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Heritage & Hindustan: Nathdwara, A Divine Art Form

Heritage & Hindustan: Nathdwara, A Divine Art Form

‘One painting is the description of a thousand words’, so goes the old Rajasthani saying. To the artists of the Hindu temple town of Nathdwara, Rajasthan, nestled in the Aravalli Hills, art has been a traditional way of depicting sacred scenes to devotees without language. Hinduism is rich in imagery of gods, conveying and narrating its tales to countless illiterate worshippers over the centuries and producing many schools.

The school here is one of the most celebrated and distinctive in India, increasing Nathdwara tourism. A community for over three hundred years, its paintings are sought after by collectors the world over. This tight-knit collective can be found in the ancient houses of the town’s ‘Chitrakaron ki gully’ or ‘artists’ street’. There are only ten to twelve original painters left and they are holding out against the march of time and technology in an effort to preserve what they see as a divinely ordained vocation, making now the best time to visit Nathdwara. 

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First established in 1672, the school, according to legend, was founded by priests and artists of the Pushtimarg (‘Way of Grace’) sect escaping persecution from the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. They were transporting an idol of Lord Shrinathji, an incarnation of the seven-year-old Lord Krishna, in a bullock cart to protect it from destruction when the cart sank deep into the mud at a tribal village. This was taken as a sign by the head priest and a temple for the deity was duly built, the sect living under the protection of the powerful Maharana of Mewar. The bullock cart is still to be seen at the temple, which has itself survived numerous attacks from other clans. Since then the history of Nathdwara (‘Gate of the Lord’), 43 km from Udaipur, has been both a place of pilgrimage and a hive of artistic industry, the aforementioned Shrinathji Temple Nathdwara now even having its own mobile app.

Many of the artists descend from the original band of holy refugees, and produce iconic pieces such as the world-famous Pichwai paintings. Traditionally used to show tales from Lord Krishna’s life, Pichwai (literally meaning ‘backdrop’) pictures are painted on cloth on a large scale and placed behind idols in Nathdwara temples and homes. Each painting is revered as an expression of the artist’s love and affection for his god. The works can take three to nine months to complete and are full of symbolism and detail.

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Lord Shrinathji is depicted in opulent settings, showing scenes or ‘Leelas’ from his life. He is shown with his left hand raised and the right hand resting at the waist, with a large diamond placed beneath the lips which is known as chibuk. The original temple deity is carved in black marble with images of two cows, lion, snake, two peacocks and one parrot engraved on it as well as accompanying sages. Precious jewels, some dating back to pre-Mughal period, adorn it along with ancient embroidery and threadwork. This lavish decoration is replicated in the Pichwai art with glorious gold embellishments and riots of colour surrounding the ebony figure. The backgrounds feature lush vegetation, cavorting milkmaids, and blissed-out musicians in an intricate weaving of culture, costume and sacred lore. The adult Krishna also appears, a radiant blue, standing on a Lotus flower and playing his flute which summons all to worship him. The bright hues were traditionally created from vegetable extracts but now largely replaced by mineral dyes. The celebratory atmosphere in the paintings reflect the sect’s belief that salvation is found in the joys of earthly life.

Parmanand S. Sharma is a sixth-generation artist and his days are, from the first dawn offering of water to the Sun, devoted to what he calls ‘revolving around the Lord’. His life, like those around him, is soaked in history and storytelling. ‘Pichwai paintings were made by our forefathers based on the songs sung in the temple or tales from the High Priest, the imagery was then replicated and sent to the temple for approval before being brought to life’. But times are changing and demand is growing for cheaper, mass produced art. Sharma’s son Neelesh adds, ‘the process is time-consuming and intricate, and we are pitted against modern embossed art’. The predecessors of artists such as the Sharmas painted with ‘a lot of patience, almost meditatively’, and from the paint-spattered, atmospheric studios, a profession under threat from the modern world is still defiantly producing works of art that can only be described in one word – celestial.

READ: Shrinathji: Pichwais: The Manifestation Of Pushtimarg. Partridge India, 2014

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