When Indra, the Hindu god of rain and thunder, unleashed torrential rain on the people of Vrindavan, Krishna lifted the Govardhan mountain like an umbrella with his left hand and saved the people and cattle from Indra’s fury. That avatar of Krishna, called “Shrinathji”, and that mythological image are a staple of Indian calendar art.
The image can also be found recurring in the works of Pichhvai artists from the town of Nathdwara in Rajasthan, the home of the famous Shrinathji temple that moved there from Mathura in 1672 CE.
Beginning Monday, Pichhvai art – which narrates tales of Krishna, his avatars, moods and postures – is being celebrated in an exhibition titled Nathdwara: Visual Cultures of Shrinathji in Delhi. “What better time to celebrate the art dedicated to lord Krishna than the season in which he was born,” said Himanshu Verma, curator of Nathdwara.
Pichhvai (meaning “at the back”) art is used as a curtain or backdrop in Shrinathji and Krishna temples in Rajasthan. Considered sacred, the painted Pichhvai cloth is offered by devotees at temples or displayed at home. “The aim of the exhibition is to bring this art form to urban spaces,” said Verma.
Most Pichhvai paintings are contained within dark, simple borders, and depict scenes from Krishna's life in natural hues of green, yellow, white and red.
Over the years, industry-made paint has got added to the palette of colours and the paint brushes too have evolved, but the motifs and themes remain traditional. The art, embroideries and applique works are intricate, and gold paint is sometimes used in the design for a rich look. A Pichhvai creation can take a few days to a few weeks to complete, depending on the intricacy and size of the work.
Each Pichhvai depicts a different occasion, season or festival – Raas Leela, Holi, Govardhan puja. While pink lotuses signify summer, full moon of Sharad Poornima (celebrating the harvest season) marks the shift to winter.
“The visual culture of Shrinathji of Nathdwara encompasses a rich vocabulary, depicting his divine presence and the artistic beauty of sewa (service) in the Pushtimarg denomination of Krishna bhakti, signifying a selfless love for the lord,” said Verma. From Pichhvais to water-colour commemorations of Shrinathji, the Nathdwara idiom is rich, diverse and engaging.
Nathdwara: Visual Cultures of Shrinathji will be on display at Alliance française de Delhi, Lodhi Estate, from August 8 to August 14.