On the Pichwai Trail

On the Pichwai Trail

With the numbers of discerning takers waning, the intricate art of Pichwai finds itself pitted against the newer bling forms which flood the market. It has come to be the preserve of a few.

On the Pichwai Trail - The Fading Temple Art of Nathdwara

The Fading Temple Art of Nathdwara

Swati VashishthaSwati Vashishtha | CNN-NEWS18 swativashishtha

Published: June 17, 2016


AT HALF past five in the temple town of Nathdwara, cows amble down the streets in the morning breeze and park themselves at doorsteps as they await their morning meal. The sounds of cowbells, occasional passersby and milkmen tinkling away on bicycles mingle with the ringing of temple bells.

Among the numerous narrow lanes that sprout from the periphery of the Lord Shrinath temple, up left is the relatively understated Chitrakaron ki gully (the artists' street).

  • Cows await the morning meal at people's doorsteps

    Cows await the morning meal at people's doorsteps (Photo: Swati Vashishtha)

On the rooftop of one of its houses painted blue and white, Parmanand S Sharma, a sixth generation Pichwai artist, offers water to the Sun as he chants his daily prayers.

Much like the altering skyline of the 17th century temple town visible from Sharma's 300-year-old rooftop, winds of change have in a myriad ways swept into the lives of artists like him and his two brothers who serve the Lord through art.

Parmanand and his brothers grew up listening to the story that their forefathers were part of a handful of Pichwai artist families who came to Nathdwara with Lord Shrinathji from Braj, three centuries ago.

"We have records of six generations. Since then our lives revolve around the Lord," says Sharma.

Not just Pichwai artists, even practitioners of Haveli Sangeet - a genre of devotional music that goes back to the pre-Dhrupad era - and the temple cooks or halwais believe they were a part of the Lord's cavalcade that came to Mewar from Braj in the 17th century.

Literally, Pichwai means a backdrop. But for the artists of the temple town living the tradition, it is a form of art, which often flows seamlessly between the realms of imagination, skill and meditation.

It's difficult to make Pichwais, the work is very intricate and time-consuming.

— Neelesh Sharma

Pichwai had its origins when artists, out of devotion, started making backdrops to depict Lord Shrinathji in different moods, settings and seasons. It grew over the past couple of centuries, as connoisseurs discovered Pichwais and took them to their living rooms as a metaphor of divinity, just as much as of opulence. But with the numbers of discerning takers waning, this intricate art finds itself pitted against the newer bling forms of embossed art which flood the market. Pichwai has come to be the preserve of a few.

There are only ten to twelve original Pichwai artists in Nathdwara now, all of whom also paint the newer forms which are in demand. Even with the few artists who continue to keep it alive, much has changed in how Pichwai is made. The natural colours used earlier have been replaced with commercially available ones. Since the makers of the natural colours did not pass down the knowhow, they have been lost in time.

  • Old Pichwai painting

    An old Pichwai depicting the seven-year-old Lord Shrinathji (Photo: Swati Vashishtha)

In a tiny room on the third floor, Parmanand S Sharma and his brothers, Dev Krishna and Kanhaiya Lal, effortlessly render strokes on a Pichwai being made to a customer's order. The shelves behind them are stacked with rough sketches, the sketchbooks of their father and grandfather, rolled paintings and old photographs. Pichwais essentially depict the Lord in various 'leelas' with the moon, lotus blooms, peacocks, parrots or cows; and are set in the lush vegetation the artists find aplenty in their surroundings.

"All these are dear to the Lord," says Sharma. "Pichwais were made by our forefathers based on the description in the kirtans sung[Listen] by Haveli Sangeet singers inside the Nandlal ki Haveli (Shrinath temple), or based on what the head priest narrrated to them. They replicated that imagery, the sketches were approved and only then painted."

Nowadays, artists like Parmanand fall back heavily on the legacy handed down to them. The old scrapbooks also have photographs of highpriests and affluent pilgrims to Nathdwara who commissioned them to paint their portraits. None of these artists can sustain themselves by painting Pichwais alone.

  • Painting a Pichwai

    Parmanand S Sharma and his two brothers painting a Pichwai (Photo: Swati Vashishtha)

The newer embossed art is what the younger generation of artists, like Parmanand's son Neelesh, have taken to for survival. Neelesh whose skill in Pichwais is limited says, "It's difficult to make Pichwais, the work is very intricate and time-consuming. And even after all that effort there are hardly any takers for it since it comes at a price not many want to pay. Whereas, embossed paintings are in demand and sell like hot cakes."

A good Pichwai can take the artists three to nine months, or even a year, to complete and comes at a price of Rs 50,000 or more. The older ones, which are part of private collections, are rarely available for sale and could cost a few lakh rupees. The buyers of original Pichwais are just a few big business houses, mostly from Gujarat and Maharashtra, or art collectors who sell the paintings in the international art market.

  • An old Pichwai from the artists' collection

  • An old Pichwai from the artists' collection

  • Colour sketch from the artists' collection

  • An old painting of the high priest from the artists' collection

  • An old Pichwai painting

  • An old Pichwai from the artists' collection

  • An old Pichwai painting

  • An old Pichwai painting

Though passing the art of Pichwai down the generations is a constant dialogue among the community of artists here, there is a tacit understanding that commercial art is the order of the day. "Worrying about the future of Pichwai will not help. We have to follow the course of time. We will have to change with time and paint what sells," says Neelesh's uncle Dev Krishna.

Very soon our generations to come will ask what is Pichwai? What was it like?"

— Raghunandan Sharma

Pichwai is an integral part of the raag-bhog-shringar (music, food and ornamentation offered to the deity) tradition of an intimate social grouping called Vallabhas, who follow the Pushti Marg (Path of Grace). While Shrinath temple has a priceless collection, in a climate conducive to change, louder artworks that are easy to make and sell are quickly pushing Pichwais out of the market, irretrievably.

One of the best-known Pichwai artists of Nathdwara, Raghunandan Sharma, has an immense sense of pride showing off the Pichwais made by his father and grandfather which are now part of the family heirloom. The difference is clearly visible. "They painted with a lot of patience, almost meditatively," he says.

  • Painting a Pichwai

    Artist Raghunandan Sharma shows Pichwai painted by his grandfather (Photo: Swati Vashishtha)

He is among the few artists who has a small stock of the priceless natural colours made by their forefathers. He uses them sparingly, ruing the permanent loss of the technique which made them, and struggles to get his eight-year-old grandson to learn what he knows. "At this rate, very soon our generations to come will ask what is Pichwai? What was it like?" he adds.

Nathdwara now has just about the same number of original Pichwai artists as are believed to have accompanied Lord Shrinathji on his journey from Braj to Mewar. These artists hope they do not have to witness the impending journey of Pichwai paintings - from the organic, colour-splattered floors of their studios, where sparrows fly around all day, to an existence in glass-covered museums.