Preserving the Pichvai

Anjali Jhangiani
Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Delhi-based art enthusiast and designer Pooja Singhal talks about her relationship with the traditional art of Pichvai and how she is working towards reviving and making it popular among new audiences through a series of exhibitions

Pooja Singhal has her hands full with the third edition of the Pichvai revival series titled Pichvai Tradition & Beyond, which is all set to be exhibited on April 7 at Famous Studios, Mumbai. Pichvai paintings are made on cloth or paper. Traditionally, the pictures depict scenes from the life of the Lord Krishna. The name Pichvai comes from two Sanskrit words put together — Pichh meaning ‘back’ and vai meaning ‘wall hanging’. You will usually find these paintings hung behind the deity in temples.

Patron of Pichvai
Singhal grew up with Pichvai art in her hometown. “My mother was a patron of the art. I grew up seeing artists coming to my home to show their work to her. She would help relatives and friends visiting Udaipur to buy a good Pichvai,” says Singhal, adding, “Over the years, my attempts to buy a good Pichvai were in vain, as the patronage had declined and therefore the art form was no longer viable for many of the artists. Younger generations were finding it extremely difficult to bear  the expense of the material, and hence went on to become vegetable and tea-stall vendors. I realised that very soon there would be no artists left who could produce a good Pichvai.”

Then Singhal started working with some of the senior artists who were associated with her family  to explore the factors responsible for its decline. “Pichvai is a very colourful, complex, and intricately detailed art form. Every time I looked at a Pichvai painting, I was amazed at how so many forms and colours came together and formed such a beautiful aesthetic balance. The depth and the width of this art form were phenomenal. The more I saw, studied, and researched, the more I felt that there was so much that could be done. It was almost a spiritual calling for me to work with these artists,” says Singhal.

Working with artists
Eight years ago, Singhal decided that she will take it upon herself to revive, preserve, and sustain the tradition of making Pichvai paintings. “Once Ruh (my clothing label) was settled,  I started to research and work with my team of artists to revive this art form in its old glory. A long journey and many years later it led to the launch of Pichvai Tradition & Beyond,” says Singhal.

She has created a small community of artisans from Rajasthan. “Most of them work out of our main atelier near Udaipur, where they create the paintings upon receiving direction on the choice of colours, the materials etc from me. A few younger artists also receive training from the experienced ones. Some of them make their contributions through satellite ateliers as well,” says Singhal.

Contemporising the art form
Since this is a traditional art form, the beauty, one may argue, lies in traditional designs. But that doesn’t work in the market anymore, which is what led to most artists abandoning their art. However, with a little twist, it might appeal to buyers. “For traditional art forms and practices to resonate with contemporary audiences, they require to be re-interpreted and contextualised for the here and now. Over the past years, my initiative has re-imagined and reworked the layered historical styles and influences in newer scales, formats and themes for a wider audience,” says Singhal.

How? She explains, “For example, for our show in Mumbai each thematic section will present a selection of fine artworks in both miniature and large scale formats. The juxtaposition of rare traditional compositions alongside new interventions and reinterpretations makes this exhibition exceptional. Pichvai art works will be displayed in an entirely industrial setting, against black and grey walls ensuring that it will work in both modern and traditional setup. In an attempt to give miniature artists sustenance, I had commissioned large cloth works in a miniature format on hand-made paper called Basli. The same experiment was successfully carried out with miniatures in cloth.”

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