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Dipped in devotion, pichwai paintings bring alive Krishna’s youth

When the elders of Braj were planning a ritual for Lord Indra, a child named Krishna questioned the practice. Locals explained to the boy that this was done every year to please the god so he would provide adequate rain. But Krishna said they were farmers and they should only do karma — or their duty — rather than carrying out religious rituals and appeasing gods like this.

Finally convinced, the villagers did not perform the puja. This angered Indra, and he showed his wrath by hitting the people with violent rain and thunder. Krishna then lifted up the neighbouring Govardhan hill like an umbrella and saved the inhabitants. Indra was chastened and the people started worshipping Govardhan, the giver of rains and green pastures. It is this particular manifestation of Krishna that is worshipped as Shrinathji in the temple of Nathdwara in Rajasthan.

 Dipped in devotion, pichwai paintings bring alive Krishna’s youth

Image credit: Santan

The idol is in bas-relief, carved in black marble stone, and about four feet high. One hand of the idol is lifted up, as it was while Krishna held aloft the Govardhan hill. The eyes of the idol are beautifully languid, half shut, because the belief is that if devotees gaze into the fully-open eyes of Shrinathji during the darshan, the joy experienced by them would be too powerful for mere mortals, and destroy their equilibrium. A beautiful gem decorates the chin of the idol. Serving as the backdrop to all this shringaar are the intricately-painted pichwai paintings.

The term ‘pichwai’ is traditionally used for the decorative cloth paintings hung behind the stone idol of Shrinathji within the main shrine at Nathdwara, which is a prominent temple town in the state of Rajasthan. The art form is an indispensable part of the decoration of his shrine as it functions like a cinematic backdrop highlighting the various darshanas of the idol. These are the various forms that the deity is made to adorn, according to the calendar of festivals and the time of day. These range from the time Shrinathji is symbolically woken up to when he retires for the night. Particularly popular are depictions of the Annakut or Govardhan Puja, where Krishna is honoured by a pile of food, representing the mountain he held aloft.

Decorations and artistic inventiveness of all sorts, are an intrinsic part of worshipping Shrinathji. This practice has its philosophical moorings in the Pushtimarg tradition that drew on the teachings of the 16th century saint Vallabhacharya who popularised the worship of Krishna as Shrinathji.

Vallabhacharya’s philosophy interpreted the raas lila between Krishna and the gopis as a metaphor of the quest for the divine. He idealised the romantic longings of the village women of Vrindavan as central to an understanding of Pushtimarg, and as a way of showing one’s devotion to Krishna. According to the tradition, one can attain salvation through participation in the life of Krishna by pretending to be a personage from his childhood years, including experiencing the longing that the village women felt for him, after he left his childhood home to become the ruler of Dwarka. It isn’t uncommon, therefore, to find people cooling the walls of Krishna’s abode in Nathdwara, during the summer months, by dousing these with buckets of water.

The reasoning is simple: the deity must be feeling warm and the devotees are serving him by making his surroundings more habitable. Similarly, devotees dress up as village folk from Krishna’s mythical childhood community and celebrate various festivals linked to his life, thus participating in his earthly existence beyond the constraints of space and time. Such demonstrations of love and play-acting are central to the concept of lila, which is often defined as divine play, and both are linked to the act of creation.

It is through love, which is ontologically akin to a creative force, that the cosmos came into being, and it is through this joyful love that one can attain liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth. The term ‘lila’ encompasses all creative activity including the play-acting by individuals in an attempt to participate in god’s life. There is, therefore, particular emphasis in the Pushtimarg tradition on aesthetic inventiveness as a way of pleasing the deity. It is this stress on creative agency, both human and divine, which is one of the reasons why Nathdwara, till today, is a significant centre for artistic endeavours, with a particular accent on painting.

The painters create pichwais not just for decorative purposes in the temple, but also for pilgrims who would want to carry the image of their beloved god back with them. As photography is not allowed inside the shrine, the souvenir-like paintings of the stone idol still have a vibrant and thriving market that caters to the wide-ranging tastes of the many devotees, and support the long tradition of painting in Nathdwara.

(Saumya Agarwal is a PhD candidate at the University of Heidelberg; references: Lyons, Tryna (2004): The Artists of Nathadwara. The Practice of Painting in Rajasthan. Bloomington; medabad: Indiana University Press; Mapin Pub. Maduro, Renaldo (1976): Artistic Creativity in a Brahmin Painter Community. Berkeley: University of California — Research Monograph Series, No. 14)

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Updated Date: Apr 05, 2019 12:39:58 IST

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