Visual cultures of Shrinathji: Pichhvai Paintings of Gujarat and Rajasthan

India as a nation is synonymous for her well-known Textile Industry that has flourished both formally and informally since time immemorial. The prominence of this media was such that it became a part of culture. Based on the inspirations of Indian wall paintings and replicating both their aesthetics and creative elements, they look similar to fresco on fabric used as temple hangings. Their use may not be functional in the regular sense of the word but its function was to enhance the beauty of the inner sanctorum of the temple and is mostly used as narrative pieces to depict a certain episode or tell a story.

The temple hangings also known as prayer flags, which are commonly visible in India belongs to the ‘Pichhvais’ from Gujarat and Rajasthan. They are considered to be the supreme most and exquisite illustrations of pigment paintings. Especially the temple hangings of the Vallabhacharya Sampraday, a Lord Krishna follower sect that came into existence in the late 15th century that is following the policy of ‘PushtiMarg’. This doctrine emphasizes that salvation comes from God alone.

The worship of Krishna takes place in the clandestine temple, which has been designed like castles, different than the typical temples, with shrines decorated with Pichhvai’ paintings. The major artistic cloth hanging, which is overhanging after the imagery, as a background of the overall design is the Pichhvai. Literally, Pichhwai actually means a backcloth. But for the local artisans of temple town who are still living the tradition, it is a type of artwork that flows flawlessly between the imagination, talent and musing. They are corresponding to a theme and are intended to create the suitable atmosphere for a particular season or festival.  Some perform their function simply with a central image of the God with a series of small pictures, which unfold a religious theme.

The variant designs and methods of Pichhvai originated mostly from the historical town of Nathdwara where Pichhvai art is still deliberately practiced. Among the numerous narrow lanes that sprout from the periphery of the Lord Shrinath temple, up left, is the relatively understated Chitrakaronki gully literally translating as the lane of artists. This art originated out of devotion. The artists initiated making backcloths reflecting Lord Shrinathji in diverse expressions, surroundings and periods. The Pichwai artists were a part of the Lord’s cavalcade that came to Mewar from Braj in the 17th century.

In past eons, experts unearthed the beautiful Pichwais and took it to the contemporary art scenario as a symbol of spirituality, and of course lavishness. Typical Pichhwais include the Nathdwara Shrine, depicted as a palace under the usual temples.

One of the interesting facts about contemporary Pichhwai paintings is the depiction of Krishna in a series called the ‘Bazar paintings’ sold in the market at Nathdwara. These have Krishna placed in a modern day hill station or a forest. Some are also rendered in the ‘Patachitra paintings’ style with flat colours. In another one that is based in winter God is shown dressed in a rich jacket and a hearth. In a third one, the Lord is seen performing flute with beautiful Gopis grooving to his enchanting tunes on the other side. There are also ‘pichhvai’ paintings that use embroidery and even brocade style.

Cover Graphic : Ketul Gamit

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