CHENNAI: The modestly decorated stall was difficult to find among the vibrant ones at the Santhe exhibition which concluded at Kalakshetra on February 19, but those who did find were spellbound by the opulence of the pichwai paintings mainly about Lord Krishna’s tales.

A lush green backdrop, cows and lotuses bordering the lord with distinctive fish-shaped eyes comprise a pichwai, which in Devanagari means ‘at the back’.

The intricate art form, which originated in Rajasthan’s Nathdwara, involves painting ‘Shreenathji’ the child form of the lord on a starched cotton cloth base. The paintings are normally hung behind the idol, but have over the years manifested in various forms. A crockery collection, designed by Rohit Bal inspired by pichwai, is available at goodearth.in.

Sushil Soni, who mans the stall, says the painting earlier were solely used for worship. “Nowadays, these are also used as wall hangings. A painting with gold and silver detailing can range between Rs 45,000 and a few lakhs,” adds the 35-year-old who has been painting since he was 12.

Most pichwai artists swear by organic material like vegetable dyes, orpiment (yellow coloured arsenic mineral), cochineal (scarlet coloured dye) and lapis (blue metamorphic rock) though synthetic colours are also being used.

The urge for innovation is opening up new doors. Gaatha, an online website, is providing artists a platform to showcase their creations. Sumiran Pandya of Gaatha says the art form has been grabbing attention abroad. “We have started creating saris using some elements of pichwai like the lotus. We refrain from using the entire tales of lord Krishna to avoid hurting religious sentiments,” he adds.

Shyam Sunder Sharma, a 53-year-old artist who has sold a few of his pieces on Gaatha, feels it is yet to receive due attention. Soni agrees, saying saying even though the handloom and handicraft industry is being encouraged by the Centre, enough is not being done to encourage and promote pichwai and its artists.
Pratham, a sari startup by Prashant Garg and his wife Shweta, took some time to find a niche after it was established in 2004, but ther has been no looking back after a couple of visits to Rajasthan and pichwai exhibitions led to a sari collection in 2016. “Till now we digitally printed the elements of pichwai on the saris, but recently we have tied up with two artists and will soon produce a hand painted collection of pichwai saris,” says Prashant. Pratham has tied up with Chennai-based Amethyst that plans to organise an exhibition “Whispering stones” in Coimbatore to display pichwai saris.
Pichwai artists strongly feel the art form can never die and only needs patience, care and protection. This, they assert, will make it immortal like the tales it depicts.

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