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Beyond the Canvas: Exploring the Depths of Pichwai Diversity

Descent of Pichwai

B. N. Goswamy, states “This art is only concerned with the realities of life; above all, with passionate love-service, conceived as the means and symbol of all Union.”

Pichwai, also spelt as pichhwai, are big devotional Hindu painted representations of Shrinathji that are typically on fabric. The Pichwais are seen behind (peechhe) the deity, simply translating to “that which hangs from the back” in Sanskrit. 

Shrinathji with Gopis (Image source: Shrinathji with Gopis – 03 – Artisera)

They are often the overflow of affection for Krishna. Primarily designed to be hung in Hindu temples of the Pushtimarg devotional style, they’re particularly around Shrinathji Temple in Nathdwara, Rajasthan. To represent his leelas, they are hung behind the idol of Shrinathji, the centre of Pushtimarg worship and a local version of Krishna. 

Many kinds of Pichwai are known to exist; some are occasion-specific, such as those tied to festivals, while others are linked to seasons or rituals. In this blog, let us explore some lesser-known types of Pichwai.

Pichwai’s Traditional Techniques

Pichhwai of Raaslila or the Divine Dance (Image source: The Adoration of Krishna, Pichhwais of Shrinathji, Tapi Collection)

An unfamiliar kind of pichwai is carried out using the method of Khari printing. It is the art of printing fabrics using gold and silver powder. This technique still holds popularity in Western states of India like Gujarat and Rajasthan. 

It is the festival of the Sharad Purnima Utsava. Krishna replicates himself a dozen times to dance with each of the gopis. They dance the traditional Gujarati folk dance aka dandiya with wooden sticks. Where one side lights up by the sun, the other is by the crescent moon. Stars swarm the deep, dark sky. Four maidens glance as Krishna joins Radha in the middle of the ring. With musicians on either side of the circle, singing the chorus. 

Lace-net Pichwai

Originating from Germany and Nottingham, it is a machine-made cotton lace net. The introduction of lace-making machines in the second half of the 19th century offered a brand new visual appeal as opposed to the painted, printed, embroidered Pichwai. Being imported, their desirability and exclusivity were assured. Yet this genre of lace-net pichwai stopped as it had appeared. We still don’t know if it was something entirely different or the Swadeshi boycott of goods made abroad.

It is feasible that affluent Indian merchant families of the time belonged to the Pushti Marg sect and had deeply established links with foreign trading companies. Admiring this new fabric method provided delicate white-on-white contrast to the coloured options to which they were prone. 

The months of May, June and July are celebrated as Yamuna’s months of sewa. It is also used for Boat Sport also known as Naav Manorath. The pichwai outlined for this event is white, hence the relevance of this lace-net method.

Zardozi Emboridered Pichwai

Known to be the earliest dated example of Indian embroidered textiles, this pichwai is said to have been made in Surat during the installation ceremony of the Swarupa of Shri Ladileshji Prabhu at the Ladileshji Haveli at Gopipura. It was displayed with great splendour to mark the establishment of the temple. Embroidered on a rich maroon velvet fabric using the elements associated with the Pushti Margi they betray the overall composition of pichwai into a rather complex array of stitchcraft of the art of zari making. Pushti Marg Vaishnavas, with their resources, played an essential part in the economic life of Surat. Temple donations were considered a recognised and socially lauded service to the faith. 

The Pichwai is not simply just a celebration of a given occasion or festival, it is a celebration of the undying and everlasting connection. The life of the youthful Lord Krishna and the numerous festivals honouring him have been the subject of Pichwai paintings.

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By Soumya Kotian

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