Nathdwara is famed not just for its temple, but also for the small group of traditional artists who arrived there in the seventeenth century along with Shrinathji (an aspect of Krishna), the principal image for the Pushtimarg sect. Nathdwara and its artists are unique, even in a place like India which has seen the survival of many artistic traditions from the past. Rich artistic practices developed around the veneration of Shrinathji and the other svarups (living images) of the sect between the sixteenth century and today, with the use, for example, of the beautiful cloth paintings known as pichvais being developed there. Even today, the hereditary artists of Nathdwara led by their head (the mukhiya) perform seva (devotional service) for Shrinathji by adorning the walls of the entire temple complex with fresh wall paintings at the time of Diwali; and they still make the pichvais for which the town was once so famous.
The artists who accompanied Shrinathji to Nathdwara in the seventeenth century and settled near the temple were very responsive to the tastes of their different patrons, whether tilkayats (head of the sect) or kings. They were also sensitive to the artistic winds that blew their way, whether from Mewar itself, in which kingdom Nathdwara was located, or from nearby princely states such as Kotah and Kishangarh, whose rulers were devout followers of the Pushtimarg. By the nineteenth century, a distinctive Nathdwara style had emerged that was characterized by dreamy-eyed cows and human figures with full bodies, bell-shaped skirts, and large, almond-shaped eyes.
Pichvai for Sharad Purnima, Nathdwara,
Rajasthan, India. 19th century. Cotton,
painted with pigments. 193 x 155 cm.
TAPI Collection (T99.1801), Surat, India.
The artists of Nathdwara did not forget how to paint in the style of Kotah or Kishangarh, which they can do even today; indeed, they could turn their hands to anything their patrons wanted.
It is important to remember why these paintings were created. Within the Pushtimarg, there is an ancient and important tradition known as chitra seva, in which devotees could venerate painted representations of the actual svarups. Paintings also served as accurate records of a particular darshan, operating as reminders of important religious experiences for the people who commissioned them. Finally, there were large pichvais that were usually made to adorn the back wall of a sanctum, behind the deity. Artists and patrons could not paint what they wished. The tilkayat or the goswami in charge of the temple would have decided what could be depicted, and they usually followed traditional prototypes.
Nathdwara’s distinctive style flourished during the nineteenth century, and by the time of Tilkayat Govardhanlalji (1862–1934), it had evolved further thanks to the arrival of European prints, Victorian postcards and photography, and the availability of new pigments. The town’s artists were masters at taking these diverse influences and making them their own. Some of the most important included Sukhdev (1853–1925), Narayan (1860–1932/33),Ghasiram (1869–1931) and Champalal (c. 1875–1930). In their heyday under Govardhanlalji, these men proudly proclaimed their status and expertise, signing their names as chitrakars, or artists. At that time, Nathdwara not only absorbed aesthetic influence but exported it as well, and its artists took on work in nearby areas including Udaipur, Kotah, Jhalawar, and Dungarpur. They were also in great demand in the various havelis of the Pushtimarg across western India while wealthy patrons also commissioned works.
Of all the artists of Nathdwara, no one was able to create the same impact with their distinctive style as Narottam Narayan Sharma (1896–1990) during the 20th century. Indeed, Narottam’s style was so successful that it is imitated in the bazaars of Nathdwara to this day and has come to define the town’s art since the 1950’s. Individuals such as the National Award winning Revashankar Sharma (1935–2016) were capable of working in any school of Indian painting, responding to the dictates of the market and the desires of foreign visitors and nonresident Indians. He was deeply admired for his lyrical depictions of Krishna and Radha in his paintings.
Nathdwara continues to shape the work of generations of Indian artists. Perhaps its biggest impact has been on Amit Ambalal (b. 1943), who in turn has influenced many other renowned artists. Originally, he was searching for an imagery of his own that was nevertheless rooted in tradition, and Nathdwara was the source of his inspiration. When he first started to study and collect works from Nathdwara, they were not yet recognized as a legitimate genre within Indian art history. Ambalal, in turn, opened the doors of Nathdwara to an entire generation of Indian artists. The aesthetics of the popular Nathdwara idiom certainly appealed to Bhupen Khakhar(1934–2003), who was not only moved to create works but also turned into an avid collector of Nathdwara paintings. So did A. A. Ramachandran (b. 1935), whose own works seem to reflect their aesthetics. Nilima Sheikh (b. 1945) received a fellowship to study with the hereditary artists in Nathdwara, and one can see the impact of pichvais and the traditional sanjhi stencils in her painted scrolls. Nathdwara and its visual traditions have also helped form the career of the English artist Desmond Lazaro, who trained in the pichvai tradition, and his recent work is a testament to the enduring legacy of the haveli of Shrinathji and of the artists of this temple town on generations of modern and contemporary artists.
And what of the artists of Nathdwara today? A new breed has emerged who have studied both within their family traditions as well as in art and design schools beyond the town.
The bustling town of Nathdwara is undergoing rapid expansion today. The visual and performing arts which are still a part of daily life in Nathdwara are under incredible strain. It is important to have new patrons step forward and ensure that the artistic traditions that have made the Vallabha sampradaya so unique are able to flourish and grow as the Pushtimarg spreads rapidly across the world. With their help, Nathdwara’s artists will be able to draw upon the inventiveness and creativity that has helped them stay relevant for centuries. As Narottam Narayan used to say, jo samay ke saath rahega, vohi tikega (the person who will stay with the times, will survive).
Dr. Madhuvanti Ghose
Alsdorf Associate Curator of Indian, Southeast Asian and Himalayan Art
The Art Institute of Chicago, USA
Curator of the exhibition, The Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings (2015/16)