Pooja Singhal has been deepening conversations about revival and curatorial interventions in the 17th century art form of Pichvai for nearly a decade now, working to mainstream it and shape the way it is presented to the world. She is variously, a cultural and creative entrepreneur, an activist curator, and an art interventionist. Her love affair with studying, sustaining and pushing the boundaries of traditional forms, however, began much before that with the creation of RUH, a brand that presented women with beautifully tailored garments that accessed Indian heritage.
The Pichvai tradition had always been integral to Pooja’s life. Because she grew up in Udaipur, she was umbilically connected to the paintings and all their accompanying rituality. Her family’s patronage of the art and the artists allowed an inside view, of course, and Pooja grew up steeped in the allegorical symbolism and richly depicted form of the works with the diety presiding – the beautiful blending of absolute devotion and art that is Pichvai. During her time off from work, Pooja began taking a more active interest in the paintings themselves, studying historically used materials, colours, and fabrics and comparing them to what was being used in the paintings touted to tourists and buyers as Pichvai. She also made an attempt to understand why the quality of the works had so drastically declined. A clearer picture of the market scenario surfaced and her journey of revival began in earnest. Researching old compositions from reliable sources like Amit Ambalal’s book 'Krishna as Shrinathji: Rajasthani Paintings from Nathdvara' with their perfect balance and aesthetic, use of natural pigments and materials, recreating them with the help of older artists she knew, and finally, instigating the sale of the paintings became her driving agenda. She formed an atelier of sorts, where the experienced artists trained the younger ones and paintings were worked on collaboratively. For Pooja, this link between commerce and creativity was (and is) essential and undeniable: for her, no revival or sustainability is possible without a market for the work that will support the progenitors of the art.
But Pooja’s creative journey was just beginning. Revival was only the springboard, and from there, an organic process of curatorial interventions began to flow. Pooja started seeing connections, instigating interplays and avatars that no one had dreamed of, and bringing them alive in a contemporary context of art and design. The story had begun a long time ago, but the incipient discovery of how all her previous learnings and skills came together in this passion-based project was only just materializing. The spirituality and pureness of motive inherent in the glorious Pichvai devotional practice were finding synergy with Pooja’s own personal learnings at the time.
Pichvais & Interventions
Pooja’s first show in Jor Bagh in 2015 showcased this painstaking rebuilding of the traditional Pichvai in form, detailing and overall aesthetic, with 80 works on display. However, there were certain interventions already in play, especially in terms of scale and decoration, presentation and viewer engagement. The miniaturization of certain works had begun; and secondly, the use of Mughal miniature motifs in the larger, deconstructed works added a meaningful layering, depth and intersectionality. Set in an old Lutyens’ bungalow which Pooja re-plastered and re-painted so that viewers could easily imagine the works on their own walls, the contemporary manifestation of an ancient art was warmly received.
Traditional art has lingered long at the fringes of the art movement in India. Pooja understood that she had to ease Pichvai art into the mainstream, change its perception into that of a serious art form, to help it command better value and rise above the hard-to-shake epithet of ‘craft’. She had to revolutionise the way Pichvai art was seen, critiqued and understood. So when she was invited to the India Art Fair in 2016, she leapt at the chance to exhibit the show alongside with contemporary artists and galleries from around the world.
The next exhibit was a collateral at the Kochi Muziris Biennale in 2016-2017, further cementing the entry of Pichvai into the global art scene. Here, in an old Chettinad mansion, Pooja’s works glittered – as by this time she had created the stunning Deccan Pichvai miniatures.
In 2018, another pathbreaking intervention led to a large selection of artists’ preliminary sketches being elevated to a distinct, very palatable art form, as well as detailed greyscale drawings, including a remarkable map of the temple at Nathdwara. Even more interesting was the use of Famous Studios, an industrial space in Mumbai, as the venue for this show. And in her newest undertaking, Pooja will mount a multidimensional show in the stunning Bikaner House in Delhi, curated, commissioned and designed by her. This show ramps up the interventions to a new level. The secular, non-iconic works, featuring cows, lotuses and other symbols arranged in the neutral gallery space appeal to a new type of buyer, and the Deccan miniatures will have their own following in the grand ballroom. Lastly, the black and white foyer space will be infused with the monochromatic interventions like greyscale and sketches.
This curious trajectory reveals Pooja’s intentional attempt to stage the artwork in diverse spaces to provoke the imagination. The drama inherent in the play of the art and the space and manner in which it is shown adds an intriguing dimension to how the work is perceived and thought about. From a colonial bungalow, to contemporary art spaces, from a heritage home to a warehouse: the Pichvai: Tradition and Beyond works stand tall and claim their birthright with pride.