Pichvai painting is seeing a glorious resurgence, being reimagined for contemporary patronage even as it retains its traditional core, says Pooja Singhal.
As the sun sets behind the tree-tops, a cow herd leads his cattle down the winding lane, and the tinkling brass bells and clattering hooves transport one back in time. In the bylanes of Rajasthan’s Nathdwara, a small town nestled in the Aravalli hills, time stands still as tales from yore merge with the modern day. The coming together of eras becomes even more prominent in the old locality of Chitrakaron Ki Gully, where a handful of dedicated artists fight to preserve the ancient art of Pichvai painting.
Ever since I was a little girl growing up in Udaipur, I have been fascinated by the intricate art of Pichvai painting, inspired by my mother’s passion to resurrect the tradition. And though the name literally implies a backdrop (‘pich’ in Sanskrit meaning back and ‘vai’ meaning hanging), there is a lot of complexity embedded in its hand-painted narratives.
Pronounced a dying Indian tradition not too long ago, the exquisitely detailed Pichvai is now experiencing a glorious resurgence, having found new patrons among high-end interior designers and art collectors. The intricately painted textiles have, over the years, taken on a new role as coveted wall art.
Legend has it that the art of Pichvai painting travelled to Nathdwara – now its creative epicentre – from Braj in Uttar Pradesh. They were traditionally commissioned for the temple at Nathdwara. Drawing upon the life of Lord Krishna as the primary subject, Pichvais were hung as life-size or sometimes even larger tapestries to heighten a shrine’s splendour. Several ruling dynasties of Rajasthan patronised the art form.
Various traditional schools of Pichvai painting from several regions across Rajasthan – such as Mewar, Kota, Bundi and Kishangarh – have influenced what is today called the Nathdwara style. In several Nathdwara Pichvais, the impact of the Kishangarh school is particularly apparent, with an unusually curved and elongated treatment of the eyes in the painted figures. Influences from the Kota school also make their presence felt.
The Deccan style, originating in South India, is distinct from the Nathdwara style and is known for its extravagant use of gold. Deccan-style Pichvais are made by stencilling images on to a piece of cloth and then applying gold foil to them with an adhesive. The preferred canvas of Pichvai artists today is fine mercerised cotton, and smaller works are created on a handmade paper known as basli. A senior artist begins by outlining a pencil sketch and then allocates portions of the Pichvai to be filled in by other artists. The vibrant colours are created using natural dyes obtained from ground semi-precious stones.
The time required to produce an original Pichvai varies based on its scale: small to medium-sized Pichvais may take up to 15-20 days and larger Pichvais up to two months. While the time frame may differ, the key to a good Pichvai is the quality of the painting and the finesse of the artist who creates it. It takes years for an artist to hone and refine his craft, and this is where the richness of the art form’s heritage comes from.
Other than Lord Krishna, temple maps and lotuses are in demand among contemporary patrons. The latter are used during the summer months and are meant to depict a calm atmosphere. Various festivals also serve as inspiration for Pichvais, with many paintings being centred on the celebration of occasions such as Govardhan Puja, Annakuta, Gopashtami and Sharad Purnima.
Today, Pichvais are not easily found on the streets of Rajasthan, where they were traditionally produced. However, exquisite Pichvais and the artists who create them are highly sought after. Artists who continue to practise the tradition are reinterpreting it – whether in terms of the scale of the paintings or the canvas and colours used. The themes and motifs are also being reimagined, even as the core spirit of devotion remains the same. The visual heritage of Nathdwara has managed to sustain itself over time.
The author is an acclaimed art collector and restorer, and has been working with Pichvai artists for several years now. The opinions expressed in this article are her own.