Seated on the floor of a real estate developers’ office in Ahmedabad, artist Trilok Soni gives the finishing touches to a Pichhwai work. The painting depicts Radha gazing reverentially at Lord Krishna, surrounded by lush greenery. Soni is one of the few well-known Pichhwai artists who has created a space for this intricate and traditional art form in urban drawing rooms. Today, Ahmedabad has become the hub of Pichhwai lovers who want the paintings to grace their bungalows, puja rooms and offices.
He says, “Pichhwais are large cloth paintings that are part of the temple décor of the Shrinathji temple at Nathdwara. Today, these devotional paintings are becoming extremely popular for home décor in cities like Ahmedabad which have a substantial Vaishnav sect, specially a large following of Vallabhacharya’s Pushtimarg that stresses Krishna sewa.’’
Soni adds, “In medieval times, during the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb, the priests and artists from places like Mathura near Delhi were seeking haven in strong Hindu kingdoms of Rajputs and Maratha rulers. Thus, Nathdwara developed as a centre for devotional art. The Pichhwais were used as backdrops in temples as hangings and curtains for Shrinathji. The name Pichhwai is said to be derived from the Hindi word Pichh which means at the back, because they were mostly used as backdrops. The paintings changed according to season, festivals and temple events with 24 iconographies fashioned by the Vallabhacharya sect.”
Unlike artist communities like the Adi Gauds, Sonis are goldsmiths and jewellers by tradition. “My father Badri Lal Chitrakar was a miniature artist and began to paint Pichhwais in Bhilwara, Rajasthan. He won national awards for his work. Continuing with this tradition and technique we do Pichhwais on cotton fabric that are stuck to a surface using an indigenously made gum. After doing the outlines, natural mineral and vegetable colours are used for the painting. Gold leaf is embossed where applicable like for jewellery or decorations. Each painting can take up to 15 days to make, and the cost ranges from `15,000 to more than a lakh,” says Soni.
According to Soni, artists made less expensive versions of Pichhwais using acrylic and synthetic colours. By using cheaper materials and working on smaller pieces of cloth, the artists made very affordable pieces available as souvenirs to tourists visiting Udaipur and Nathwara. “Even Pichhwai prints flooded the market. As a result, our clientele for elaborate mineral-colour paintings became limited to a few connoisseurs or art collectors’’, explains Soni.
His fortunes changed a few years ago when Anil Relia of Archer, an art company based in Ahmedabad, invited me to exhibit works at the famous Amdavad ni Gufa. “Three exhibitions of my work at this gallery, especially the one in 2011, gave art lovers and Vaishnav sect followers exposure to the genuine Pichhwai traditions. Other artists, like my nephew Kuldeepak Soni who exhibited works at Kanoria Centre for Art in Ahmedabad in 2012 and Yug Deepak Soni whose exhibition of Pichhwais at Vinnayasa Premier Art Gallery in Chennai in January 2013 were also successful. A number of other grandchildren of my father, Badrilal, are also part of his artistic legacy, painting miniatures or pichhwais,” says Soni.
Pichhwais depict episodes from the life of Krishna, such as his manifestation as Lord Shrinathji lifting Mount Govardhana on his finger, Krishna’s childhood, the bathing gopis beseeching the mischievous Krishna to return their clothes, the divine Rasalila and different aspects of Krishna-bhakti. The backdrops typically depict leafy groves, lotus ponds or scenes from the rainy season. According to Soni, the most popular paintings are those that depict the theme of a festival. “Pichhwais illustrating night scenes of Lord Krishna with a beautiful shining full moon to represent Sharad Poornima or the full moon night during the Autumnal harvest are popular in Ahmedabad’’, says Soni.
The major festival in Nathdwara is Annakut when a mountain of food is served symbolising the Govardhan peak said to be lifted by Krishna to save people from the wrath of the rain god. Gopashtami marks the graduation of Lord Krishna from tending calves to a proper cowherd.”