When Art Meets Devotion - How Shan Bhatnagar's Paintings Reimagine PichwaisCreators And Collectors
Gentle-eyed depictions of a young Lord Krishna (Shrinathji) in various moods and seasons, groups of serene Nandis on brightly painted backgrounds, delicate lotuses drawn with elegantly swirling stems – Shan Bhatnagar’s striking works of art are a glimpse into his deeply spiritual and artistic relationship with Lord Krishna. A businessman turned painter turned interior designer, Shan Bhatnagar has taken the traditional temple art of Pichwai into the ‘fine art’ sphere with his emotive paintings.
Pichwai - A Divine Art
A 400-year-old art form originating in the temple town of Nathdwara in Rajasthan, Pichwai is an expression of the artists’ devotion to the Lord. In their original form, Pichwais are cloth paintings hung behind Shrinathji’s idol, hand-painted using natural dyes and paints, by artist families based in the town of Nathdwara. “Traditionally, Pichwais didn’t have the image of the deity on them, like they do today. They depicted different motifs and objects to set the mood for the devotee, and were changed during different seasons or times of the day, as relevant,” explains Shan.
A Style of His Own
Shan Bhatnagar’s interpretation of Pichwai is a little different from the ones made by the artists of Nathdwara. He paints on canvas instead of cloth, and uses oil paints, instead of natural dyes or acrylic. He goes a step ahead by incorporating traditional Rajasthani embroidery and jewellery to embellish his paintings of Shrinathji.
Shan’s paintings are not meant to just decorate a space or set the mood for prayer, but are representations of the full act of worship. “Pichwai is an integral part of the tradition of offering music, food and ornamentation to the deity, practiced by the Vaishnav sect, which follows the Pushti Marg or Path of Grace. And while I’m not a devoutly religious person, I do consider myself a Vaishnavite. My art is my way of showing complete devotion to the Lord.”
The Early Days
A self-taught artist, Shan Bhatnagar began painting from an early age. Born in New Delhi, his family moved to Jaipur while he was still very young, and the city became his constant source of inspiration. His early artworks, in watercolour, were greatly influenced by architecture, especially the old buildings and forts of Rajasthan. But with no conscious plan to become an artist, Shan went to Germany to study International Business in 1997. He continued to paint as a hobby, with the subjects remaining the beautiful architecture that surrounded him. It was only when Shan Bhatnagar moved back to India in 2002 to join his father’s business, that he first experienced what was to become his artistic calling, and also his calling in life.
(An earlier watercolour by Shan from the 'Coat of Pink' series, depicting the kite flying festival of Sankranti in Jaipur)
A Heavenly Calling
Shan visited Nandlal ki Haveli (the Shrinathji temple at Nathdwara) during a family trip to Udaipur, shortly after his return from Germany. “It was my first visit to Nathdwara, and my darshan was almost magical. I was so impressed by what I saw, and so moved by my experience there, that I didn’t even mind the crowds and all the pushing. When I returned to Jaipur, I immediately started painting my first Shrinathji over a sketch that I had already made for a different painting!” exclaims Shan. His first Shrinathji painting was bright and colourful, in complete contrast to the muted watercolours he had made until then. After this incident, depictions of Shrinathji became Shan’s artistic passion, and thus began his magical journey of artistic spirituality, as he decided to become a professional artist.
A Personal and Intimate Connect
Shan Bhatnagar’s art is a constant attempt to capture the deeply moving emotions that he feels on every visit to the Shrinathji temple. “What I do is called Chitra Seva; I try to recreate the darshans that I’ve had, the Holy Glimpses I’ve experienced, as accurately as I can in my paintings” says Shan. He is also inspired by the Haveli Sangeet or worship songs that are part of the Nathdwara temple darshan, and he tries to capture their essence in his paintings.
Shan’s belief in his spiritual connect with Shrinathji is remarkable; he sometimes feels that Shrinathji converses with him at the darshans, guiding his art. And his clients too, respect this deep connect with the Lord. Every time Shan completes and delivers a Pichwai painting to a client, it’s ceremonial for both parties, and many a times, accompanied by unusual incidents. “I recall this one time, when I had to deliver a large 4 feet by 5 feet painting. I got it back from the framer in my car, but the next day, when the client came to pick it up, it just wouldn’t fit in her car, even though it was bigger than mine! A group of men kept trying, but it was only when I attempted, that the artwork actually fit inside. It’s almost like Shrinathji didn’t want to leave me!” shares Shan.
Art and Design
Shan’s journey with art also led him to discover another career path for himself - interior designing. “My sense of design is greatly influenced by my art, and I see my spaces as a three-dimensional canvas”, he shares. Having discovered his talent by chance when a friend asked him to design a hotel space, Shan now works professionally on all sorts of interior designing projects from homes to commercial buildings, combining his distinct artistic sensibility, his quintessential Indian aesthetic and his old love for buildings to create art out of spaces. His special touch is always his hand-painted walls!
(Shan Bhatnagar in front of his house in Jaipur, which he designed)
While interior designing continues to be a big part of Shan’s professional life, it’s his calling as a Pichwai artist, that truly defines him. In a style that is distinctive, Shan Bhatnagar has succeeded in marrying his deep spiritual connect to Shrinathji, with his incredible artistic talent and creativity, that results in the creation of exquisite works of art that speak to the soul, while making their presence felt on any wall they adorn.