Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings is the first major U.S. exhibition to explore the visual traditions of the Pushtimarg, a Hindu sect in Western India. This community is best known for the creation of pichvai, and we wanted to give you some behind the scenes information on one of the important pichvai in the exhibition, the Kamalan ki Pichvai (pictured above).
But first, what is a pichvai? A pichvai is a textile hanging that pays tribute to Shrinathji, the childhood incarnation of Krishna. Pichvais are often used as a backdrop for larger shrines venerating Krishna. Throughout the centuries, Pichvais have been primarily created by followers of the Pushtimarg sect in Nathdwara, a village in western India.
Kamalan ki Pichvai is painted but pichvais can also be woven, embroidered, printed, and/or dyed. Each pichvai is made for a particular season or festival day, which is why the Gates of the Lord exhibition is organized around the changing of seasons.
Kamalan ki Pichvai (“Pichvai of Lotuses”) is the first thing you see in the summer gallery. The painting depicts a fluting Krishna image (detail below), known as Gokulchandramaji, placed under a pavilion of roses in the center of a lotus pond. Pichvais with lotus motifs were popular during the summer season, as they recalled the summers when Krishna would frolic in the banks of the Yamuna River. The purpose of this backdrop would be to imitate a cool environment within a shrine during the hot, Indian summers.
The fabulous lotus imagery has earned this pichvai certain notoriety. The owner, artist and scholar Amit Ambalal, features Kamalan ki Pichvai on the cover of his pioneering book on Pushtimarg art, Krishna as Shrinathji: Rajasthani Paintings from Nathdvara, published in 1987. On why this painting stood out to him, Ambalal says:
It was an exciting experience when it came to me. Here the pichvai is as late as circa 1900 CE. The fascinating part was that in the earlier versions of the same subject the lotus motif was static and repetitive, almost as if block printed. In this pichvai the artist changed the entire perception of this subject only to make it more lyrical and colorful. In particular, I like this phase of the Nathdwara School, when photography and European arts had become available in India. The Nathdwara artists took this as a challenge and accepted this new imagery and integrated it into their own art.
Since the release of Ambalal’s Krishna as Shrinathji, Kamalan ki Pichvai has become quite a recognizable image in western India. The famed heritage hotel in Ahmedabad, The House of Mangaldas Girdhardas (MG, for short), has attracted many guests with its Lotus Pool. The Mangaldas family, followers of the Pushtimarg sect, modeled the pool’s mosaic floor and painted ceiling directly after the long, curling lotuses floating in Kamalan ki Pichvai.
When we were given the opportunity to borrow from Amit Ambalal’s collection of hundreds of pichvais and miniature paintings for the Gates of the Lord exhibition, it was no easy feat to narrow down the selection to fit inside our Regenstein galleries. One thing we did know was that we must bring this lotus pichvai to Chicago. The Art Institute’s conservators Rachel Freeman and Daniela Leonard made this possible by dedicating two and a half weeks of treatment (more on this in a future post) to Kamalan ki Pichvai in order to stabilize the work for the long trip between Ahmedabad and Chicago. They worked tirelessly inside Amit Ambalal’s 15th century home, Kamal Chowk (“Lotus House”), so we could showcase the delicate Kamalan ki Pichvai at the Art Institute of Chicago.