The Leela Reviver

Artist Amit Ambalal is creating a vibrant discourse for pichwai paintings by clubbing their display with music and book readings

Published: 18th April 2015 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 19th April 2015 03:04 PM   |  A+A-

The Leela Reviver

Artist Amit Ambalal portrays the different moods of Lord Krishna on his dreamy canvas. Ambalal, based in Ahmedabad, gave up his ancestral textile business to become an artist. He has won awards and critical acclaim for his works.

Later, this year, Ambalal will be speaking on Lord Krishna at an event related to pichwais and other devotional art of Nathdwara at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. “I have an emotional and artistic attachment to the devotional art of the Nathdwara School of Painting,’’ he explains.

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The pichwais were painted on large cloths and hung in temples like Shrinathji Mandir at Nathdwara and other shrines of the Pushti Marga sect. The works depict nature and mood with vivid depictions of flora and fauna. Not only are the figures alive with expressions and gestures, whether in the circular dance of raas-leela or the devotion of Lord Krishna, the mammals and birds are also detailed and well-depicted. A lotus pond, rains, dancing peacocks, shades of green, the pichwais are very appealing to the eye. Painted with devotion, pichwais typically depict scenes from the life of Srinathji, expressing the moods of different seasons and festivals. “These paintings show how the whole world, including all living creatures like birds and animals, is Lord Krishna’s leela,” he adds. 

The paintings became the key inspiration for Ambalal in 1979 when he convinced his father to sell their textile mill and allow him to pursue his passion for painting. “Pichwais are my favourite. The first pichwai I acquired was in 1959. It is a painting on a large piece of cloth. It still has a pride of place and stands out in the front room of my house which has many works of modern masters. It became the basis for the other art pieces I collected,” explains Ambalal.

Like the pichwais, Ambalal says his paintings too show a lot of animals and birds, mythical beasts, emotions, expressive faces and movements. “My works include devotional paintings in the bhakti tradition and also a contemporary approach to tradition. The portrayal of everyday existence and the divine is imbued with a satirical take on society, the quirks of human behaviour,’’ says Ambalal.

He did a detailed research on pichwais to create a book, Krishna as Shrinathji – Rajasthani Paintings from Nathdwara, which was published by Mapin Publications in 1987. “This book sold very well. A second edition was printed in 1997,” he smiles. “I have also exhibited pichwais from my collection at many shows.”

While Ambalal has been part of many art events, his most memorable was The Asia House Exhibition in London titled Krishna and Devotion: Temple Hangings from Western India’, in 2009, where he delivered a lecture on the Shrinathji paintings. “It was a paid lecture—Asia House Friends had to pay £5, others £8, but the house was packed. There were mostly Europeans in the audience, I did not see many Asians. The talk was extremely well-received, and after that insight into pichwai, there were long queues of people wanting to see the paintings celebrating the ritual episodes and life of the young Krishna, Shrinathji. Different types of pichwais on large cotton textile, rich brocades, resist-dyed and embroidered satins, dating from the 18th to the 20th centuries were displayed. It was important for me to be able to promote pichwai,” he says. Ambalal’s selected pichwais are housed in a haveli known as Kamal Chowk or the Lotus Court. “The haveli was a wooden architectural gem in Burhanpur, when it was a major centre for textile production and trade in the 16th century under Sultan Miran Adil Khan I. The sultans invited jewellers and crafts practitioners from Patan in Gujarat to settle in Burhanpur. The famous woodcarvers of Patan built the temple and haveli.’’

When Ambalal heard the structure was being pulled down to make way for a new temple, he decided to buy the building. The architectural fragments and woodcarvings were brought from Burhanpur to Ahmedabad in 2007. With photographs for reference, architect Leo Periera and Prabhdas Mistry reconstructed the structure financed by the Amit Ambala Charitable Trust. “Besides displaying my pichwai collection, this haveli has hosted music concerts, book readings, lectures and other cultural events,” he adds. 

cult custodian

■ Ambalal is emotionally attached to the Nathdwara School of Painting

■ He bought an old building and restored it. Today, the Kamal Chowk houses pichwais

■ The portrayal of everyday existence and the divine is imbued with a satirical take on society and the quirks of human behaviour


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