Playing with the scale of the Pichwai paintings has been a continuous theme for PTB. Scaling down the huge cloth compositions into a quarter of their size on basli paper, yet retaining the detail, finesse and spirituality inherent in the works has been a determined effort. It opens up the ownership of the art and its revival to people in city homes, apartments and more. The smaller works have a distinct visual identity of their own: the paper reacts differently to the natural colours and creates a distinctly vintage look, referencing the traditional form that new and culturally contemporary buyers love. PTB interventions can be minimal, or they can be layered and intense, containing miniatures within the miniatures. The skill – and commitment to process –needed for this engenders complex works which celebrate the deity with as much fervour as the larger pieces. The interventions come centrestage too, in the unusual ways the exquisite works are treated, encased and displayed by the curator. Back and forth we go, from the past to the present, from the large to the miniscule, conjuring worlds and visions for diverse audiences and epochs.
Mughal influences are rife in the Pichvai tradition – the syncretic nature of India a few hundred years ago ensured that. PTB renders a fresh formulation that is its very own invention: using decorative elements from Mughal miniature painting to add layers to traditional Pichvai compositions. The deity and the priest’s clothes, the backdrop, the borders – all get embellished subtly by the beautiful motifs. This creative input was birthed when the curator was attempting to decontruct the Chowbees Swaroop, (the 24 boxes forming the border of a large Pichvai). She discovered that the works on their own seemed somewhat flat when removed from the confines of the larger cloth compositions of yore. Adding the Mughal miniature decorative features brought them to vivid life without disrupting their aesthetic harmony, and formed an intriguing direction for the PTB atelier to move in. Since then, the artists have produced several series of works using this idea. The works encompass diverse subjects from the original canon beyond the Chowbees Swaroop, including much-loved central subjects like the Annakut, Gopashtami and Sharad Purnima.
In PTB’s paradigm, interventions of scale slide into other manoeuvres, pushing the boundaries of the art form from every direction. Technique is the thread that binds it all together. On this wall, Pichvai miniatures with the gentle beauty of Mughal decorative elements have been magnified to a larger format, executed on cloth like the traditional works. This is a whole re-imagining and re-invention of the cloth Pichvais, and its provenance lies with the curator. Yet again we see the play of scale and materials that moves from large to tiny, from cloth to paper and then back again, this time with graphical interventions too. Thus is art created.
GOLD ON CLOTH
The Deccan Pichvais were created by the artists who learned the foiling technique from others in the Nizam’s court, and combined it with Pichvai forms a hundred years ago. Innovating a technique that replicates the dull, ‘antique romance’ sheen of old works on cloth has been challenging and fulfilling. And it is what the modern buyer wants. The resulting works turn the idea of new and old on its head: the antiquing is consciously done to serve the tastes of contemporary viewers. The gold on cloth editions depict very unusual, secular and non-iconic takes on the Pichvai tradition, which will soon be taken further by the curator. PTB is now experimenting with different materials and styles. It deconstructs, repositions and decontextualizes forms including the universally popular cow, the lotus and more. The dancing cow in burnished gold, with her head thrown back in rapture becomes the central figure splayed on the black fabric backdrop with its unique texture, evolving visuals never seen before in Pichvai art.
PTB has achieved considerable success in its creative manipulations including deconstruction and miniaturization, which can be seen on the other walls in this section. The miniaturization of the Deccan Pichvais on paper is highly significant. Besides the stunning outcome, the scaling down arose from two needs: the old world feel of the Deccan works has been hard to recreate on cloth, so paper was the obvious alternative. Secondly, miniature artists get much needed employment from this venture.
Miniaturizing the old compositions was the first level of intervention. Deccan works often depict Krishna, his kadamba tree and the lovely gopis. The decontextualizing and reimagining of these classic elements was the next: for example the trees the gopis dance around become the focal point in new works, sometimes going down to six inches in size, their delicate leaves painted tiny, and aflame with gold and silver.
The other ever-present element has been the fulsome cows, which the interventions zoom in on with love. In geometric repetitive patterns they create a whole new visual effect. In juxtaposition with other deconstructed elements like flowers and trees, new stories are told of perhaps what happens when their Lord is busy elsewhere. All these subjects are painted with the same delicate techniques of miniaturization and real gold and silver foil, the individual parts adding up to an undeniably contemporary whole.
COWS & LOTUS
Akin to pop art and even animation in the way they repeat in a wallpaper pattern, or enter and exit the canvas, the compositions here address a younger and newer audience, fulfilling the twin characteristics of accessibility and aspiration. Non-religious and graphically bold, they epitomize today’s India: rooted in the traditional, but gliding into a new age.
They delight the senses with their secular themes, like appropriating the beloved cow into new settings and dynamic modes, with striking backgrounds like checks and chevrons. The cows are so alive and playful, de-linked from their Krishna connections with stories of their own; but because of the skill and training of the artists, they flow seamlessly from the Pichvai tradition into modern scapes.
Lotuses are ubiquitous in Pichvai art, generally scattered over a grey background. PTB has reworked this, placing them on various coloured backdrops including pastel blue, white and pink and more, framed like triptychs or painted like foliage or in repetitive patterns, giving them adaptability and edge.
This thread of contemporary conversation traipses through walls in all the spaces of this exhibition, toying with the idea of display and hanging. Here it is miniatures lining hip metal shelves and brackets, and metal frames enclosing tradition in order to set it free of time.
The dialogue continues also in the transfiguring of the ornate Deccan works into cows, lotuses and trees, or in the foyer, in some very eclectic cow wallpaper backdrops for the large coloured Kota screens. The form is as exact, the motifs as intricate and the proportions perfect, but the vocabulary is light, breezy, and speaks about popular culture in an India that is very today.
In a twisting of chronology, black and white photography inspired greyscale versions of a 400-year-old map, which features a visual representation of the town of Nathdwara. The curator is perpetually pushing boundaries and innovations with artsists in the atelier. One of these conversations was about taking the sketches on an extended trajectory. PTB had already presented this first level of Pichvai creation as an art form in itself, and now wanted to explore new directions with monochrome. The artists were unable to visualize this new intervention until they were asked to reference black and white photography. The first experiment in this new thoughtstream was the map, in 2016. The reimagining of this painting without colour, and now in multiple tones of grey suddenly contemporizes the miraculous events and sacred objects depicting the life of Krishna in the labyrinthine map.
Placing the very traditional Chowbees Swaroop, a particular favourite of the curator, in the space between black and white allows the emergence of a new language which viewers instantly respond to. From this zigzagging in time, we see yet another experiment with monochrome: the larger than life idols of the deity in the foyer, pulled out from very traditional compositions. Leaning laconically against the wall, with pops of colour and the grey Benday dots a la Lichtenstein decorating their clothing, they appeal strongly to the urban viewer’s gaze. Playing with scale and colour, paper and cloth, the atelier’s resourcefulness comes through in these compositions.
The curator, even as a child, was intrigued by the little boxes that bordered the original Pichvais, and always yearned for a closer look into the heart of those images-within-the-image. Chief among her favourites were the Chowbees Swaroop – the shringar of Krishna celebrated in the 24 festivals of Nathdwara – which remains a regular feature of many of the old works. In this show, the Chowbees Swaroop has been interpreted in several ways, subverting and crisscrossing techniques, rewriting the old stories with tweaks in scale, colour and more. When the Chowbees Swaroop was first extracted from the original compositions, it did not stand very well on its own. The enrichment of these deconstructed images with Mughal miniature elements gave them depth and beauty, and marked a significant success in the artistic intervention practise of the curator and the artists of PTB.
A rare, old Kota version of the Chowbees Swaroop adorns this wall on very modern ledges, setting off the adaptable nature of the Kota style. Somewhere in the mists of time, a traditional artist thought to combine his devotional outpourings set around Srinathji with his skill as a miniaturist in the Mughal style. And what he came up with was so like PTB’s work deconstructing these boxes that encircle the main composition in a Pichvai, scaling them down, and producing a work of wonder and skill.
These divine forms in Mughal miniature style also adorn the blue wall in the gold room. And on another wall, a cluster of greyscale miniatures framed in red flaunt the same 24 sartorial avatars of the Lord – as well as the rivers of manipulations that form the core of this show.