A traditional art form that focusses on the role of the female deity as creator and protector hopes to attract a wider audience as a solo exhibition opens in Mumbai this fortnight. The Painted Goddess: Contemporary Shrine Cloths, will showcase the work of artist Sanjay Manubhai Chitara of Gujarat who uses new ways of presenting the sacred art form known as mata-ni-pachedi or “that which enshrines the goddess mother”.

Chitara belongs to the Vaghari community of Gujarat, which has sustained an almost 300-year-old tradition of worship of the goddess through art. Prohibited from entering temples because of their low caste status, Chitaras have long created makeshift outdoor shrines from painted cloth depicting the goddess as the mother, war-deity or creator.

The cloth, or chadar, is also offered by many as a thanksgiving gift to the goddess after their wishes have been fulfilled.

Mata-ni-pachedi is often compared to the kalamkari form of Andhra Pradesh because of its use of the kalam (pen) fashioned out of bamboo sticks. According to Chitara, it takes around five to six months to create one chadar.

Traditionally, the cloth depicts the goddess within a temple, and the art work around the temple is intricately drawn in the form of a narrative, telling stories from epics or local traditions. In previous times, the only three colours used were natural unbleached cloth white, earth red, and pitch black. Now, however, a spectrum of natural vegetable and mineral colours are used, including indigo.

"The introduction of Indigo has introduced yellows and greens in the pachedi," said curator Radhi Parekh, who has been working with Sanjay Chitara for almost five years. "The experimentation started with Sanjay Chitara's father's generation. Sanjay has taken it one step further by bringing in design innovations to the traditional pachedi."

Chitara’s own colour palette has shades of pink, grey, orange and sage, among others. "More people are buying chadars as decorative pieces," he said. "They want new designs, those that are suited for their city homes, hence the patterns need to be slightly more modern and colourful."

Said Parekh: "Sanjay has liberated the traditional format while retaining the pachedi's ritualistic significance. He paints the whole cloth using the kalam, which makes his work extremely intricate and elaborate. He barely uses the block print, except to form the border. He has also incorporated several elements that were not a part of the traditional pachedi. For example, the tree of life."

Chitara learnt the art from his father, Manubhai Chitara, at the age of six. His is one of the few families left in Gujarat that still practices this form. Many have abandoned this work to move on to more profitable professions. "All the men in my family have done this and won awards for it," said Chitara. "I will continue to create these pachedis and so will my two sons."

The paintings depict and worship goddesses such as Ambika Mata (goddess of motherhood and family), Khodiyar Mata (protector against physical disabilities), Meladi Mata (goddess of the farmlands), Bahuchara Mata (goddess of fertility), who is worshipped by the transgender community, and Hadkai Mata, who offers protection from rabies. They appear in paintings seated on their vahanas (vehicles), such as the tiger, crocodile and rooster.

"The constellation of goddesses found in mata-ni-pachedis is different from the usual Durga constellation depicted in many religious art works," said Parekh. "The matas worshipped by the Vaghari community are much older."

While Chitara’s work reflects contemporary sensibilities in his use of patterns and colours, it manages to retain its religious significance. About 35 of Chitara's works will be up at the Painted Goddess exhibit.

The Painted Goddess: Contemporary Shrine Cloths will be on display from July 29-August 11, at Artisans’, Kala Ghoda, Mumbai.