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 also the usage of colours which carry a meaningful tale to tell.
Pichwai painting schools stand out for their intricate style of painting done with organic colours and natural brushes. To depict the weather or festival the craftsmen use 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 preparing these colours is a process of spiritual realization. The alchemy behind obtaining the colours is a step toward the Divine and towards self-realization. As a matter of belief, the relationship between the 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 each signify an Indian god. Evidently, the extraction of colours is a fundamental process of Pichwai paintings which narrate stories and myths.
While the colour palette of Pichwai painting includes 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 the colour yellow was evidently seen in the 15th century. However, the method of extracting colour is believed to have caused great distress to the animals and since 1908, the government of India outlawed the process.
‘Hinglu’ or also called the 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 shouldn’t be consumed by humans. Therefore, the other divinities 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 eliminates the impurities and gives 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’, and the craftsmen from Nathdwara called it ‘kanti-rang’.
The focal point of Pichwai, the diety Shrinathji was painted using the colour blue. Moreover, blue is a metaphor for many worldly elements. Local folklore narrates that 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. According to Hindu mythology, lord Brahma – the creator gave several natural elements the colour blue is 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.