The Pichwai paintings are traditionally used for religious purposes like adorning the walls of temples and as decorations in temple chariots. In earlier times, Pichwais were given as gifts by the high ranked 'Goswami' priests. Princes and devotees would compete for such an honor.
Some painters have now begun making smaller pieces and working with acrylic paints as these materials allow their work to fall within a far more affordable price range and thus encourages their sale to tourists and art collectors.
The Pichwai paintings also serve as a historical documentation of Rajasthan preserving its rich cultural heritage. Over the years, these paintings have captured historic events the region has seen and they serve as an expression of the artisans' reverence of the religion, rituals and customs of the land.
Natural colours and other organic materials are traditionally used to create the Pichwai paintings. Even the brushes used are made of horse, goat or squirrel hair. 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 color from pure gold.
These paintings used in the backdrops in temples can take from a couple of weeks to a few months to be prepared. The paintings for the temples are usually commissioned by wealthy families. Paintings representing the idols of Shrinathji inside the temple are also bought by the devotees for their personal shrines. This becomes a source of income for the painters while satisfying the devotees who want an image of their deity since photography is prohibited inside the temples.
Myths & Legends
When 'Indra', the lord of rains, showed his wrath on the people of 'Vrindavan', with violent rains and thunder, lord Krishna lifted the 'Govardhan' Mountain like an umbrella and saved the inhabitants - “ the cows and cowherds, from Indra's fury. 'Indra' was humbled and the people started worshipping 'Govardhan', the giver of rains and green pastures. This mountain-lifting form of Lord Krishna is worshipped as Shrinathji. A popular legend about the establishment of Srinathji temple is that an image of the deity was found in 1409 AD when a cow worshipped the lord with offerings of milk. A temple was soon established in that spot which was considered auspicious and was deeply revered.
The Pichwai paintings fall under the 'Nathdwara school of paintings', which in is a sub-sect of the 'Mewar School'. The temple of Shrinathji in Nathdwara has been instrumental in flourishing the art. The temple was established in Nathdwara in 1671 AD and was later shifted to Rajasthan to protect them from Mughal king Aurangzeb's attacks. The highly revered 'Goswami' priests from Mathura established Shrinathji, the mountain-holding form of Lord Krishna, as the temple idol. 'Maharana Raj Singh' decided to provide refuge. Along with the idol of Shrinathji, the lord's 'Sevaks' - “priests, 'Halwais' (chefs), cows and their caretakers and the Pichwai painters (painters of temple background art) also went along. Many artists who were ardent devotees also flocked to the temple surroundings. Acharya Gopinathji was one among them who took up this style of painting and specialized in them.
References to Pichwai paintings are found in the poems of the Ashtachhapa poets which indicate that they surely existed as early as the 16th century. The poets were brought together by 'Vithalnathji', a leader of the Vallabha sect in the 16th century. These paintings are believed to be strongly influenced by the Mughal style. The imperial tents of the Mughals were embellished with elaborate hangings, canopies and partitions providing a regal setting. Vithalnathji was said to be in touch with the Mughals through Emperor Akbar and his court, and the influence is believed to have come through him. This is also supports the story that the enormous diamond on Shrinathji's chin in the paintings is the gift of Emperor Akbar.
The 'Pichwai' paintings come under the 'Nathdwara school of art' and are identified by their characteristic features; large eyes, broad noses and heavy bodies. These features are based on the idol of Lord 'Shrinathji' and are believed to emphasize the 'Shringara' or adornment.
Another unique characteristic of these paintings is the depiction of different occasions, seasons and festivals using various colors and elements. For example, pink lotuses are used to depict the summer season, whilst the bright full moon is used to mark the occasion of 'Sharad Purnima'. Occasions like 'Raas Leela' and 'Holi' are painted with backgrounds relevant to the season in which they take place.
Pichwais made Lord Shrinathji's shrine are some of the biggest in size, scaling up to 3 meters in width and about 1 meter in height. The portion in the painting that lies directly behind the idol is either left blank or is cut out.
Sometimes a large tree is drawn so that the deity appears to be standing under it. The tree (mostly 'Kadamba') in the Pichwai paintings is believed to resemble Lord Krishna from the 'Hinayana' Buddhist iconography. This is further established by the fact that these paintings show influences of the Mughal miniature style, with the 'Tree of Life' motifs being especially prominent.
Significant changes are not permitted in the important imagery and themes of the paintings. This is done so that the hordes of devotees who are only able to receive a short 'Darshan' (viewing of the idol), must be able to identify them at a glance. This is believed to enhance the impact of 'Darshan'.
The paintings sometimes have rich embroidery or applique work and are enclosed in dark borders with vibrant colours. Gold is also used to decorate the deities and white color is used to highlight outlines.
All the Pichwais used in the shrine of Lord Shrinathji date back to the 19th and 20th centuries. Very few paintings are newly commissioned as the cost of making new paintings have greatly increased. A good quality Pichwai can cost anywhere between Rs.10000 to Rs. 1,00,000 each, depending on its size.