Vibrant, dramatic, striking, and exquisite are just some of the words that describe a Pichwai. The pilgrims who visit Nathdwara temples describe these pictorial textiles as a real visual treat. It depicts the tales of Shrinath Ji, Radha, gopis and other festivals and celebrations. Moreover, this 400-year-old traditional Indian art not only showcases symbolic motifs but the usage of colours also carries a meaningful tale to tell.
Pichwai painting school stands out for its intricate style of painting done with organic colours and brushes. To depict the weather or festival the craftsman uses each colour purposefully. Apart from that, alchemy dictates its utilization.
Making of Colours – A Spiritual Process
Members of the Pushti Marg sect, founded by Shri Vallabhacharya in the 16th Century revere the process of painting a Pichwai. Right from the making of the colours using stones and metal to prepping the cloth for Pichwai is a holy process. The artisans believe that making colours is a process of spiritual realization. The alchemy behind obtaining the colours is a step toward the Divine and to the true nature of the self. As a matter of belief, the relationship between Gods and their earthly significance is an important aspect of the alchemical tradition.
It is said that the colours are derived from the earth’s womb which is mineral rocks and stones. The seven metals are derived from the seven planets which signify an Indian god. Evidently, the extracting of colours is a fundamental process of the Pichwai painting which carries stories and myths.
While the colour palette of Pichwai painting has red, blue, green, black, gold and white in them. There are a few primary colours which cannot be made by mixing two colours.
So, let us dive into the myths and significance of 3 natural colours primarily used in Pichwai painting.
Goguli is a yellow pigment that has a unique luminescent quality. Artisans usually make use of this colour to paint Shrinathji’s images symbolical of divine light. This bright colour signifies a myth that revolves around the Holy Cow. As often said Prithvi, the mother goddess seeks refuge in the form of a cow to flee from the first king Prithu. The cow is the symbol of Lord Krishna and this motif dominates the Pichwai paintings. As the local belief goes, this colour is extracted from the urine of the cow and hence is revered as the almighty himself. The use of yellow colour was evidently seen in the fifteenth century. However, the method of extracting colour is believed to have caused great distress to the animals and since 1908 government outlawed the process.
Hinglu or also called ‘synthetic cinnabar’ is most commonly used in miniature paintings. It is a heavy base colour that can be applied in a single coat. Unlike other techniques, the usage of Hinglu for framing the paintings is purely an Indian tradition. The ‘mercurial red border’ is an inherent part of the Rajput tradition. The myth behind this colour has alchemical significance. Mercury was known as the elixir that shouldnt’t be consumed by humans. Therefore, the gods requested Shiva to adulterate these mercury wells which resulted in impurities in the mineral. Hence the preparation of red pigment requires crushing and grinding that will eliminate the impurities and give a bright red colour. Consequently, the red colour is a symbol of fire that burns Maya(illusions) or ignorance.
Neel is the blue organic pigment in Pichwai painting. A plant named Indigo was grown in the Mewar region of Akola and Sanganer (Bilwari). While the Mewari artists named it batashi- neel the craftsmen from Nathdwara called it kanti-rang. The focal point of Pichwai, Shrinathji was painted using blue colour. Moreover, the blue colour is a metaphor for many worldly elements. As a matter of belief, Shrinath Ji is the protector of the universe and is bestowed with the ultimate power to fight against evil hence the colour signifying infinity is used to paint his images. Mythologically, lord Brahma – the creator has given several natural elements the colour blue; like the sky and ocean which depicts vastness. Therefore, Lord Krishna is painted in blue colour to represent vastness, bravery, divine power and a calm mind.
The artisans of the Pichwai painting school revere the alchemical significance, myths and stories behind the formation of colours and skillfully extract them. The creative process of making these colours is undeniably a marriage of spirit soul and skill.