Pichwais - Rediscovering the Beauty of a Traditional Indian Art Form

Art Wise

A 400-year-old art form that originated in the holy town of Nathdwara near Udaipur, Rajasthan, Pichwais have delighted art connoisseurs for centuries. Intricately painted and visually stunning, they narrate tales from Lord Krishna’s life.

The style of painting was born when the Pushti Marg sect, founded by Shri Vallabhacharya in the 16th century, started creating pictorial illustrations on cloth and hung them behind the idol of Lord Krishna at the Temple of Shrinathji in Nathdwara, as part of their elaborate rituals of temple decoration. The name ‘Pichwai’ literally defines its meaning, with ‘pichh’ meaning back and ‘wai’ meaning textile hanging. 

Although lesser known than some other Indian art forms, there has been a renewed interest in these exquisite paintings, which have found a way beyond the walls of the temple, into galleries and homes across the world. 

Here are 10 interesting characteristics of Pichwais:

1. Shrinathji and his Posture - The Dominant Figure in Pichwais

Shrinathji, a form of Lord Krishna manifest as a seven-year-old child or balak, is a frequently painted figure in pichwai paintings. Legend has it, that Krishna, as a child, lifted Govardhan Parvat (hill) on his little finger for seven days, and safeguarded the people of Vrindavan from Lord Indira’s devastating thunderstorms. This episode is indicated in Shrinathji’s posture in most pichwais, with the deity’s left hand raised. The right hand typically rests on his waist, or is lowered in an act of blessing. 

(Shrinathji in the most frequently depicted posture)

2. Different Scenes Depicted in Pichwais

Different seasons and events in Lord Krishna’s life are depicted in pichwais. Radiant pink lotuses adorn pichwais hung in summer, whereas peacocks are painted on pichwais used at temples during the rainy season. 

The ‘Annakut’ pichwai portrays food offerings being made to the Lord, and is used at temples for Govardhan Puja, and those with illustrations of a bright moon on a dark night are hung on the occasion of Sharad Purnima (full moon). Other pichwais depict the rapturous joy of festivals such as Holi and Janmashtami, while the ‘Ras-Leela’ pichwais capture the poetic beauty of the dance between the gopis and Krishna. Some pichwais don’t include the deity at all, and focus on nandis (cows) that Lord Krishna herded to.

3.Steeped in Tradition

Creating a pichwai can take several months, and requires immense skill. The intricacies of the art have been passed down through generations through the ‘guru-shishya’ (teacher-disciple) tradition. To this day, there is no formal school teaching the art form.

Pichwais are created by groups of artists working together under the guidance of a master artist. Traditionally, artists never signed their names on the artwork, as it was a sacred article dedicated to God. But over time, some better known master artists started signing their works.

4. Emphasis on Miniature Work

Pichwais are full of intricacies that are even more delightful on closer examination. There is a focus on detail and miniature work in the delicately rendered figures, the translucent dupattas of the women, the bright colours of nature and costumes, and the big eyes and broad nose of Shrinathji. Occasionally, thread is woven in using various styles of embroidery, and gems are studded into the paintings as well.

(Zoomed in shot of a pichwai highlights the intricate detailing and miniature work in the paintings)

5. No Room for Error

Unlike in other art forms, pichwai artists cannot ‘touch-up’ the artwork or correct mistakes, because of the fine detailing. The artists don’t use an easel and have to be seated on the floor, since only this posture can give the right support to the hand for the miniature detailing.

(Pichwai depicting the 'Annakut' festival, when food is offered to Lord Krishna)  

6. Use of Specific Colours, Paint and Materials

Originally, pichwais were made using completely natural paints, created from coal, gold, silver, indigo (used to create the distinct colour of Shrinathji), zinc, saffron and other minerals. Moreover, true to its literal meaning, a traditional pichwai was painted on cotton cloth. However, over time, due to commercialization, artists began using a combination of natural and acrylic colours, and also paper as an alternative.

(Pichwai depicting scenes from Janmashtami, with Lord Krishna in a 'jhula' or swing)

7. Paintings of Love and Happiness

Shrinathji’s devotees believe that the act of worshipping god should be a joyous experience. Therefore, Pichwais portray scenes of love, happiness and celebrations from Lord Krishna’s life. They are meant to be pleasing artworks that evoke positive feelings.

(Ras-Leela Pichwai)

8. Increased Adornment of Shrinathji Over Time

Adorning the deity with jewelry and extravagant ornamentation is a significant aspect of the worship amongst the Pushti Marg sect. In the earlier days, artists didn’t paint too much ornamentation on Shrinathji, but with time, they began incorporating heavy jewelry. This not only allows artist to emphasize more miniature detailing, but the gold ornaments also add to the beauty of the paintings.

(A bejeweled Shrinathji) 

9. The Journey from Temples to Homes

Traditional pichwais were large as they were hung behind a deity. Increasingly, artists are also producing paintings of smaller proportions, which are ideal for the apartments and smaller homes of today. As there are no restrictions on where one must hang these auspicious paintings, many art lovers buy Pichwais for their sheer beauty, and not necessarily for a religious belief.

10. How to Identify a High Quality Pichwai

A good Pichwai is distinct by the divinity radiating from the bhav (expression) of the deity’s face, which is said to evoke pleasant feelings in the onlooker. Other things to note are the vibrancy of the colours, the intricacy of the miniature work, and quality of the cloth/paper used.

Browse a collection of exquisite Pichwai paintings on Artisera.

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