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The fascinating cultural encounters behind kalamkari pichvais

A new book cites examples of syncretic encounters between two distinct cultural streams—Persian and Indian—in Kalamkari pichvais, making these examples of Deccani art truly unique

Fig. 9.3a and 9.3b: Two sides of a pichvai commissioned by a Pushti Marg devotee for Shrinathji, Nathdwara; Golconda region, second quarter of the 18th century. Courtesy: Francesca Galloway, London. From the book, 'The Colours of Devotion', published by Niyogi Books.
Fig. 9.3a and 9.3b: Two sides of a pichvai commissioned by a Pushti Marg devotee for Shrinathji, Nathdwara; Golconda region, second quarter of the 18th century. Courtesy: Francesca Galloway, London. From the book, 'The Colours of Devotion', published by Niyogi Books.

The presence of rich Gujarati bankers and merchants living inKarwan Sahukar, between Golconda Fort and Hyderabad from the late 17th century is well established through various historical records, including the Persian manuscript,Gulzar-i-Asafiyah, written in 1842–43. These Pushti Marg devotees, inspired by the philosophy of Vallabha and Vithala, commissioned alluring shrine textiles for the main sanctum of the temple within their homes and for offering to important shrines of the sect.

The two side panels of a pichvai  depicted in Fig. 9.3 were commissioned for the shrine of Shrinathji in Nathdwara, possibly in 1739 CE. The top piece of thepichvaithat joined the two pieces together has been cut. The two pieces would come on either side of Shrinathji, with a long upper piece on the top like an inverted ‘U’. Thepichvai in its entirety would have similar proportions to those made specifically for the shrine of Shrinathji at Nathdwara. This kalamkari pichvai may have been commissioned by a family of Pushti Marg devotees from the Deccan as an offering to Shrinathji on their pilgrimage to Nathdwara.

The period of thepichvai coincides with the celebration of Sapt Svarup Seva I by Goverdhaneshji in 1739 CE. The composition, design and motifs bear the unique stamp of Deccani aesthetics with its sublime strangeness and fantastical attributes. In thispichvai, two jubilant cowherds are seen offering flowers, their dhotis have beautiful floral patterns, tied with ornate geometrically patterned sashays that are painted red with a golden zigzag pattern.

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The cowherds are bedecked with jewels and are carrying a staff in one hand and flowers for Shrinathji in the other. The artist has succeeded in bringing the expression of ‘jubilation’ in the cowherds on meeting Krishna. They lean against the cypress trees, outlined with red, and entwined by creepers blooming with luminous red flowers, that is characteristic of the Coromandel Coast. The two oversized peacocks (that look more like turkeys), the fantastical birds on the top and the overall aesthetic style points to the fact that this pichvai may have been painted by Persian artists. On the top-left of the right-hand panel is a gandaberunda, the eagle with two heads. A ‘miniature’ cow and a calf accompany the cowherds, who also seem to rejoice in the presence of Shrinathji. The change in scales of figures is another characteristic of the Golconda artists. The large peacocks can be compared to a painting from Golconda, 1630–70, in which a huge bird pecking a berry sits on a branch of a tree and dwarfs the ram tethered below.

This pichvai may have been made in Petaboli, near Machilipatnam, the seaport of Golconda. The Qutub Shahi dynasty had a great affinity for Persian style and as mentioned earlier, because of Persians living in the area, this pichvai has conspicuously Persian influence.

Thechandarva or canopy, Fig. 9.4, is a masterpiece and a sensual delight. It has an interesting border filled with flowers, birds, fanciful creatures, rabbits, ‘big’ squirrels, agandaberunda(eagle with two heads), peacocks and plants that enliven the space. It has a central medallion consisting of three circles in the middle. The inner circle has a simple design of lotus buds floating in water, surrounded by a circle of flowers that are block printed, surrounded by another circle of repeated design of two parrots holding buds in their beaks, with a flower in the middle.

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The four corners depict four Krishna Lilas each, based on a body of water with marine life. They are further decorated with a profusion of peacocks, parrots and beautiful birds carrying flowers in their beaks. On one side, Krishna is depicted playing a veena and not the flute accompanied with cowherds. The rendering of the cows and accompanying cowherds are like those portrayed in the pichvai seen in Fig. 9.3. The style of the birds is slightly more refined, but they have the same features as seen in the pichvai in Fig. 9.3. The shift in scales is also apparent. The sides are partitioned with designs of birds and flowers. On another corner, Yashoda is admiring Krishna milking the cow, and surrounded by cows. Another corner depicts the Krishna Lila in the nikunj (forest grove), where Krishna and the gopis sit on carpets under the tree surrounded by birds and flowers.

Fig. 9.4a. (above) Detail of the pichvai in Fig. 9.4 showing the 'Vastra Haran Lila'
Fig. 9.4a. (above) Detail of the pichvai in Fig. 9.4 showing the 'Vastra Haran Lila'

The depiction of Vastra Haran Lila, where Krishna takes away the clothes of the gopis has been rendered with great sensitivity, elegance and touches of fantasy. Krishna is seen perched on a tree with a fanciful canopy, holding a saree, while other sarees are tied on the tree forming a design. One gopi sits on a lotus petal blooming out of the water like a celestial being, four gopis are beseeching Him to give their clothes, while a gopi is hugging the tree. They are surrounded by birds offering flowers in their beaks to them. Squirrels are seen scrambling up the tree. Lotus buds and flowers are blooming in the water, juxtaposed between the gopis. The floral imagery is in the typical Golconda style.

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The matching pichvai of this chandarva is published in Sarasa of the World. They belong to the same set of shrine textiles, as the theme, design and composition are stylistically the same, from the period of the early 18th century. These two shrine textiles may have been commissioned by the devotees living most probably in Hyderabad, for their private shrine. The style of the drawing of both the textiles shows a strong Persian influence. For a Persian artist to have imagined, conceived and to visually depict the Krishna’sVastra Haran Lila with such detailed sophistication and sensitivity is amazing. It also subtly reveals that these Persian artists may have been highly influenced by Sufi philosophy that was very popular during this time in Deccan. The chandarva and the matching pichvai featured in the Sarasa are fascinating examples of the harmonious and syncretic cultural encounter of two distinct streams of cultures, Persian and Indian, that makes these examples of Deccani art truly enthralling.

Excerpted with permission from The Colours of Devotion: The Legendary Paintings and Textiles of the Vallabha Sampradaya, 1500-1900 by Anita Bharat Shah, published by Niyogi Books.


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