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Worshipping Shrinathji

Kavita Singh

By Desmond Peter Lazaro
Mapin Publishing, Ahmedabad, 2005, pp. 204, price not stated.

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 1-2 January-February 2006

Pichwai painting is one of the best documented painting traditions in India. There have been several studies of pichhwai painting’s background, themes and iconography, such as Robert Skelton’s Rajasthani Temple Hangings of the Krishna Cult (1973), Talwar and Krishna’s Indian Pigment and Paintings on Cloth (1979) and Amit Ambalal’s Krishna as Shrinathji (1987). There has been, amazingly, a study of pichhwai painters by a psychoanalyst interested in the perceptions and meaning of creativity in a tradition-bound community (Ronaldo Maduro’s fascinating Artistic Creativity in a Brahmin Painter Community, 1976). There has been a wonderful, intensely detailed study of the chief artist families in Nathadwara, in Tryna Lyons’ The Artists of Nathadwara (2004). Further, the cult that pichhwai paintings serve, that of Krishna as Shrinathji, the Vallabha Sampradaya to which it belongs, and their philosophy of shuddhadwaita have all been studied by historians, religious historians and anthropologists, whose work then feeds into and off the studies of the remarkable paintings as well. Among the more innovative studies relating painting, religious philosophy and ritual are several essays by Woodman Taylor, including a major one in Gods Kings and Tigers edited by Stuart Cary Welch (1997). In adding to this corpus, Desmond Peter Lazaro should have had a hard act to follow. There seems so little ground left to cover that a new entrant to the field would be hard pressed to find an area to call his own.   Why has pichhwai painting attracted so much attention when so many important courtly painting traditions have hardly one or two studies worth the name? For one thing, the paintings can be utterly wonderful, and their large scale – upto six feet square – serves to make them more ‘approachable’. In pichhwai there are large areas of beautiful colour and bold, easily grasped motifs – fish, lotus, tree, cow, gopi, god. Even when the details of the iconography and content are not known it is not difficult to grasp the concept – this one sets the scene for a lush bower, this one shows worshippers gazing adoringly at their god. There is none of the ‘for-connoisseurs-only’ sense that attaches to miniature paintings from princely courts, where the artist hides tiny details or conjures up elliptical narrativizations to tease the jaded connoisseur’s eye. For another thing, pichhwais arise out of a fascinating context, and the paintings are part of a cult that believes that the sense pleasures that please man will ...

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