'Traditional art can make your home look modern”: Pooja Singhal, revivalist, Pichvai art
As a new exhibition comes to town in Gallery SKE this weekend in Bengaluru, get ready to enjoy the beauty of Pichvai paintings, brought to you by Pooja Singhal, Founder of Atelier Tradition & Beyond
If you have always loved Pichvai art, the rich and vibrant paintings, created on beautiful fabrics, using hand blocks, embroidery or weaving, don’t miss this collection that will be showcased in the city this week. In an interaction with YS Weekender, revivalist Pooja Singhal talks about the beauty of Pichvai art and her journey with the craft….
What is special about Pichvai art? Why is it such an important art form?
The Pichvai tradition developed in a small temple town of Nathdwara, near Udaipur in Rajasthan. It is an ancient painting tradition of India. This intricate, exquisitely detailed and colourful artwork, had its origin within a religious context, but has gone on to become a big collectible for art connoisseurs. A unique although lesser known miniature tradition of India, the Pichvais have a long history, rooted in a specific medieval Vaishnavite religious cult of the 16th century, although known references to the paintings itself go back to 1739 A.D.
This four-hundred-year old art form, depicts god Krishna’s glorious life stories. A combination of ‘Pich’ and Wai’ means ‘back’ and ‘hanging’ respectively. They were traditionally wall hangings behind the idol of Srinathji, a plump 6-year-old deity of baby Krishna who lives in the Haveli at Nathdwara.
Organised around the worship of the Hindu god, Krishna, in his blue coloured childhood manifestation, ‘Srinathji’, the Pichvais developed as part of a larger ensemble of the Vallabh Acharya’s elaborate temple rituals, combining sensuous and aesthetic practices with the spiritual- through temple decoration, idol ornamentation, and grand festivities.
Can you tell us about your new exhibition in Bangalore?
The show ‘Greyscale Pichvais’ at Gallery SKE is a culmination of the Atelier Tradition & Beyond’s journey over the last ten years and a culmination of my relentless efforts to intervene, realign, reimagine and find a new contemporary language whilst retaining the beauty of this traditional technique, skill and art. What started as small changes in 2009, in this show comes together as a completely new format never shown before in its entirety. This show had 40-50 works.
A large section of this show has versions of the traditional temple map. This architectural map, a 400-year-old composition has been interpreted in greyscale and different shapes and scales and broken into pieces that fit like a puzzle and give an impression of the whole. Playing with scale was only made possible by combining the beauty of a pichvai with the scale of a miniature painting. The inclusion of miniature artists in the Atelier led to a juxtaposition of two art practices merging into a language that is completely fresh and new and leaves you with an impression of having experienced an art form that is familiar and yet different.
The reimagining of the temple map without colour and in multiple tones of grey suddenly contemporises the miraculous events and sacred objects depicting the life of Krishna.
The second major highlight of this show is the removal of religious iconography from a traditional art form. Some of the works with the removal of the idol focus on the priests who in their various poses of salutation and prayer could be offering their prayers to Krishna, Christ or Allah.
What got you interested in art and this form of art in particular?
Born and brought up in Udaipur, I grew up surrounded by Pichvais. My mother has always been a patron of the arts and a lot of the artists were in and out of our family home. She would often help family and friends who were visiting Udaipur, to buy a good Pichvai. The proximity to Nathdwara made Udaipur a hub for stores that sold these beautiful textiles that also hung in most of the homes we visited. Every time I looked at a Pichvai, I was amazed at how so many forms and colours came together with a beautiful aesthetic balance. The depth, width and history of this art form is unparalleled. Most large Pichvais have multiple compositions and events depicted in it.
Every time I returned to Udaipur, I would find fewer Pichvais that I could respond to. The forms, balance and aesthetics had all changed. I started to research and understand what factors had led to this decline. It almost felt like something beautiful from my childhood was lost. I had spent a considerable time working with handloom as part of the Delhi Crafts Council by then and had developed quite a passion for our Indian heritage. The more I delved into all things Indian, the Pichvai for me still stood out for its intricacies, aesthetics, colours, history and the multiple stories that it managed to hold together.
I also felt that our generation viewed everything traditional as outdated and was very taken up by everything western and contemporary, while in the west, a lot of the most popular museums had beautiful collections of Pichvais. Even though I had never studied this art form it felt familiar and easy to work with.
Can you tell us about your family's patronage of the art?
I belong to a third generation Industrialist family with deep roots in Udaipur, Rajasthan. A small town with a handful of business families, left very few patrons that the artists could depend on. With many relatives and business associates all over India, our home was always abuzz with visitors who were looking to take back something local and special to Udaipur. My family’s philanthropic foundation, the Saraswati Singhal Foundation was the first to support the Atelier and this initiative till it became self-sustaining.
How did you go about creating a link between commerce and creativity?
With the decline in quality of this art form, I started to research and work with my team to first understand and then address the various factors that had led to the decline. A long journey and many years later it led to the launch of Pichvai Tradition & Beyond. It’s been ten years since I started on this journey and today, I see myself as much a revivalist as an entrepreneur.
I feel traditional art must reinvent itself and appeal to the younger generation or the evolved aesthetic of the Indians of today. They are far more exposed to design and various art forms across the world. There was a time in the Indian Market when contemporary art was possibly the only art that people were aspiring to buy and collect. Traditional art was considered folk and tribal and an inexpensive form of art that was only hung in traditional homes.
There has been whole shift towards minimal, clean and contemporary design. Today we have come a full circle. It is something akin to fashion where we are moving towards traditional fabrics once again. A similar movement is now happening in the art scene where people want to buy traditional art. It has become aspirational.
Why is craft revival so important?
My mantra being there is no commerce without revival. We must preserve our traditional arts and crafts while making sure that they are made relevant for today’s generation. The senior generations grew up with Pichvai, while the younger ones grew up aspiring for contemporary art. And through my shows, I have aimed at bringing the younger audience in the fold of collectors for traditional art by decontextualising the ways in which traditional art was hung in various spaces. The use of an old Lutyens Delhi bungalow, an industrial space in Mumbai, a heritage space for a collateral at the Kochi Biennale has changed the narrative of this art form and broken an age-old perception that traditional art belongs in traditional homes.
Pichvai Tradition and Beyond was an initiative for the sustenance and revival of this endangered art form and now its supporting so many artists and their livelihood. The formation of my atelier with its unique structure is itself a new beginning and learning that I may hopefully be able to apply to other traditional art forms in the future.
I was drawn towards creating a business model that will work towards sustenance of this art form by allowing the structure to meet the varied needs of revival, survival, commerce, creativity and quality.
This show at Gallery SKE is a culmination of breaking boundaries and giving this art a completely new context.
Does this art have any presence in the international art scene?
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Most major museums across the world have Pichvais and miniatures in their collections. Through my various shows many international clients have appreciated and bought them. A client from Paris told me how her father travelled to India and built a collection.
Tradition and Beyond was set up in 2009. What were its aims and how far have you come towards achieving your objectives?
My first aim was to revive the quality that had been lost. Then I set out to not only bring Pichvias back into people memories but also to make them desirable, aspirational and collectible. Through my shows, social media campaigns and the stories written on my work today we have multiple web sites, reputed auction houses selling this art. That for me has been a huge achievement.
I also wanted to change the perception that only antique Pichvias were collectible. Bringing back quality and giving the works a relevant aesthetic for today has helped in creating a thriving market and seeing the sales I know that the objective is well achieved. Having completed my journey of revival I keep setting new milestones. I hope to use the traditional skills and my creativity now to have a completely contemporary language. I have begun that journey with my show at Gallery SKE for the first time in Bangalore.
All the artists need is a thriving market. Constantly innovating, creating, having shows in different formats keeps bringing my atelier growing which is the main sustenance for the artists.
If the words of writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron who once said,"Writing is what I do... it is like breathing to me..." defined the goals of Ephron's life, it would be Asha's mantra too, as she lives to create word pictures of the people she meets. She believes that the best stories "must move the heart and feed the mind". When she is not working, she loves reading novels and listening to music.