Thursday, 19 April 2012

Books: The perfect pichvai painting guru


by Desmond Peter Lazaro. 

Mapin Publishing. 
375 colour illustrations.
Price unstated.

MOST coffee table volumes on art share a common perspective. That of a scholar, a researcher, generally an informed outsider. What sets Desmond Peter Lazaro’s book apart is the fact that this British artist and academic shares his experiences of the Rajasthan pichhvai tradition as an insider, who spent 11 years as an apprentice to his Jaipur-based guru, Bannu Ved Pal Sharma.

What does Lazaro bring to the book as a result of his experience? Wonder-tinted insights into the guru-sishya parampara, as perceived today. Unusually detailed interfaces into the creation of a pichhvai, pigment by pigment, stroke by stroke, bringing alive the feathers of each bird amidst mango foliage, the rendering of pied cows, the jeweled skirt borders, the intricate panels that often surround the main painting.

Through his eyes, we learn of the craft with a depth seldom encountered before.  We find answers to a maze of queries. How did pichhvai paintings first come into existence? What do their colours signify? What alchemical changes do the pigments undergo during their almost ritualistic preparation?

This visually-splendid book from Mapin gives the reader a new lens with which to view pichhvais. Through Lazaro, we learn that Vallabhacharya discovered an image of Srinathji atop Mount Govardhan, near Mathura. As folklore and history has it, this image, disguised as a bullock cart, moved through the desert wilderness of Agra, Kota, Kishangarh and Jodhpur in 1670, in the face of religious persecution. En route, the cart came to a halt near the river Bans, north of Udaipur. Devotees took this as an omen that it had reached the chosen site for a new temple. And thus, in 1672, Nathdwara was born.

Pichhvais or cloth paintings provide the backdrop against which the deity’s days are played out. Like stage sets, they enhance transitions though festivities, seasons and more everyday rituals. Imbued with affection inflected with reverence and understanding, Lazaro’s text takes us into the making of three contemporary pichvais ~ the Maharasa Lila, the Mount Govardhan, and a Varsha pichhvai. Through the practitioner’s route steeped in philosophy, we come face to face with the craft’s spiritual, cultural, social and livelihood levels.

Why did Lazaro choose to surrender to a guru? Joining his creative practice, he came to revere ‘Bannuji’ as the “epitome of all that is good and true within the venerated tradition.” Not just as the inheritor of a seven generations-old family practice, but also as a restorer par excellence, considered a guru of gurus by craftsmen, scholars and connoisseurs alike.

Perhaps Lazaro’s ultimate summing up of his guru is best delineated thus: “Through a style that liberated rather than stifled his artistic sensibility, he played with convention, borrowing from, amongst others, the Basohli, Kishangarh and Jaipur schools, creating a personal vision, but always remaining true to the art of the line… In his last works, the Baramasa series, the twelve seasons of Krishna, we see a culmination of a life’s work, a master who had traveled through each school, distilling the very essence of the tradition. In doing so, he set the contemporary standard.”

Through him, Lazaro realizes that “synthetic colours separate the method from the material, whereas with mineral colours the method is born of the material.” That explains pages brimming over with details of how gold leaf is utilized or the extraction of ultramarine pigment from lapis lazuli. Or why the blue of Krishna represents his celestial being, while his yellow raiment denotes the earth. Or the subtle shades of difference that demarcate the use of nine white pigments.

His extensive delineation of visage and dress details is fascinating, leading the reader inwards as flowers blossom on trees, while ornate replicas take root on draped garments. We learn how the direction of each brush stroke, like the very composition of a brush, could make or mar a pichhvai. So could the burnishing of each area to transform dense pigment into luminous hues.

Lazaro does justice to this brilliantly-etched ethereal world, and much more. We owe him our gratitude for ensuring the continuity of the pichhvai tradition with both sensitivity and intelligence, by blurring the artificial divide between the scholar and the practitioner. His is a giant leap inwards that transforms the reader into a confidante with a grace that stems from knowledge. An insider’s edge that makes this volume infinitely precious. 
(The Hindu Literary Review, 2005)

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