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Art | 4 May, 2021
Pichwai Paintings

Indian artisans have never failed to amaze the world with their precious works of art. Among them, the paintings are strikingly brilliant. They never fail to make a mark on the heart while capturing the eye. Indian paintings can be broadly classified as murals, miniatures and paintings on cloth. Paintings done on cloth are often folk art. Pichhwai paintings is form of folk art. The holy town of Nathdwara in Rajasthan is the home for the famous Pichhwai paintings known for its intricacies and artistic appeal. The paintings are centered around the Hindu idol Shrinathji (a 7-year old, infant incarnation of Lord Krishna), a Hindu god. Nathdwara is the center of Pushtimarg worship. Shrinathji Temple in Nathdwara is the reason why the paintings came into existence. Let’s find out why, before we let the paintings charm us…

The temple at Nathdwara and Pichhwai paintings

Around 300 years ago, the deity of Shrinathji was shifted from Govardhan hill, near Mathura along the river Yamuna, to protect it from Mughal ruler Aurangazeb. According to the legend, the cart in which the idol was being transported sank axle-deep in mud when it came to the spot. The priests took it as a divine sign and a temple was built there. The temple was called Haveli of Shrinathji (“haveli” means mansion). Nathdwara literally means “Gateway to Shrinathji”, where ‘Nath’ refers to the idol and ‘dwara’ means gateway. The paintings are hung behind the idol as a backdrop. The paintings were done on cloth with rich dark hues. The paintings revolve around the chief deity, Shrinathji. In one such Pichhwai, Shrinathji, the enigmatic black-faced figure is shown holding the Govardhan hill. The temples will have different sets of images depicting the leelas of Krishna. They also depict Gopis (cow herdesses), cows and other festivals which were celebrated. There are also different Pichhwai paintings for different occasions. The festivals like holi, Diwali, Ras leela, Anukooth and Sharad Poornima have a special Pichhwai assigned as the backdrop for the idol. The backdrop of the deity will be changed according to the festival celebrated. Shrinathji will be portrayed in different outfits and different scenes in these paintings.They also depict seasons like summer and winter. The Pichhwai painting which illustrated the legend of Lord Krishna lifting the Govardhan hill to save the people of Mathura from Lord Indra’s rage is a popular depiction. Pichhwai paintings are also done on the walls of the temple by skilled contemporary artists. The paintings are hung behind the idol for a wholesome effect.

Sketched splendors on fabric-Pichhwai paintings

The word “Pichhwai” is coined from Sanskrit, where “Pichh” means back and “wai” means hanging. It translates to ‘hanging at the back’. They are also called ‘Pechhavai’,’ Pichhvai’ or ‘Pichvai’. The name is attributed to the use of the paintings. They are used as a backdrop for the idol at the temple of Nathdwara and hence the name. They are painted on cotton cloth. Traditionally, dark shades were used. The rich texture of the background colors in these paintings is another stunning factor. Depending on the scene illustrated the characters will be chosen, much attention goes into painting each character. Each image is painstakingly sketched to look the same and the little details add the crown. It is those intricacies which make these paintings aesthetically appealing. A typical Pichhwai painting has 24 boxes called swaroops, bearing Shrinathji, Gopis and other elements. Events in the life of Shrinathji as told in the legends are depicted in these paintings. Shrinathji is portrayed with big eyes, broad nose and a heavy body. The pleasant face of the idol adds to the beauty. The backdrop used in the temple will have different seasons depicted too.

The Pichhwai which depicts summer season has pink lotuses on it. The one which used in winter has a breathtakingly intricate jamawar pattern (a special type of pattern used in jamawar shawls made in Kashmir) symbolizing warmth. The deity wears a silver outfit in the Pichhwai which will be used during Anukooth. There are also other paintings which will be used during other special occasions like Diwali, Holi and Sharad Poornima. There are a number of characters painted on the cloth, illustrating a scene. They are sketched in such a way that they blend in perfectly. The radiant image of the idol adds the divine touch. The elaborate borders are embellished with gems, pearls and crystals, in some of the paintings. The paintings are vibrant and captivating. The divinity and perfection attribute to their worldwide appeal, spanning beyond the realm of religion. Pichhwai paintings are the main export of the Nathdwara region. They are in great demand among the foreign visitors and art collectors. These paintings are made by artists who live in the town of Nathdwara. The artists live mostly in Chitron ki gali (Street of paintings) and Chitrakaron ka mohallah (colony of painters), as a closely knit community. A number of artists work together to produce a Pichhwai painting. These paintings were painted with a motive to narrate stories to the illiterate folk. An artist’s brush is his wand and the process of making a Pichhwai is quite interesting.

This is how a Pichhwai is spelled into existence...

A number of artists sweat their brows and dedicate their precious time to make these paintings. A Pichhwai painting may take from several weeks to a month to be completed. Traditionally, they were painted on starched cotton cloth. The artist makes a rough sketch of the scene on the fabric. It is then filled with colours. Rich dark colours are used as the background. Natural colours obtained from natural sources were used earlier. Nowadays, commercially available colours are used. Some Pichhwai paintings were embellished with pure gold, pearls and gems. They are also made using block printing and embroidery techniques. If it is embroidered, the outlines will be dark and the embroidery is done with colourful threads. In some of the Pichhwai paintings golden threads are used. Gota work is also done on velvet cloth, in some. Colours like red, yellow, white, black and green dominate a Pichhwai painting. The masterpiece is made to enthral the part in us which resonates with art.

Pichhwai in 21st century

The Pichhwai paintings were originally made for temples, but slowly they have found their way to home décor and office spaces. The modern spells make these paintings wonderful while also preserving its traditional beauty. Paper is used as an alternative to cotton cloth. Synthetic colours which are readily available are used. Paintings of smaller size are made to fit the needs of the modern spaces. They also come in affordable prices. The contemporary twist to the Pichhwai painting makes them irresistible. The Pichhwai designs have found their way to fabrics which can be worn. This folk art has stood the test of time for over three centuries. The artists still preserve its divine essence while making it suitable for the modern world. The sad part is, this art form is slowly dying. It is need of recognition and revival. Making a Pichhwai painting requires great skill, it is necessary that the nodes of your brain which are dedicated to art are kept alive and celebrated. It is our responsibility to celebrate such artistic minds and revive this art form.
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