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A rare glimpse of the golden period of Nathdwara painting

A new book features 60 miniature works from the collection of the late Gokal Lal Mehta and an essay by Amit Ambalal

‘Any Day Between Margashirsha, Krishna 3rd And Magha, Shukla 5th’. All photographs: courtesy Viya Home

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The distinctive Nathdwara paintings have always been noted for their use of colour and detailing. Usually, the deity is represented as shyama (black) while the pichvai (handpainted textile) backdrop and other elements exude vibrance. In Shringara Of Shrinathji, a new book published by Mapin, however, there’s an intriguing painting, Shyam (Black), Ghata, Pausha, in which the pichvai too is black, with a new moon motif shining on top.

The classic and the unusual find place in this limited-edition book conceptualised by Vikram Goyal, who helms Viya Home, which offers luxury products with a focus on indigenous crafts, and his eponymous interior design label. The book includes an essay by artist-scholar Amit Ambalal.

Shringara Of Shrinathji is a journey through the evolution of Nathdwara painting as seen from the lens of Gokal Lal Mehta’s family collection. It features reproductions of 60 miniature paintings of the centuries-old Pushtimarg tradition of Vaishnavism, commissioned by the then head of the Nathdwara temple, Tilkayat Govardhanlalji (1862-1934), and executed by chief artist Sukhdev Kishandas Gaur between 1890-1910. The paintings were gifted to Gokal Lal Mehta’s ancestor, Mehta Sahab Pannalalji, a prime minister of Mewar, for his devotion to the temple and charitable contributions to the state.

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The collection is significant, for it belongs to the golden period of Nathdwara painting and represents high-quality workmanship. While little is known of many artists of this form, this collection highlights the contribution of Sukhdev Kishandas Gaur. Ambalal notes that the artist was one of the first Nathdwara painters to adopt a photographic perspective, as is evident from his painting The Day Of The Solar Eclipse. In the work, Gaur brings the figures at the front into prominence by painting the background in perspective.

This limited-edition book has been conceptualised by Vikram Goyal, authored by artist-scholar Amit Ambalal and published by Mapin.
This limited-edition book has been conceptualised by Vikram Goyal, authored by artist-scholar Amit Ambalal and published by Mapin.

For the book, Ambalal, together with the descendants of tilkayats (custodians of the idol at Nathdwara), has deconstructed elements of the paintings. “For each of these paintings, Ambalal meticulously details the different aspects of the shringaras, including the season and day, the shringari, the headdress, ornaments, dress, and the pichvai backdrop,” writes Vanmala Mehta—Gokal Lal Mehta’s daughter and Goyal’s mother—in the foreword. The book explains, for instance, how the colours of shringara change with the seasons. For winter, the paintings are ornate with deep colours, while the warm season is reflected in pichvais with the lotus motif.

Shringara Of Shrinathji is a result of happenstance. Goyal had often heard his grandfather express a wish to see the paintings published to make them accessible to a wider audience. In 2020, just before the nationwide lockdown triggered by the spread of covid-19, he happened to meet Bipin Shah of Mapin Publishing. “I told him about my grandfather’s collection and later sent him photos of the same. He, in turn, showed them to Amit Ambalal, who thought they were extraordinary. That’s how the project came about,” says Goyal.

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For his family, the paintings represent a spiritual connection with their ancestors and Nathdwara. For the book, though, they had to look afresh at the aesthetic elements. And Ambalal offers an in-depth view of the deep symbolism behind each element of painting from the Pushtimarg tradition, which seeks to evoke the feeling of bhakti. He states that the lotus in the garland worn by the deity symbolises Radha’s heart, which Shrinathji always keeps close to his own. The tiny pitcher of water wrapped in red cloth and placed on a tiny pedestal represents his foster mother, Yashoda, and expresses vatsalya bhava. “His lotus-shaped eyes are so set that they appear to look downwards to cast grace, pushti, on those who seek refuge at his feet,” he writes.

There are detailed illustrations and infographics at the end about the various elements of shringara, the different kinds of mukuts (crowns), waghas (tunics), karnaphul (ear ornaments), and the genealogy of the tilkayats.

Detail from ‘Ashvin Navaratri, Shukla 8th’.
Detail from ‘Ashvin Navaratri, Shukla 8th’.

The book also traces the influence of each head of Nathdwara on the paintings. “The Nathdwara school of painting, though a melting pot of most schools of Rajasthan, emerged with a distinct style and character of its own. This distinction is because the artists painted not only as aesthetes but also as devotees…,” writes Ambalal. Several categories of art emerged: the pichvais, or textiles adorning the shrine and emphasising the theme based on the season or festival; and the miniature paintings commissioned by the tilkayats which offered artists a wider canvas to let their imagination roam. According to Ambalal, the first specific reference to a painted pichvai can be attributed to Govardhaneshji (1707-63), while Tilkayat Govardhanlalji later introduced imaginative elements to shringara, food, music and literature. Nathdwara painting reached its zenith in his tenure.

Over the years, Goyal’s relationship with the paintings too has evolved. Having grown up with the collection, he has referenced elements from it—the lotus, peacock, parrots—in his work in the past. “Twenty years ago, I had done wall panels and furniture inspired by these. More recently, I created installations, in which we worked sheets of metal as if they were cloth. While publishing this book, I wanted to add a contemporary touch, so I have mixed motifs like the herringbone with the lotus in the box. This is a large-scale book, in which the miniature spans a single page, followed by close-ups of the detailing,” says Goyal. The box in which the book rests references the old khakhas that used to hold Indian manuscripts. “Through this book, I have re-engaged with the collection in a deep, meaningful way,” he adds.

Shringara Of Shrinathji, priced at 9,500, is available on Amazon and www.shringaraofshrinathji.com.

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