I first visited Nathdwara as a child as my mother, who was an artist, had heard about this temple town and its famed hereditary artists and wanted to pick up the natural pigments and squirrel hair brushes used for fine Indian painting. Nestled in the Aravalli hills, on the banks of the Banas river in the Rajsamand district of present-day Rajasthan state of India, the town of Nathdwara is famed not only for its temple housing the deity of Shrinathji, depicting the Hindu god Krishna as a young boy but also for the small group of artists who arrived there in the seventeenth century along with Shrinathji, the principal image that the Vaishnava Pushtimarg sect holds sacred. Nathdwara and its hereditary artists are unique, even in a place like India which has seen the survival of many artistic traditions from the past. Even today, the artists of Nathdwara led by their head (the mukhiya) perform seva (devotional service) for Shrinathji by adorning the walls of the entire temple complex with fresh wall paintings at the time of Diwali; and they still make the pichvais for which the town was once so renowned among art connoisseurs and collectors.
However, when I returned to Nathdwara in 2012, I was very disturbed to see that the beautiful pichvais (textile hangings) had all but disappeared from the bazaars, replaced by gaudy wooden imitations encrusted with faux jewels! To find the finer pichvais, you needed to track down the artists in their homes tucked away in the by lanes behind the temple, or buy poor copies in the markets of distant Udaipur and Jaipur! Very upset by what I had witnessed, and fearing that an aesthetic tradition that had survived for over 400 years was fast disappearing within my very lifetime, due to a lack of understanding of the Pushtimarg sect and its unique aesthetic traditions, I curated the international loan exhibition, Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2015/16. Simultaneously, I gathered over 300 living artists still working in Nathdwara and the neighboring Udaipur and we founded the Artists of Nathdwara organization on 30 December 2014, to promote the pichvai and the art of the Pushtimarg sect.
Covid 19 has been particularly devastating for the artists of Nathdwara. With lockdown and with the markets shut for many months, the artists lost all work. At this time, I was approached by the Enactus group of the Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC), who had recently launched their Project Virasat to revive languishing art forms, and together with the Artists of Nathdwara organization, we decided to prioritize creating a fresh website for the artists, so that they could reach out to their customers more directly.
Our intervention is mainly centered around helping the artists keep up with the dynamic nature of our present times and empowering the community by creating awareness around the original pichvai paintings. We seek to expand their customer base beyond the town of Nathdwara and take their work across India and the world. The website will help in better organizing the artists and manage the business end in a transparent manner. At present we assist with managing logistics, accounting, delivery and payment mechanisms but at the end of the day, this is a website for the artists, by the artists, and of the artists, and is empowerment in the truest sense.
The online platform, the Artists of Nathdwara website, was launched with great fanfare on 18th February 2021. With this, we hope that Nathdwara’s artists will be able to draw upon the creativity and inventiveness that has helped them stay relevant for centuries.
Visit the website: https://theartistsofnathdwara.org
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Dr. Madhuvanti Ghose is the Alsdorf Associate Curator of Indian, Southeast Asian, and Himalayan Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. She curated the landmark exhibition on the Pushtimarg sect, Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings in 2015–2016.