Starting with her first pichvai show in 2015, Pooja Singhal’s artistic journey has been one of pruning and paring. The pichvai revivalist took the 17th century traditional art form into urban drawing rooms with her revival series “Pichvai Tradition & Beyond". Having created an atelier, Singhal is now bringing her new show to GallerySke, Bengaluru, this month with around 50 works. The interesting thing about these new paintings is that they are all in greyscale—a big departure from traditional pichvais, which, if not riotously coloured, have a much wider colour palette than the monochrome one of this show.
Pichvai art usually narrates episodes from Lord Krishna’s life in the form of a seven-year-old child, referred to colloquially as Srinathji. Most pichvais were made as a backdrop for the idol of Srinathji in the Nathdwara temple, Udaipur. “Pichvai art was gradually getting devalued because of the proliferation of crude versions in the tourist market," says Singhal. Starting with changing the scale of the paintings and minor deconstructions, her work has evolved over the past four years to incorporate more drastic arrangements and highlight elements in a minimalist way—one of the mainstays of this show is versions of an architectural map of a temple, a 400-year-old composition, which is not only interpreted in greyscale here but in different shapes and scales, and broken into pieces that fit like a puzzle.
An even bolder departure—a culmination of Singhal’s move to minimalism—is the way the religious iconography of the original paintings (the idol of Srinathji) has been removed in many of the paintings, showing an empty space where the idol would have been, even as various complex rituals involved in his worship are carried out by the priests who take centre stage here. This “secularization" of the artwork is deliberate—Singhal wants the viewer to imagine their own deity in the empty space, in keeping with her own 10-year-old spiritual practice and a growing predilection towards a “formless god".
The collaborative aspect of making pichvais means she is often asked if she should be credited as the artist or curator of these works, and this has created interesting challenges, even at art shows like the India Art Fair 2018 and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016. There is no easy answer to who can take ultimate credit for the art, says Singhal, because the vision of the painting may be hers while the execution is by three-four different artists. “The format of my atelier breaks the notions of intellectual ownership and art being a product of a single mind and replaces it with the understanding that each small part makes the whole," says Singhal. The attempt, she says, is to make pichvai art a living tradition and a valid form of artistic expression. “One of the biggest challenges has been to change pichvai’s image into that of a serious art form, to help it command better value and rise above the hard-to-shake epithet of ‘craft’," says Singhal.
Greyscale Pichvais will be on at GallerySke from 12 October-16 November.