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Articles on Indian contemporary art by Swapna Vora

Shrinathji's pichhavais: Doorways to the Lord
by Swapna VoraSwapna VoraSwapna Vora has written on Indian art for years. She was VP at Asia TV Network, GM at UTV, and editor at the Taj magazine and the Indian Express.

She has lived and worked in Hong Kong, Kenya, Lebanon, Britain, etc. and misses them. She now works in America and in India.

text and photos © and the author except as where otherwise noted

November 06, 2012

(click on the small image for full screen image with captions)

Fig. 1
Krishna is a beloved incarnation/avatar of Lord Vishnu. Shrinathji, a representation of Lord Krishna, is worshiped at Nathdwara near Udaipur, Rajasthan. These lovers of Krishna worship him, not with penance, deprivation or hardship, but with joy, delight and fine art. Music, especially delicate flute notes, poetry, fine painting, dance and drama are all seen as paths to pleasing god, to religious achievement and spiritual joy. Krishna's devotees do not seek liberation, they ask only to be his servants eternally.

Fig. 2
Vallabhacharya, (1478-1530), believed that enlightenment was reached through complete surrender and devotion (bhakti) to Krishna. His followers adore Krishna and until today the Hare Krishnas and others worship him by singing and dancing ecstatically. Vallabhacharya felt the lord would not want asceticism, hardship and penance. At the beginning of the 16th century, many followed him and accepted his thoughts and today too, his followers continue to worship Krishna wholeheartedly. The wonderful pichhavais were made to enhance opulent temples, full of paintings, jewels, rich cloths, flowers, and wonderful food: the best that man can offer god. Several rulers in Rajasthan were devoted to Shrinathji and loved him and hence supported these arts generously.

Pichhavai paintings are created for Krishna in his form as Shrinathji, the Lord. (‘Shri’, another name for Lakshmi, means abundance and all good things. ‘Nath’ means the lord and ‘dwara’ is a door.) Shrinathji is usually shown richly draped and adorned with gold and jewels. His eyes are special: they are deliberately shown half-closed, looking down, deep in meditation. His body is painted dark blue, the colors of outer space and infinity, while he is clothed in yellow and gold, the colors of our earth. So thus, the lord of all space and infinity is shown coming down to earth in human form. He wears pearls, flowers and silk robes. Everywhere mild, placid cows look at him adoringly while peacocks dance near him.

Fig. 3
Sometimes we see plump priests, dancing devotees and offerings of fruit, flowers, delicious milk sweets (mithai) and the green betel leaves traditionally eaten after meals, (the ayurvedic paan-vida). Sometimes there maybe a soft cloth and a watering can (jhari) for washing his holy feet. The green surroundings are abundant with trees laden with fruits like bananas and mangoes. Til today, devotees use banana or mango leaves to decorate temples.

Nathdwara's famous pichhavais use miniature methods and styles but are usually done on large, almost wall sized cloths. While pichhavais are made in many ways, a couple of methods predominate: heavy, cotton cloth, usually rectangular with colorful borders attached to all four sides, is a preferred base. Heavy cotton or silk cloths, and more rarely brocade, are prepared to receive paint. They are finished with multicolored borders, silky tassels or gilt embossing. The painted cloths may show the gleam of gilt and actual gold or silver. Small, fine hand-painted scenes of well known stories and well recognized symbols are typical. Some pichhavais are dyed and or printed, others use embroidery with various knots and stitches and material like mirrors or gems.

Originally, the colors were made painstakingly from minerals, flowers, roots, precious stones, silver and gold. Finding, then grinding and preparing them took weeks or months. Today many artists use modern paints. However the glow given by natural colors is very different from the effects produced by artificial colors and their revival is encouraged by both the government and discerning buyers. Today many Pakistani and other foreign artists come to Rajasthan to learn these ancient methods of making natural brushes, colors, dyes and other techniques of this fine, careful, and ultimately, loving work.

Fig. 4
Nathdwara has several male and female artists who have old sketchbooks and other reference material. These traditional families have maintained and handed down these books for close to twenty generations. The sketches are prized as texts for younger artists and provide patterns, stories and inspiration for established painters. One sees how particular symbols, methods, borders and details originated and flourished, i.e. the background and evolution of contemporary pichhavai work. The notes and drawings continue to guide artists. Today, artists work as before, for rich patrons' homes and temples. Alongside, they often design jewelry for deities and doors, walls, ceilings, swings, pillars, etc.

‘Pichhavais’ (also spelt pichhwai, pichvai, etc.) means ‘hangs behind’ in Hindi. These cloth paintings are especially created as backdrops for hanging at the back of the temple interior, the sanctum, where the deity is placed.

These large paintings depict scenes from Lord Krishna's life. They are gorgeous, with wonderful details, and made with lots of love and devotion. The dark blue Krishna often stands on a lotus and his flute beckons both gopis (milkmaids) and animals, especially cows. He usually wears golden yellow robes but may appear in various garments. As a baby he is sometimes dressed in a loin cloth (langot), with a peacock feather fluttering on his head. He and his cows are often adorned with peacock feathers and flower garlands. Divine people arrive in chariots and vimans (airplanes) to celebrate him. One may see him in a nikunj, a garden or summer house.

Fig. 5
The pichhavais tell tales of Krishna’s miraculous birth in prison, his childhood adventures, his cowherd friends, the wonderful flute and the gopis (milkmaids, representing human souls), who loved him with their whole beings and could not bear to be parted from him. The story goes that the milkmaids loved him so much, they were so immersed in their devotion and thoughts about him, that they could see only Krishna everywhere and in everything, even in the butter they handled. Until today, butter in many areas is called ‘Mohan’, a name for Krishna.

One can find stories of Krishna's childhood in the small squares set in most paintings: tales of his friends, family and the 24 seasonal festivals which celebrate him. The story of how he was carried across a flooded river while the water retreated is popular. Once Indra, the King of Heaven, sent heavy rain incessantly and the drenched villagers had nowhere to go. Finally the young Krishna lifted Mount Govardhan with his fingers so his friends and family could shelter under it. In many pichhavais, Mount Govardhan is depicted in detail with birds and beasts like parrots, snakes, bulls and cows.

Another time, baby Krishna eats mud and his mother scolds him, “Open your mouth. Now!” The baby opens it and inside it his mother sees not specks of mud but the whole universe and humbly, she asks him to return to his form as a baby. Otherwise how could she, a human, look after him as a mother if she kept seeing him as the lord of all creation?

Pichhavais often show the seasons, a particular Krishna festival and the borders may show the flowers that bloom at that time. Full moon nights and stars are seen along with background forests and rivers. One may see festivals and worship occurring in grand temples and palaces. Krishna's childhood escapades and stories, like his overcoming the demon Kaliya, a big black snake, are loved. Milkmaids pouring milk from containers usually signify abundance. Sometimes one sees monkeys eating food while other animals scamper around.

The Viraat Swaroop, ( Krishna's universal form), shows the seven seas, many faces, many hands, all humanity, all fauna, planetary systems, holy places, various heavens and spaces inhabited by other life forms.

Fig. 6
Krishna often holds a shell, symbolizing Lakshmi, and may stand on a coiled snake, representing the Kundalini shakti which springs to create and transform everything, the serpentine energy on which the universe rests.

Daan (donation) Leela is a time every year when special offerings, usually yogurt and milk, are offered to gurus and Krishna himself. Usually offerings are placed near his feet but this time, he takes them with his own hands.

Gokulashtami, Krishna's birthday, is one loved, boisterous event filled with music, miracles and milk! As Aryabhat writes: ‘Devaki tingling with ecstasy gave birth to a child when the moon entered the house of 'Vrishabh' at the Rohini constellation on Wednesday the 8th day of the second fortnight of the month of Shravan, which corresponds to the month of "Bhadrapad Krishnapaksh" according to the "Brhaspatyaman", in the year of 'Visvavasu', 5,172 years ago (from 1945), which means 3227 BC.’

The Gopashtami festival celebrates Krishna’s growing older and becoming a cowherd. Swami writes ‘Gopashtami occurs on the eighth day of the bright fortnight in the month of Kartik. On this day, as Krsna entered the pauganda age, he was initiated as a cowherd.’ All 24 festivals are often lovingly depicted in many pichhavais.

Fig. 7
As a child, Krishna is painted looking after young calves. Now after Gopashtami, he looks after big cows and reminds us of his kindness towards animals and the love he gives them. Cows are honored for they serve humanity in so many ways. All Hindu deities have animals accompanying them, e.g. Ganesh has the lowly rat, others may have snakes, owls, dogs, monkeys, swans, etc. This essentially served to stop their destruction for centuries as humanity was taught that animals too have a necessary place in our world and that gods or goddesses themselves love and respect them.

Seeing his many forms, as a baby, as a child, as a cowherd, as a friend, as a lover and ultimately, as the lord himself, helps to add many dimensions to a devotee’s love even though s/he already knows that he is the lord. E.g. a devotee’s love may grow in tenderness when he sees him as a baby or be filled with awe when he sees him holding up mountains.

Fig. 8
Sharad Purnima takes place in autumn, when the moon is full. Full moons are loved and his devotees celebrate this beautiful phenomenon. So, for these festivals, they create special paintings when shrines are even more gorgeously decorated and everything is made luxurious and beautiful for the lord. These special pichhavais show flowers, rich, fruit laden trees and abundance, all gleaming under a beautiful autumn moon. They draw the rasaleela, (ras is emotion, leela is creation/play) when the lord dances and plays with humans. ‘Leela’ also refers to God's incomprehensible actions...

The stories are many, for every soul thinks the lord exist always for her, has all the time for her and is always available to her, whenever she asks. So the gopis (milkmaids) dance with the lord who appears as a cowherd: the divine dance of humanity with god under the cool, silvery moonlight.

Fig. 9
People, especially buyers, then and now, often knew the artist or particular ateliers personally. Today, patrons continue to commission works from special artists. Most temples keep record of patrons and artists and this practice is also seen in the old notes and sketches kept by various families. They preserve and use these records of designs and styles. Some have retained the history of particular works, buyers and commissions. These traditional artists are usually from families which have survived on this work for generations. While traditionally pichhavais are associated with Rajasthan and mainly with Nathdwara, they were produced in other styles in other parts of India, like the Deccan (i.e. Dakshin, south). Luckily, modern India is able once more to buy their work again.

Today, it is common to find pichhavais depicting Shrinathji, hanging decoratively in elegant living rooms for they are loved all over India and occasionally, overseas. Until today, Krishna's Vrajwasis are famous allover India for their well cared cows and milk, yogurt and mithai.


Dinesh Sathisan, Pichhavai of Krishna as Shrinathji, PASSAGE Nov/Dec 2011


Photos show pichhavais with paint, dyes and embroidery on heavy cotton cloth.

'Krishna" possibly arises from the sound 'kr', to create, and from the Sanskrit 'akarshan', attraction.

The Bhagavat Puran says Krishna is 'the original Supreme Personality of Godhead from whom everything else emanates and his first expansion is his brother, the fair Balaram, and all other incarnations arise from this'. Radha and Krishna, the beloved couple, together make up the absolute truth of all existence. Radha, (also Radhika or Radharani) is Krishna's childhood friend and later lover in the Vaishnav Bhagavat Puran and the Gita Govinda. Their first meeting, as children, was ecstatic and she remained his friend and adviser until he was about 10. She, the original Goddess, Shakti or primal energy is usually shown standing next to him. He is the life of the Vraj community and she, his soul. She, his devotee, is also worshiped by him. She is a part of him, depicting the Hindu belief that humanity is a part of divinity, and male and female equally, which together constitute the whole.

Photos by R Gajjar. Pichhavais are from J Parihar.

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