapted some of the most detailed traditional Pichwai compositions into intricate miniature format. They have added layered scenes, Jaali’s and detailed borders depicting parallel events as well as multiple figures and motifs.
Deccan Miniature Basli
The Deccan style of Pichwais developed when Nathdwara artists migrated southwards because of the Mughal invasion of their region. The Deccan Pichwai was the result of influences from their move south and the intermingling of their art with the local art form. The characteristics of the Deccan Pichwai were well-defined facial expressions such as elongated eyes and the use of gold and silver foil in the paintings. These were typically made on a black or dark blue background to accentuate the rich metallic colours. The compositions did not usually depict Krishna or Srinathji rather; would have clusters of gopis (milkmaids who were Radha &Krishna’s companions), cows and decorative trees.
Work by her artists adapts the typically large sized Deccan textile works onto smaller handmade paper (‘basli’) made of banana leaf. As in the traditional method, 24-carat gold foil and hilkari powder made out of ground semi-precious stone such as agate is used to give the metallic colours their richness.
She is doing a great job of keeping this art form alive, educating people about it and adapting it to the taste of the contemporary art buyer. It is our duty as art aficionados and art industry professionals to support and keep old art forms alive. We wish her all he best and are looking forward to seeing the exhibition at the Kochi Biennale.
Jyotsna Sharma is the Editor of The Wall. The Wall has been India's most well read art magazine for the last five years, subscribe and get access to premium content for free. Subscribe or read the magazine at thewallartmag.com