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In 2016, when Pooja Singhal, a Delhi-based revivalist with a business background, went looking for the famed pichvai paintings in the local temple in Nathdwara, Rajasthan, she was left disappointed. “The place was flooded with MDF (medium-density fibreboard)-made Shrinathjis,” she says. “The artists would spray-paint the images and stick small crystals on them. “The images looked very garish,” she says. Despite meeting many artists, the 42-year-old struggled to find the quality that she was looking for. “The younger generations of the artist families no longer practise the art and have moved on to contemporary forms,” she says.
One of the most exquisite styles in the Indian painting tradition, the pichvai paintings of Nathdwara, originated in the 17th century and flourished under the patronage of the Nathdwara temple. The central figure was often that of Shrinathji — Lord Krishna as a seven-year-old boy — with crescent-shaped eyes, a garland of lotus buds around his neck and his left arm raised up, a reference to when the young god lifted up mount Govardhan to protect the inhabitants of Vraj from Indra’s flood. This, and other episodes from Krishna’s life, were common subjects for artists, who dreamed up detailed compositions, often featuring delicate pink lotuses, white cows with red handprints on them and the gopis who flocked around Krishna. The paintings were mostly on large cloth pieces called pichvais, traditionally used as backdrops for the idol in Shrinathji’s haveli in Nathdwara. Originally, these were works of sacred art, created by the artists as an expression of their devotion and depicted the many moods of the lord.
Singhal’s mission, for the last six years, has been the revival of this art form and to this end, in 2009, she set up Pichvai Tradition and Beyond, an initiative where artists from the tradition are encouraged to create works that, while retaining the original style, also adhere to contemporary aesthetics. “My mother is a collector of art and the house I grew up in was full of beautiful art of all kinds,” says the entrepreneur, who grew up in Udaipur, “I grew up loving pichvais because of the colours and the minute detailing.” But, when she started acquiring art for herself, Singhal found that she couldn’t get anything close to the pichvais that her mother possessed.
According to Singhal, it wasn’t just the drying up of patronage that contributed to the decline of pichvai paintings. “Many older artists told me that when they had begun their apprenticeships, for two years or so, they would only sketch. Then, over many years, they’d learn to fill in colours and make the compositions. But their children don’t want to spend years learning to grind and prepare the colours. They want to use stencils,” says Singhal. “Many of the young artists make the base of the painting using a spray gun. True artists would never do that,” says Singhal.
In 2009, she actively began looking for artists who could make the high quality works that she was looking for. “At any given time, we’re working with 30-40 artists. Some work from our atelier, which is just outside Udaipur, and others work on our commissions from home.” To Singhal, revival of the art form means bringing back the original technique, but allowing for interventions within the traditional context in a way that it becomes relevant today.
For example, Singhal encouraged artists to take the chaubees swaroop (24 moods) of Shrinathji, typically depicted along the borders of the pichvai, and break them down into individual compositions on a smaller scale. The artists were also encouraged to recreate large-scale pichvais into smaller paintings that drew inspiration from miniatures. The distinct Nathdwara idiom of dreamy-eyed cows, human figures with rounded bodies and large almond eyes remained. Yet, many of the compositions were modernised to be less overtly religious and to appeal to those who liked a cleaner, more contemporary look. This was done through commissioning works that depicted the architecture of the temple complex or through using sketches instead of paintings. Singhal says, “The artists first do a rough sketch, then they add the colours and, finally, they do the likhai, which is very fine sketching. I wanted the likhai as the first step for some works, but it took a while for the artists to understand that.” Singhal also wanted a series of nearly postcard-sized pieces showing how Shrinathji’s shringar is done every day of the year. She acquired 300 such sketches from an artist who had started recording the daily shringar of the lord as a personal project. The artist, whose name remains unknown, however, died before he could complete the project. The remaining 65 were completed by artists in Singhal’s atelier.
“We showed them at our exhibition in the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. People loved them, and even bought some,” says Singhal.
Ultimately, Singhal says, the future of any art is linked to the commercial interest it can generate. “There can be no revival without commerce,” she says, But is a pichvai still a pichvai when it is scaled down in size and composition? “Technically, a pichvai shouldn’t even feature the image of Shrinathji. These were meant to be just backdrops for the idol,” says Singhal. “But pichvai survived because it managed to become an art form in itself. Everything evolves, and this is yet another way in which the art has changed with the times,” she adds.