Colours of devotion: Museologist and art historian Dr Anita Shah talks about her book
Museologist and art historian Dr Anita Shah explores the history of Vallabha Sampradaya expressed through paintings and textile art.
HYDERABAD: Delving deep into the history of Pushtimarg community and the teachings of the saint Vallabhacharya, museologist Dr Anita Bharat Shah launched her book titled ‘Colors of Devotion’ depicting the awe-inspiring paintings and textiles of Vallabha Sampradaya (1500 – 1900) at an event on Saturday at Jawaharlal Nehru Architecture and Fine Arts University Auditorium.
The book explores the influence of Pushtimarg on Indian paintings and unearths the tenets of Vallabhacharya’s philosophy and theology of Shrinathji (a form of Krishna). It explores how the intangible system of beliefs led to the organised religion comprising its own set of rituals and customs, which in turn, led to the production of paintings, pichvais, and shrine textiles. Lastly, it discusses the influence of Pushtimarg on the social and cultural aspects that carried these traditions forward.
“Vallabhacharya’s philosophy is called Shudhh Advaita, which means the world is real: the Brahman and his creation are also real. This book also gives the evolution of philosophy from Shankaracharya, which says that it’s mayavad. Then comes Ramanujacharya who says there is dualism and Krishna is the same as his creation. This book, for the first time, connects the particular philosophy with the painting depicting it,” said Dr Anita Shah.
Explaining how Vallabhacharya’s philosophy came to be connected with art, she said, “In the 2nd century, Bharat Muni proposed a theory of aesthetics. Drawing from this theory, Vallabhacharya posited that one could attain a connection with the divine through the pursuit of aesthetics. His son, Vitthalnathji, further elaborated on this concept by designing the practice of sewa through the use of raag, bhog, and shringar.”
Upon close inspection of the pichvais, one can observe that every element is meticulously designed to align with the changing seasons. “For instance, the artwork features vibrant flowers and leaves to depict the essence of summer. The term ‘raag’ refers to music, and ‘bhog’ has evolved into a stunning culinary art form. The idea is to recreate Krishna’s leela by immersing all of one’s senses in devotion. It led to a plethora of art and literature,” added Dr Shah.
The book showcases immensely intricate work of golden and kalamkari pichvais depicting the stories, poetry, and legends associated with the philosophy of the sect. Most of the paintings were made with pigment colours, which are semi-precious stones that are ground and mixed with gum obtained from the babool tree. “There’s a long process of making these colours. Emerald was used in making green, and lapis lazuli to make blue. The painting is then brandished with a precious stone, giving it the characteristic lustre,” said Dr Shah.
Coming from a family that has been practising Pushtimarg for generations, Dr Shah provides an insider’s view of the philosophy of the sect. She also claims to have discovered the origin of the manuscript, Palam Bhagavad Puran. Pointing at the photograph of one of the pages from the puran, she says, “See this Mitharam written over here. I have traced him and found that he too was a Pushtimargi. Now, we can say with conviction that puran belongs to the literature produced during the time of Vallabhacharya,” she says.
Talking about her own lineage, Dr Shah talked about her banker ancestors who came and settled in Hyderabad in the late 18th century. “The person who first came here was Jagjeevan Das in 1789 when the first Nizam was made the subedar of the Deccan,” she said. They commissioned a number of paintings and pichvais for their shrines.
Dr Shah finished her Ph.D. at Osmania University in 1994 and has been an active member of the Museology Committee (ICOFOM) of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) since 1987 and has served many years on the executive board and contributed extensively to their journals. The book launch event was presided by Dr Kavita Daryani Rao, Vice-Chancellor, JNAFAU. It is published by Niyogi Books, New Delhi, and priced at Rs 4,500.