The exhibition “Pigment on Cloth: Tradition, Family and the Art of Indian Pichvai Painting” is on view through Nov. 16 in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Robert Hillestad Textiles Gallery.
The exhibition introduces gallery visitors to the historic practice of pichvais (pronounced “peech-weye” or “peech-veye”) — devotional paintings on cotton cloth originally made as temple hangings in Nathdwara, India. The exhibition presents the work of one contemporary family that represents the fifth, sixth and seventh generations of pichvais artists. The exhibition documents their continuing creation of these visual narratives, long associated with Nathdwara’s Shrinathji Temple.
Nathdwara, meaning “Gateway to the Lord,” is located on the banks of the Banas River in northwest India. Nathdwara’s population of about 42,000 residents swells during major Indian holidays such as Holi and Diwali, and throughout the year the town welcomes Hindu pilgrims who come to worship at the Shrinathji Temple.
Antique pichvais sometimes measure upward of 100 feet on a side. Suspended on temple walls, they served as backdrops for iconic sculptures or other images of the Hindu deity Krishna. There are precedents suggesting that the use of these painted panels was influenced by the use of textiles in the Mughal court in the 16th and 17th centuries. While today they are typically framed and presented as fine art, in the Hillestad Gallery show, the pichvais are shown as unmounted fabric panels, allowing their textile nature to be fully appreciated.
The works on view were created by members of one family, including Kokasiya clan patriarch Charturbhuj Sharma, his sons Yugal Kishore, Shyam Sunder and Mahesh Sharma, and their sons Jatin, Gaurav and Ankit. Like most pichvais painters in Nathdwara, the Sharmas learned their craft from their elders and have passed it from father to son. Pichvai painting is an art form sustained by strict conventions of reproduction and replication whose objective is to honor the rituals and narratives of Hindu religious belief.
“Thanks to funding from the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ Office of Global Engagement and from the College of Education and Human Sciences’ International Seed Grant Program, I was able to conduct field work in Nathdwara ahead of a Department of Textiles, Merchandising and Fashion Design study tour to India in December 2016,” said Michael James, the exhibition’s curator, director of the Hillestad Textiles Gallery and department chair.
Accompanied by TMFD alumnus Vamshi Naarani, a filmmaker now living and working in Hyderabad, India, James set out to learn as much as he could about pichvai painting as a living tradition. A short video produced and directed by Naarani accompanies the show and gives visitors the opportunity to hear directly from the artists themselves.
“It was pure serendipity that we connected with Shyam and Jatin Sharma within hours of arriving in Nathdwara,” James said. “They welcomed us into their studios and home, and over the course of several days, they and their extended family brought the ongoing traditions of pichvais painting to life before our eyes. This exhibition is an opportunity to share with the campus and local communities some of what we discovered on the ground in Nathdwara.”
The Hillestad Gallery is located on the second floor of the Home Economics Building, 1650 N. 35th St. It is open 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and by appointment. Admission is free. Guest parking is available near the Home Economics Building and in metered stalls in the Nebraska East Union lot. For more information, click here or call 402-472-2911.