The Nathdwara school of painting, though a melting pot of most schools of Rajasthan, emerged with a distinct style and character of its own. This distinction is because the artists painted not only as aesthetes but also as devotees, to fulfil their emotional need to please Shrinathji. Their creations were imbued with feelings: no form, composition or colour had an intellectual purpose.
The painters in Nathdwara belong to two distinct Brahmin subcastes – the Jangid and the Adi Gauda. These two artist communities live in separate sections of the town. The Adi Gaudas claim that their ancestors travelled to Nathdwara with Shrinathji.
Several categories of painting evolved in response to various rituals and needs.
Pichhvai: The pichhvai holds a special place amongst the textiles adorning the shrines. It serves to emphasise the theme of a shringara and to express the mood of a season, a festival or an occasion.
Miniature paintings: It was the tilkayats, goswamis, princes and prosperous devotees of Pushtimarg who commissioned the miniature paintings to the artists. This genre offered a much wider scope for creative imagination to the artist. The largest number of paintings done in the Nathdwara school is of the sect’s icons. The image of Shrinathji is the most popular and is usually depicted as adorned for the daily darshanas or for important festivals.
The painting activity and its progress were influenced by the acharyas and influential goswamis. Since the time of Vitthalnathji, painting activity gained a special significance in Pushtimarg. Vitthalnathji himself was a painter of merit and a drawing of the infant Krishna by him is still preserved in a haveli at Kandivali, Mumbai. Another drawing by him in the same collection depicts a herd of elephants in various colours.
The period after Vitthalnathji seems to have been fraught with unpredictability and contrarian to the growth of painting. It was only the personal aesthetic convictions of the Tilkayats that led to a surge in the painting activity. It generally manifested in paintings depicting special occasions and celebrations organized by the Tilkayats.
Most of the early identifiable paintings of the Nathdwara school can be assigned to the period of Govardhaneshji (1707-1763 CE). Govardhaneshji marked his accession as Tilkayat by celebrating his own birthday with great splendour and on a scale not seen before at Nathdwara. The occasion was referred to as Handi Utsava because of the numerous chandeliers of various shapes and sizes that were used.
Also used was a special swing, the entire surface of which was covered with mirrors. The walls and ceilings were decorated with divalgiris and chandovas of rich brocade. Shrinathji was adorned with ornaments studded with diamonds and emeralds and a painted pichhvai of Krishna and his brother Balarama taking their cows to pasture was displayed. The occasion is important since it is the first specific reference to a painted pichhvai. It is probably after this that painted pichhvais became a common feature of shringaras.
In 1740 CE, Govardhaneshji conceived the first Sapta Svarupotsava at Nathdwara, where all the main svarupas of Pushtimarg were brought together in the shrine for the occasion. A chhappan bhoga, feast of fifty-six delicacies, was offered to the svarupas and almost all the goswamis of the sect attended with their wives and children.
Many gifted artists worked under his patronage and executed paintings that are characterised by a certain charming naivety.
The other remarkable era of progress in the arts at Nathdwara was noted during the time of Tilkayat Damodarji II (1797-1826 CE), popularly known as Dauji. In 1822 CE, all the seven svarupas were once again brought to the haveli and special offering of chhappan bhoga was presented to the deities. The Sapta Svarupotsava festival was a great success, and the impression made by the mahotsava on the people of the temple town was so great that the Tilkayat came to be known as “Dauji Chhappan Bhogavale” – Dauji who offered the great feast.
Though he became Tilkayat at the age of 10, his reign was characterised by progress and prosperity. Dauji was a great patron of the arts and the numerous surviving paintings and pichhvais of his time are considered masterpieces of the Nathdwara school. Many of the stylistic conventions of the Kotah school of painting were also adopted by Nathdwara artists during the period.
The bold and somewhat “folksy” style of figures seen in the earlier paintings of Govardhaneshji’s time underwent refinement during his time. The strikingly large eyes of the former period gave way to sober and lotus-shaped eyes, which seemed to project a devotional element. The postures of the figures seen in the paintings became more graceful and the bold bright colours became more pastel-like in tone.
Tilkayat Girdhariji (1843-1903 CE) was a bold and an impulsive man of independent nature. During the Uprising of 1857, the Tilkayat made no secret of his sympathy for the nationalist cause and he even sheltered the freedom fighter Tatya Tope briefly. Possibly for this reason, his relationship with the Maharana of Mewar deteriorated, and the judicial powers conferred on Tilkayat since generations that made them both spiritual and temporal rulers in their own domain were withdrawn.
The British viewed the Tilkayat’s lapses even more seriously and a small force was sent to arrest him. In 1877 CE, the Tilkayat was eventually compelled to leave Nathdwara. On his birthday, Girdhariji offered ornaments of pearls to Shrinathji as part of his shringara. The clothing that adorned the Lord and the pichhvai that hung behind Him were both of a deep saffron colour, the colour of martyrdom donned by Rajput warriors determined to sacrifice their lives in battle.
After Girdhariji’s exile from Nathdwara, his sixteen-year-old son Govardhanlalji (1862-1934 CE) took over as Tilkayat. The young Tilkayat displayed a strong and an imaginative mind, reminiscent of his forebears Govardhaneshji and Dauji. His period is remembered as the most important one in the town’s history, and the people considered him as a Suvarnayuga Data – the person who brought a golden era to Nathdwara.
During his time, the court of the Tilkayat at Nathdwara resembled that of a ruling prince. It boasted of nine talented masters, like the proverbial “nine gems of Akbar’s court”, each highly accomplished in a particular field: the linguist Damodar Shastri; the Sanskrit scholar Bharata Martanda Gatulalji who, it is said, could compose 200 shlokas of Sanskrit verse in twenty-four minutes; the poet Ghanshyam; the artist Ghasiram Sharma; Charandas Adhikari, adept in statecraft; the renowned singer Gurusvami; Ghanshyam Pakhvaji, author of the book Mrudanga Sagar dealing with drums and drumming; Ambalal Bakshi, the head of the Tilkayat’s army; and Dunta Pahelvan, the wrestler.
The seva of Shrinathji acquired new vitality during Govardhanlalji’s time. He introduced several imaginative elements, particularly in the shringara, festivals, preparation of food, music and literature. Painting too reached its zenith during his time. In 1908 CE, he arranged a celebration of Panch Svarupa ka Mahotsava. A chhappan bhoga was offered to Shrinathji along with the images of Shri Vitthalnathji, Shri Mathureshji, Shri Dvarkadhishji and Shri Navanitpriyaji. These celebrations continued for several days.
Govardhanlalji also added eight ghatas to the traditionally celebrated four ghatas in the winter months. The colour scheme in each ghata has a symbolic significance. In hari, green, ghata, where green is the result of a combination of blue and yellow, blue is Krishna’s colour and yellow is Radha’s golden hue; green therefore symbolises their union. The red ghata suggests anuraga, strong attachment; the colour of aubergines symbolizes Mount Govardhana; and white indicates moonlight and purity.
Govardhanlalji’s enthusiasm for seva was reinforced when his son Damodarlal (1897-1936 CE) came of age. It was a treat for the people of Nathdwara to see young Damodarlal dressed as Krishna in a procession on the day of the spring festival, Ranga Panchami. The pichhvai Damodarlal offered on that occasion shows Krishna and Balarama seated on an elephant and spraying colours on Vrajavasis.
Govardhanlalji had great hope of Damodarlal who had shown promise at his young age. But fate decreed otherwise and the last years of Govardhanlalji’s life were deeply unhappy on his account. In 1932 CE, in early middle age, Damodarlal fell in love with a singer, Hansa, whom he later renamed Ratnaprabha, radiance of jewels.
Damodarlalji went to Shimla with Hansa. Govardhanlalji journeyed to Shimla to remonstrate with him, but his efforts to find a solution failed. Worn out by his exertions and deeply distressed by his son’s behaviour, the aged Tilkayat breathed his last in Shimla on September 21, 1934. Two years later, in 1936 CE, in Shravana, a monsoon month, Damodarlal too died at Udaipur.
These events affected the fortunes of the sect considerably. Missing the personal patronage of a Tilkayat, many artists migrated elsewhere in search of a living, or took to other professions. In spite of this, Nathdwara remains the last surviving centre of miniature painting in India.
Reproduced with permission from Shringara of Shrinathji: From the Collection of the Late Gokal Lal Mehta, by Amit Ambalal and Vikram Goyal, Mapin Publishing. Copyright © Text: Amit Ambalal.