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Updated: April 17, 2014 20:53 IST

Backdrops take centre stage

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At Godhuli — The Exhibition of the Living Traditions of the Art of Pichwai at the Leela Palace.
Special Arrangement At Godhuli — The Exhibition of the Living Traditions of the Art of Pichwai at the Leela Palace.

A city exhibition highlights the colours, moods and complexities of the traditional Pichwai paintings

The very ancient Pichwai screens have seen a remarkable transition — from being backdrops to taking centre stage in contemporary interior décor and art.

With their mesmerising and vivid hues, intriguing composition that is at once complex and simple, direct and straightforward narratives, fantastic detailing and enchanting visual impact, it is perhaps inevitable that Pichwai screens (Pichwai means ‘at the back’ in Devanagari) are a big draw in these modern times too. Today, even a two-ft by two-ft Pichwai screen can command several thousand rupees, depending on its intricacy. In fact, Pichwai screens have now become popular export items.

In earlier times, to soak in the beauty of these screens, one had to travel to the town of Nathdwara in Rajasthan or to areas such as Machilipatnam in Andhra Pradesh, because Pichwai screens were traditionally used as background drapes in Shrinathji temples there. Later of course, these screens got commissioned by various people, for various reasons. Now, thanks to Delhi-based Pichwai art collectors Kamayani and Saloni, we in Chennai can feast our eyes on these screens at an exhibition in the city.

“Everybody talks of Pichwai’s antiquity, but remember Pichwai is a living art, not a bygone tradition. Fascinated by their charm, we started commissioning traditional artists to create Pichwai screens and explore its possibilities,” says Kamayani who began collecting Pichwai after a visit to Nathdwara. Kamayani and Saloni now own a growing collection that includes 40 screens.

Many Pichwai artists continue to use permanent natural pigments, vegetable dyes, and orpiment, cochineal and lapis. Over weeks or even months, these hues are applied on starched, hand-spun cloth, which are first dipped in colour to create the background. “Pigments are not 100 per cent natural now, as their availability is less. Pichwai artists are experimenting with dyes now,” mentions Kamayani. Many Pichwai artists continue to live as close-knit communities in Nathdwara, and group efforts are common with large screens. Now, these artists do Pichwai screens in smaller formats too, to cater to the needs of tourists and decorators.

Earlier, Pichwai screens largely narrated the many lively episodes in the life of Krishna, and these stories are propped against natural settings in vivid hues. Nature happened to be the traditional imagery, but the “imagery has extended to abstraction lately”, informs Kamayani. And as always, their static format notwithstanding, Pichwai screens continue to evoke a sense of meditative contemplation.

(The screens are on display at ‘Godhuli — The Exhibition of the Living Traditions of the Art of Pichwai’ at the Leela Palace, presented by Apparao Galleries. It is Godhuli will be on display till the 5th of June 5)

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