Pichvai for Gopashtami, Nathdwara,
Rajasthan, India. Late 20th century.
Attributed to Dwarkalal Sharma. Cotton,
painted with pigments, silver and gold.
146 cm. x 101 cm.
TAPI Collection (T.06.98), Surat, India.
Vibrantly painted cloth hangings known as pichvais adorn the rear walls of the Vallabha sampraday shrines. They hang behind (peechhe) the various svarups (forms) of Krishna worshipped by the sect hence the term pichvai. Even though the painted hanging resembles a theatrical curtain and is most probably derived from that ancient form it is more than a decorative backdrop. It is an integral part of a highly developed seva (service) creating the mood or bhaav of the occasion. The painted pichvai with its bold, vivid composition may recreate Krishna’s lilas (sports) or capture the reverence of an historic event.
Nearly every day in Nathdwara is a cause for celebration. The liturgical calendar is jam-packed with festivals for the living child god Shrinathji. The pichvai is a large part of what defines and enlivens the occasion. In the Shrinathji mandir the hanging is in the form of an inverted U with an opening for the life-sized child Shrinathji. In other temples and private shrines, the pichvai is an unperforated rectangle of cloth.
Literary sources record the use of pichvais in Vraj before Shrinathji was transferred to Nathdwara in 1671, but it is uncertain when the first figural pichvai appeared. However, once in Rajasthan, the painted form flourished. Three hundred and fifty years later, painted pichvais continue to be produced by a select number of artists in Nathdwara who, with Krishna permeating their thoughts and guiding their brushes, specialize in the art of pichvai painting.
The painted works are hung during the warmer months. In the broiling heat of summer, the dominant themes are representations of lush greenery, shady caves, sparkling pools, and blooming lotuses rising from the cool waters of the river Yamuna. These refreshing scenes contribute to Shrinathji’s comfort when the outside temperatures soar.
Pichvai for Ban Yatra, Nathdwara,
Rajasthan, India. Late 19th century. Cotton,
painted with pigments and gold. 256 x 325 cm.
TAPI Collection (T.06.97), Surat, India.
The major festivals on which painted pichvais are displayed are Thakurani Teej, Daan Ekadashi, Sharad Purnima, Gopashtami, Kunj Ekadashi and Ban Yatra. Except for the Kunj Ekadashi pichvai which is created during the ceremony, the others are figural, storytelling backdrops that heighten the bhaav (mood) of the occasion. Painted pichvais never appear in the winter season nor do they adorn the shrine on Annakut, the anniversary of Shrinathji’s raising of Mt. Govardhan, nor Janmashtami, Krishna’s birthday. Although the depiction of the Annakut Utsav with the sat svarup(seven forms) is a popular subject for painted pichvais, the hanging used on Annakut at Nathdwara is the heavily jeweled work that appears behind the svarups in the painted version.
Pichvai for Annakut, Nathdwara,
Rajasthan, India. Mid-19th century. Cotton,
painted with pigments, gold and silver, 98 x72 cm.
TAPI Collection (T. 99. 556), Surat, India.
In addition to the festival pichvais, there are painted works sponsored by the tilkayat (hereditary leader of the sect) to record historic occasions such as his personal offering of aarti to Shrinathji or the gathering of the svarups. These usually include portraits of the priestly community who were present for the event. In this way the presiding tilkayat can make his mark on the liturgical calendar for these celebrations become part of the annual festival list.
By Kay Talwar
Independent scholar and author