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The Hindi term pichhwai is the name given to the large, painted cloth hangings used in the daily worship of the deity Shrinathji in Nathdwara. The pichhwai paintings of Rajasthan are intricately painted pictures portraying Lord Krishna. These paintings are exclusive to a small town, Nathdwara in western Rajasthan.

Legend has it that in 1409 AD, an image of Lord Srinathji, the mountain lifting form of Krishna was discovered and a temple was established there and was held in high reverence. In 1671, after multiple raids, this temple, lord’s sewak’s, cows and their caretakers along with the pichhwai Painters (painters of temple background art) moved away from Mathura towards Rajasthan. At one point, during their journey, the bullock cart got stuck in the ground and would not budge, it was only then they decided to re-establish the temple in that holy town of NathDwara, which literally means “doorway to the lord”.

The pichhwai paintings were primarily used to adorn the temple walls with the basic purpose of narrating tales of Krishna to the illiterate. Krishna is shown in different different moods, body postures, and attires. It is a very ancient form of art passed on from generation to generation.
The pichhwai style is from the Nathdwara school, and can be identified by characteristic features of large eyes, broad nose and a heavy body, resembling the features of their idol, “Shrinathji”.

The methods, materials and techniques of pichhwai paintings are the same as for miniature painting. Traditional craft like pichhwai is an entire process that binds craftsmen together in a dynamic ‘whole’ which is communicated through the minds and hearts of each and every individual.

In the making of pichhwai, (which may take several months, even years, depending on the size), it is the interaction of each craftsman and his relationship with the ‘whole’ which shapes the nature of the art.

One of the most famous pichhwai art is the “Maharasa Lila pichhwai”; according to a myth, in this “lila”, Krishna calls forth the gopis of Vraj on the autumnal full moon night (Sharad Poornima) with the promise of Rasa Lila dance. And at the sound of his flute the gopis leave their families and go to the forest nearby the banks of the river Yamuna. Having obtained respect from the noble minded Krishna, the Gopis start considering themselves superior to all other beings on the earth. After perceiving the scenario, Krishna disappears right then in order to turn their minds away from pride and bestows well being. But soon after realizing their sincerity, he returns back once more to dance the Maharasa Lila, multiplying himself so that he could be with each at the same time.

 In its original from, the Maharasa pichhwai is 2.5X2.5 meters in dimensions and the construction of a original Maharasa Lila pichhwai involves:

  1. Marking out a 3-4 inch wide boundary, containing the creeper motif that frames the painting. The center is then generated by joining two lines from border to border.
  2. From this central point, a circle touching the inner borders is created.
  3. The central point of the painting passes through the heart of Srinathji who can be seen standing in tribhanga posture.
  4. 2-3 circles are generated with their internal squares to create a eight-pointed star octagon at the center of the painting.
  5. Furthermore, squaring the circles, helps out the painter to determine accurate proportions and spacings to create a perfect masterpiece. Apart from it, the outcoming octagon the eight states of matter that determine life and the Nakshatra.

On a starched cloth, the painter first makes a rough sketch and eventually gives a proper and proportional shape to the painting. The painting is then carefully painted by providing every minute detail to the subject.

Traditionally, the artists use natural colors and brushes made from horse, goat and squirrel hair, however, nowadays faster and less expensive material have replaced them.One can still find many paintings done with natural colours only. The use of pure gold in the paintings adds to their value and charm. For one painting, it may take 3-4 days to just prepare colour from pure gold.

Different paintings are made for different occasions, different seasons,festivals, and so on. While the painting has pink lotuses in the summer, the painting for Sharad Purnima is a night scene with the bright full moon. Themes such as Raas Leela, Holi, Annakut (Govardhan Puja) are also seen in their relevant occasions.

Now, even after 400 years, the rituals and traditions and the devotion towards Sri Nathji remain the same.The artists mostly residing in Chitron Ki Gale (Street of paintings) and Chitrakaaro ka Mohalla (colony of painters) and form a close interrelated and interactive community. The town shows stronger cultural influence of Mathura (Uttar Pradesh) than Rajasthan. Different paintings are made for different occasions, seasons, and festivals.

The temple gates open to reveal the spectacular sight of Shrinathji with the beautiful pichhwai in the background, in this town full of business communities, their beloved Krishna is not just their lord Shrinathji, but also their king.

Over the passage of time, these paintings have become the main export of Nathdwara and are now in much demand amongst the foreign visitors in the area.