Etymologically, the word pichwai can be divided into two halves: pich, which means behind (something), and wai, which means hanging. Pichwai paintings emerged as an aesthetic style at Nathdwara temple (located close to the city of Udaipur) centuries ago, after the temple came up in the 17th century: the earliest hangings were placed behind the local shrine of Shrinathji. It is a traditional style of painting dedicated to Shrinathji or Dwarkadheesh, an avatar of the Hindu god Lord Krishna. The elements of Pichwai are close to the Mewar school of paintings that has thrived for centuries, mixing with different kinds of folk and other art schools over the years to transform and evolve into diverse styles under the one umbrella of Pichwais.
Fashion designer and art curator Pooja Singhal has spent the last five years working on restoring this obscure art that currently thrives only in the village of Nathdwara. Singhal has worked with artisans, dealers and researchers to come up with modern interpretations of this ancient art. Currently displayed in a stately bungalow in Jor Bagh, the paintings are set apart by their sense of grandeur and distinctive colour palette.
Divided over several floors, the Pichwai painting exhibition unveils the various other school of art that has influenced it, owing to socio-cultural factors. Since the Pichwai style is dedicated to Shrinathji, the deity has prime placement in each of the paintings. Usually, the paintings are informed by the aesthetics of the Mewar school of art, with Srinathji’s statue at Nathdwara forming the base of each work.
The typical Pichwai painting is made on woven fabric and consists of 24 rectangular compartments that are each complete paintings on their own. They mostly depict the rituals in the temple, such as adornment of Shrinathji’s statue according to the seasons (known as shringara), and festivals in the Vaishnavite tradition such as Janmashtami and Gopashtami. Another popular depiction is the chhappan bhog, a feast where 56 items are served to the deity, an occasion of celebration, or the chaubees ras, which depicts the 24 different avatars of the deity in painstaking detail. Since the colours used for these artworks are derived from ground semi-precious stones, they have a distinctive colour palette, with cloud grey, duck egg blue, salmon, bottle green and black featuring prominently in them.
The borders are adorned with figures associated with the Vaishnavite tradition, such as Nandi the cow, or Krishna in his Vrindavan days. (The idol was carried from Mathura to Rajasthan by the head priests of the temple it had initially resided in.) Since Nathdwara is a living temple, and devotees believe the idol to be a representation of the living deity involved actively in day-to-day life, his activities are chronicled in these paintings.
The Pichwai paintings at the show are mostly contemporary representations of originals made at different points in history. They have been fit into a contemporary ethos for younger collectors.
Like miniatures in the Mewar school, it doesn’t stick to a realist time frame or a sense of perspective. The paintings are flat and favour symbolism over realistic storytelling. Here again, there are some particular paintings, made in the 19th century, that break away from this ethos, influenced by European realism in portraiture. The Pichwai paintings on display at the show are mostly contemporary representations of original works made at different points in history. They have been fit into a contemporary ethos when it comes to borders and framing, to appeal to younger collectors. This may, in some cases, feel like a loss in translation, but brings out vibrant new perspectives in others. Some paintings have been brought down or up in scale, “zoomed” into. Borders have changed to fit contemporary aesthetes.
Of the different schools that have influenced Pichwai paintings, the Kota school stands out for its dynamic nature and fluidity of depiction. Closer to folk art, Kota-styled Pichwai paintings were used as souvenirs by pilgrims, because they took very little time to make as opposed to other, more formal styles. One other distinctive style is the Deccan style of Pichwai, which was brought back by travellers to Rajasthan. These works are characterised by the use of a lot of gold and are much bigger and coarser than usual. One particular painting that is eye-catching in its restored glory is the aerial view of Srinathji’s palace, the Nathdwara temple, similar in scale to the aerial view miniature of Udaipur’s City Palace currently displayed at Royal Museum in London; and possibly informed by the same. The painting gives a three-dimensional perspective, found in other miniature schools from that region.
The Pichwai painting exhibition has been curated by Pooja Singhal and is currently on display at 24, Jor Bagh from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. till 9 October.