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November 03, 2022 01:25 pm | Updated November 04, 2022 05:24 pm IST
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Amit Ambalal | Photo Credit: Anuj Ambalal
There is a well-known story about contemporary artist and collector Amit Ambalal who bought his first pichwai artwork in 1960, at the age of 17, for a princely sum of ₹150. When he showed it to his father, Ambalal senior remarked, “You paid so much money for this rag!” Many years and art collectibles later, that raggedy ‘Gopashtami’ remains the best pichwai in his collection, the artist says.
The 18th century Gopashtami pichwai that was Ambalal’s first acquisition.
There are also many lesser-known stories about the nearly 80-year-old Ambalal and his undying passion for original artistic traditions. His work is part of prestigious collections in India and abroad, and more importantly, he has authored the landmark volume,  Krishna as Shrinathji: Rajasthani Paintings from Nathdvara (1987), on the subject of Pushtimarg (a 16th century Vaishnava sect) and the Nathdwara school of art (to which pichwai belongs). Last year, he wrote an essay for a limited-edition coffee table book, Shringara of Shrinathji, which featured 60 miniatures from the private collection of the late Gokal Lal Mehta.
Shringara of Shrinathji features 60 miniatures from the private collection of the late Gokal Lal Mehta, and an essay by Amit Ambalal.
Today, with pichwai and its iconic cow and lotus motifs seeing a revival almost everywhere, from fashion to interior design, both well-known contemporary artists as well as traditional pichwai craftspeople are engaging with the form with renewed fervour. But is the true intent behind pichwai art getting sacrificed at the altar of commerce, Ambalal wonders. Edited excerpts from a conversation with the artist on his work, collection and the art form:
Around the 1970s, as a young artist, I felt the Indian art scene was struggling to derive a language that could be termed indigenous. Post-Independence art was hugely derivative of Western art. Artists started looking for inspiration in Tantra, miniatures, and folk art. It was then that I came across a bunch of Nathdwara miniatures along with some worn-out pichwais.
I had some idea of Nathdwara imagery, but now I was looking at them through the eyes of an artist. I got very curious about the subjects and often ended up taking the paintings to  goswamis for their insight. Over a period of time I developed an understanding of the emotions, symbolism, forms and objects that were integrated into these paintings, and it opened up a whole new world for me.
The pichwais in Amit Ambalal’s private collection. | Photo Credit: Anuj Ambalal
When my interest turned into an obsession, I started collecting Nathdwara paintings. At the time, the focus was on Mughal, Rajput and Pahari paintings and hence Nathdwara paintings were easily available.
I once rescued a pichwai from a dealer who was on his way to get it repainted. When I showed it to Stuart Cary Welch, the famous scholar and collector of Indian art, he immediately identified it as the work of an accomplished Jaipur artist of the Madho Singh I period (1750 CE). Many years after, when Kathak maestro Birju Maharaj saw the pichwai, he said the postures of the gopis suggested that they were performing Kathak. Subsequently, I learnt that Madho Singh I, along with his troupe of Kathak dancers, used to perform in front of the deity!
In the mid-80s, Robert Skelton, who was in charge of the India section at the Victoria & Albert Museum, visited Ahmedabad. His small monograph for a show on pichwais had just come out. I showed him some of the miniatures and pichwais I had collected and he suggested that I write on the subject as my familiarity with Gujarati, Hindi, Vrajbhasha and Sanskrit could give me access to literature to better understand these paintings. This conversation led to my book  Krishna as Shrinathji: Rajasthani Paintings from Nathdvara in 1987.
‘Krishna as Shrinathji and the Dancing Gopis’, from the temple of Nathdwara, 19th century. | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons
Around the mid-90s, I visited Nathdwara with my artist friends, including Bhupen Khakhar, Manjit Bawa, Jogen Chowdhury, Atul and Anju Dodiya, and Gulam Mohammed Sheikh. During our stay, they would often rush to the haveli of Shrinathji, braving the sea of devotees, for his  darshan. Perhaps it was the appeal of the image of Shrinathji, with his hypnotic dagger-shaped eyes, swinging tuft of hair, whirling  kachhni (skirt) and sashes flying to the rhythm of the  haveli sangeet accompanied by  pakhavaj and cymbals. The Nathdwara artists have expressed this experience into their paintings of Shrinathji. I suppose the naivete and charm of these paintings with bright colours and joyous rhythm appeal to all!
Today, the pichwai tradition caters to a democratic crowd of devotees. Bright stones, coloured lights and quick production are a part of meeting the demands of the laity as well as others who come to Nathdwara. In the case of people using these for interior decoration, because the context is not of devotion, I find a lack of  bhava.
Bhupen Khakhar used a lot of Nathdwara motifs in his work. I assisted him in finding many pichwais/ paintings from which he was deeply inspired. Olivia Fraser, a contemporary artist, uses motifs from pichwais such as the eyes, lotuses and the cows. Deconstructed symbols are also beautifully rendered. The finesse and rigour of traditional artists continue to be present but supply-demand issues sometimes push them into making compromises on the colour, lines and context.
The interviewer is cultural activist, philanthropist, businessman, and founder of Prakriti Foundation.
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