The Nathdwara school of painting, although a melting pot of most Rajasthani schools, emerged with a distinct style and character. This distinction is due to the fact that the artists painted not only as aesthetes but also as devotees, to satisfy their emotional need to please Shrinathji. Their creations are imbued with feelings: no shape, composition or color has an intellectual purpose.
Nathdwara painters belong to two distinct Brahmin sub-castes – the Jangid and the Adi Gauda. These two communities of artists live in distinct neighborhoods of the city. The Adi Gaudas claim that their ancestors traveled to Nathdwara with Shrinathji.
Several categories of painting have evolved in response to various rituals and needs.
Pichhvai: The pichhvai occupies a special place among the textiles that adorn the shrines. It serves to emphasize the theme of a sringara and to express the mood of a season, festival or occasion.
Miniature paintings: It was the tilkayats, goswamis, princes and prosperous devotees of Pushtimarg who commissioned the miniature paintings from the artists. This genre offered a much wider field of creative imagination to the artist. The greatest number of paintings made in the Nathdwara school are of icons of the sect. The image of Shrinathji is the most popular and is usually depicted as ornate for everyday darshanas or for important festivals.
The painting activity and its development have been influenced by the acharyas and influential goswamis. Since the time of Vitthalnathji, painting activity has gained special importance in Pushtimarg. Vitthalnathji himself was a painter of merit and a drawing of the child Krishna by him is still preserved in a haveli in Kandivali, Bombay. Another drawing by him in the same collection depicts a herd of elephants of different colors.
The period after Vitthalnathji seems to have been full of unpredictability and contrary to the growth of painting. It was only the personal aesthetic beliefs of the Tilkayats that led to an increase in painting activity. It usually manifested itself in paintings depicting special occasions and celebrations held by the Tilkayats.
Most of the earliest identifiable paintings of the Nathdwara school can be traced to the period of Govardhaneshji (1707-1763 CE). Govardhaneshji marked his accession as Tilkayat by celebrating his own birthday with great splendor and on a scale never seen before in Nathdwara. The occasion was called Handi Utsava because of the many chandeliers of different shapes and sizes that were used.
A special swing was also used, the entire surface of which was covered with mirrors. The walls and ceilings were decorated with divalgirisand Chandovas of rich brocade. Shrinathji was adorned with ornaments studded with diamonds and emeralds and a pichhvai of Krishna and his brother Balarama leading their cows to pasture was displayed. The occasion is significant since it is the first specific reference to a painted pichhvai. It is probably after this that painted pichhvais has become a common feature of sringaras.
In 1740 CE, Govardhaneshji designed the first Sapta Svarupotsava at Nathdwara, where all major svarupas of Pushtimarg were gathered in the shrine for the occasion. A chhappan bhogafeast of fifty-six delicacies, was offered to svarupas and almost all goswamis of the sect attended with their wives and children.
Many gifted artists worked under his patronage and executed paintings characterized by a certain charming naivety.
The other notable era of advancement in the arts in Nathdwara was noted during the time of Tilkayat Damodarji II (1797-1826 CE), popularly known as Dauji. In 1822 CE, all seven svarupas were again brought to the haveli and special offer of chhappan bhoga was presented to the deities. The Sapta Svarupotsava festival was a great success, and the impression made by the mahotsava over the people of the temple town was so large that the Tilkayat became known as “Dauji Chhappan Bhogavale” – Dauji who offered the great feast.
Although he became Tilkayat at the age of 10, his reign was characterized by progress and prosperity. Dauji was a great patron of the arts and the many paintings and pichhvais of his time are considered masterpieces of the Nathdwara school. Many stylistic conventions of the Kotah school of painting were also adopted by Nathdwara artists during the period.
The bold and somewhat ‘folkish’ style of figures seen in earlier paintings from Govardhaneshji’s time underwent refinement during his time. The surprisingly large eyes of the previous period gave way to sober, lotus-shaped eyes, which seemed to project an element of devotion. The postures of the figures seen in the paintings became more graceful, and the bright, bold colors became more pastel.
Tilkayat Girdhariji (1843-1903 CE) was a bold and impulsive man of an independent nature. During the 1857 uprising, the Tilkayat made no secret of its sympathy for the nationalist cause and even briefly sheltered freedom fighter Tatya Tope. Perhaps for this reason his relationship with the Maharana of Mewar soured and the judicial powers vested in Tilkayat for generations which made them both spiritual and temporal rulers in their own domain were removed.
The British took the Tilkayat’s failings even more seriously, and a small force was sent to arrest him. In 1877 CE, the Tilkayat was finally forced out of Nathdwara. On his birthday, Girdhariji presented pearl ornaments to Shrinathji as part of his sringara. The garments that adorned the Lord and the pichhvai that hung behind Him were both a dark saffron color, the color of martyrdom donned by Rajput warriors determined to sacrifice their lives in battle.
After Girdhariji’s exile from Nathdwara, his sixteen-year-old son Govardhanlalji (1862-1934 CE) took over as Tilkayat. The young Tilkayat displayed a strong and imaginative spirit, reminiscent of his ancestors Govardhaneshji and Dauji. His period is remembered as the most important in the history of the city, and people considered him a Suvarnayuga Data – the person who brought a golden era to Nathdwara.
During his time, the court of the Tilkayat at Nathdwara resembled that of a reigning prince. It had nine gifted masters, like the proverbial “nine jewels of Akbar’s court”, each highly accomplished in a particular field: the linguist Damodar Shastri; the Sanskrit scholar Bharata Martanda Gatulalji who is said to have composed 200 shlokas of Sanskrit verses in twenty-four minutes; the poet Ghanshyam; the artist Ghasiram Sharma; Charandas Adhikari, adept in the art of governing; the famous singer Gurusvami; Ghanshyam Pakhvaji, author of the book Mrudanga Sagar take care of the drums and drumming; Ambalal Bakshi, the leader of the Tilkayat army; and Dunta Pahelvan, the wrestler.
the is going of Shrinathji acquired new vitality during the time of Govardhanlalji. He introduced several imaginative elements, especially in the sringara, festivals, food preparation, music and literature. Painting also reached its peak during his time. In 1908 CE he organized a celebration of Panch Svarupa ka Mahotsava. A chhappan bhoga was offered to Shrinathji with the images of Shri Vitthalnathji, Shri Mathureshji, Shri Dvarkadhishji and Shri Navanitpriyaji. These celebrations continued for several days.
Govardhanlalji also added eight ghatas to the four traditionally celebrated ghatas in the winter months. The color palette in each ghata has symbolic significance. In harigreen, ghata, where green is the result of a combination of blue and yellow, blue is the color of Krishna, and yellow is the golden hue of Radha; green therefore symbolizes their union. The Red ghata suggests anuraga, strong attachment; the color of eggplant symbolizes Mount Govardhana; and white indicates moonlight and purity.
Govardhanlalji’s enthusiasm for is going was strengthened when his son Damodarlal (1897-1936 CE) came of age. It was a treat for the people of Nathdwara to see the young Damodarlal dressed as Krishna in a procession on the day of the spring festival, Ranga Panchami. the pichhvai Damodarlal offered on this occasion shows Krishna and Balarama sitting on an elephant and spraying colors on Vrajavasis.
Govardhanlalji had high hopes in Damodarlal who had shown promise at a young age. But fate decided otherwise and the last years of Govardhanlalji’s life were deeply unhappy because of him. In 1932 CE, at the beginning of middle age, Damodarlal fell in love with a singer, Hansa, whom he later renamed Ratnaprabha, the brilliance of jewels.
Damodarlalji went to Shimla with Hansa. Govardhanlalji traveled to Shimla to remonstrate with him, but his efforts to find a solution failed. Exhausted from his efforts and deeply grieved by the behavior of his son, the old Tilkayat breathed his last in Shimla on September 21, 1934. Two years later, in 1936 CE, in Shravana, a monsoon month, Damodarlal also died in Udaipur .
These events greatly affected the fortunes of the sect. Lacking the personal patronage of a Tilkayat, many artists migrated elsewhere in search of a livelihood or turned to other professions. Despite this, Nathdwara remains the last center of miniature painting in India.
Reproduced with permission from Shringara of Shrinathji: From the collection of the late Gokal Lal Mehta, by Amit Ambalal and Vikram Goyal, Mapin Publishing. Copyright © Text: Amit Ambalal.