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Painting the divine

he Pushtimargis who worship Krishna are known for the unique way in which their devotion and art are deeply intertwined. The pichvai paintings they create are used as backdrops at the shrines of Shrinathji, the childhood incarnation of Krishna. It is the act of performing darshan or beholding the deity in adoration that is seen as the source of grace. The main shrine is located at Nathdwara in Rajasthan. The word Nathdwara literally means “the Lord’s doors” or “gates of the Lord”.

This traditional art form can be traced back to 1672. And it will form the subject of a talk and presentation by Madhuvanti Ghose at Artisans’ today. Ghose is the Alsdorf Associate Curator of Indian, Southeast Asian, Himalayan and Islamic Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. She also curated the exhibition centred around pichvais, which ran in Chicago from September last year to January this year. The art that Ghose has curated and the research that she toiled over, have now made their way into a book published by Mapin. The book, Gates of The Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings, has been edited by Ghose and includes essays by artist and collector Amit Ambalal, art history professor Kalyan Krishna, art historian Tryna Lyons, museum consultant Anita B Shah, and scholar Emilia Bachrach.

Shaped artists

In ‘Nathdwara: A Personal Journey’, a chapter written by Ghose, she examines how the art of Nathdwara has shaped the work of several contemporary Indian artists such as Bhupen Khakhar, AA Ramachandran, Atul Dodiya, Anju Dodiya, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and Nilima Sheikh. She is also interested in how some young people from artist families in Nathdwara have pursued formal education at art and design schools outside. This has led them to bring a new approach to their artistic inheritance. The younger generation, like Lalit Sharma, now works primarily in the medium of oil on canvas. Yugal Kishor Sharma, who has a doctorate in art history, works primarily on paper. Kapil Sharma has become a designer and a digital artist.

Ghose’s first visit to Nathdwara was as a wide-eyed child in 1975, accompanying her mother to visit artists and admire the traditional pigments they used. Later, as a college student, Ghose did write papers about the Pushtimarg sect but it was not her most significant preoccupation. However, she revisited Nathdwara a few years ago. She was horrified to learn that the artists and their wives wanted their children to leave the traditional occupation, and become doctors and engineers instead.

“In the nearby bazaars, one rarely sees pichvais — the beautiful cloth paintings in the distinctive Nathdwara style — but rather gaudy images of Shrinathji made of wood and plaster with faux jewels. To find good pichvais, for what the town was once so famous, one would need to hunt out artists’ studios in the maze of streets behind the temple or further away in Udaipur or Jaipur,” she writes in the book.

Fearing that the tradition would die out in her own lifetime, Ghose decided to embark on a project that would create awareness about the aesthetic tradition of the Pushtimargis. She felt that she needed to contribute instead of complaining.

“I went and learnt about the artist families, their lineages and histories. Since a lot of the art was done as seva, artists would not even put their names on the paintings. They started putting their names only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They deserve to be acknowledged for their artistic genius. Catering to the tourist market will plunge them back into anonymity,” says Ghose.

Ghose says, “The India Art Fair is round the corner, and everyone will be talking about contemporary art. We also need to ask this question: Where is tradition-based contemporary art in India heading?”

Madhuvanti Ghose’s presentation and the book launch will take place at Artisans’, Kala Ghoda at 6.30 pm.

(The author is a freelance writer)

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Printable version | Mar 5, 2021 10:48:14 PM |

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