The purpose of Pichhwais, other than its artistic appeal, is to narrate tales of Krishna to the illiterate.
It can be painted, embroidered, printed or woven in applique. Earlier Pichwai was done on loose, rough, hand spun fabric and painted in permanent natural colors that were extracted from vegetables and minerals and that don’t tend to fade with time. Outlines are always dark hued and lighter soft tones are used for filling the picture.
On a starched cloth, the painter first makes a rough sketch and then fills in the colours. Traditionally natural colours and brushes made of horse, goat or squirrel hair were used, but now faster and less expensive material have replaced them.
One can still find many paintings done with natural colours only. The use of pure gold in the paintings adds to their value and charm. For one painting, it may take 3-4 days to just prepare colour from pure gold. A Pichwai painting for the temple backdrop can take from a few weeks to months to prepare. Wealthy families commission paintings for the temple.
Different paintings are made for different occasions, different seasons,festivals, and so on. While the painting has pink lotuses in the summer, the painting for Sharad Purnima is a night scene with the bright full moon. Themes such as Raas Leela, Holi, Annakut (Govardhan Puja) are also seen in their relevant occasions. Sometimes rich embroidery or appliqué work is used on the paintings. Enclosed in a dark border, rich colours like red, green, yellow, white and black are used, with a lot of gold decorating the figures.
In the year 1671 AD, in anticipation of the Mughal king Aurangzeb’s raids, the temple of lord Shrinathji was shifted from Mathura to Rajasthan, where it would be safe in the hands of the Rajputs. Maharana Raj Singh decided to provide refuge.Along with the idol of Shrinathji, the lord’s sevaks – the priests, halwais (confectioners), cows and their care takers and the Pichwai painters (painters of temple background art) also went along.At one point, the bullock cart got stuck in the ground and would not budge. So it was decided to establish the temple of Shrinathji there in the city of Nathdwara, (Nath – Lord, dwara – gate) meaning “the gates of the lord”.
The pichhwai are created by members of the Adi Gaud caste using traditional stone colours on cotton. An especially popular themeis the Raaslila, the great circular dance in which each gopi or milkmaid saw Krishna beside her, as if he were dancing with her alone; Krishna in turn took pleasure in multiplying himself to please all his devotees. The dance represents the culmination of bhakti, or devotion, in which the human soul meets the divine in a state of ecstasy.
These days quick materials like paint brushes and machine made fabric is used that obviously saves lot of time.Some painters have now begun doing smaller pieces and working with acrylic paints as these materials allow their work to fall within a far more affordable price range and thus their sale to tourists and art collectors. They have become the main export of Nathdwara and are in much demand among foreign visitors in the area.