One of India’s most private religious communities, the Pushtimarg also developed one of the country’s most unique artistic traditions. For centuries, members of the Hindu sect — dedicated to the worship of the deity Shrinathji, a manifestation of Krishna as a seven-year-old child — have performed highly aestheticized daily rituals that closely merge art and devotion. The large community of artists decorates shrines with wall and miniature paintings as well as textile hangings known as pichvais, all rigorously created to correspond with the changing seasons and the colors and symbols of religious festivals. A collection of these works is now on view at the Art Institute of Chicago in Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings, a sprawling exhibition that offers a rare glimpse of a cloistered painting tradition that’s gradually dissolving as India rapidly modernizes.
The majority of the works on view come from the Pushtimarg’s main temple in the town of Nathdwara, which sits on the banks of the Banas River in western India. Many others are drawn from two rarely exhibited private collections in India and are in the United States for the first time. The exhibition largely focuses on pichvais, which function as backdrops for the sacred image of Shrinathji and are part of the temple’s carefully orchestrated series of rituals that involves frequently changing the religious ornamentation in the entire shrine. Known only to the followers of the sect, these traditions are private; the temple bans cameras and phones, so no photographs of worship exist.
“The aesthetic traditions of the Pushtimarg make it stand out alone,” curator Madhuvanti Ghose told Hyperallergic. “They dressed the sacred image [of Shrinathji] daily, and all of the images in the shrine are in sync with what he’s wearing. Everything is codified and written out. It’s a level of detail and exquisiteness that is very hard for an ordinary person to comprehend.”
Painted or made of brocade or even lace, the pichvais help to create a colorful environment for devotion. They’re chosen specifically to help set the mood of the day in conjunction with the sacred image’s appearance.
“The way in which the shrine is adorned changes with the seasons, and each season has a particular feeling,” Ghose said. “The paintings and pichvais reflect whatever is seasonal of that moment. In the summer you would use lighter colors and see summer flowers, like sweet-smelling jasmines and other white flowers. As the monsoons appear, everything is lush and green, and you’ll see lotus flowers, peacocks. In the autumn, they’ll have many festivals — you’ll see a lot of cows because they have the cow festival at that time of the year.”
Usually placed in the center of the picture plane, Shrinathji is often depicted in deep shades of blue with a raised left hand. His outfit is always incredibly detailed, from his crown and clothing to his jewels, shoes, and garlands, with different ones for different occasions. In one pichvai showing Sharad Purnima, an autumn festival celebrating the full moon, he wears a multicolored layered skirt, flanked by six milkmaids dancing along the Yamuna River. In another, displayed during Gopashtami, which celebrates the day Krishna became a cowherd, the deity appears playing a flute to charm his cows. Some pichvais do not feature Shrinathji — his appearance isn’t necessary, since he’s already represented by the sculptural sacred figure that stands in front of the hangings. One example features the founder of the sect, Vallabhacharya, seated beside his son Vitthalnathji; another is more decorative, showing a chain of cows patterned with handprints and peacock feathers on their horns.
Ghose is especially familiar with the Pushtimarg, as she visited Nathdwara as a child, studied the sect in college, and revisited the temple town a few years ago. When she was last there, she was disturbed to see that the painting tradition was disappearing. Many families told her they didn’t want their children to paint but instead pursue more lucrative careers.
“India is developing very, very, very fast,” Ghose said. “What was a sleepy little temple town when I was young is now bursting at its seams. Everyone wants to do well in modern India, and the artists have the same kinds of aspirations. Nathdwara is extremely well connected [to the outside world] now, and there are more opportunities for kids growing up today.”
Through the exhibition, she hopes to shine a light on the tradition — not only to introduce it to Western eyes but also to commemorate the artists, who largely remain anonymous (few write their names on their works).
“In India, most artists and artisans are not named,” Ghose said. “Especially when they’re doing something religious, they’re doing it with the feeling that it’s their sacred job.”
Today, pichvais have become largely trendy; artists still create the works, but without the same attention to form and color. It’s fashionable to hang these imitations, as Ghose calls them, behind couches rather than as sacred images in shrines. Last December, she encouraged the artists still devoted to their craft to set up an organization, “The Artists of Nathdwara,” to promote their painting traditions. More than 20 people have joined.
“There are still over 300 artists in Nathdwara who are practicing in the traditional way,” Ghose said. “With this lineage, with this history, this place is unique, even in India.”
Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings continues at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through January 3, 2016.