RELIGION

Cloistered Hindu Sect Comes Alive In 'Gates Of The Lord' Exhibition

"This is a chance to showcase this very special artistic tradition to our audiences in the United States," said the show's curator.

In the Indian temple town of Nathdwara, which translates as "The Gates of the Lord," followers of the Hindu Pushtimarg sect venerate an image of the god Krishna as a 7-year-old child. Founded in the 16th century, the denomination is little known, even within India. But its rich aesthetic traditions have captured the imagination of scholars and curators around the world.

"Gates of the Lord," an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, brings these traditions alive with elaborate paintings and textile hangings that depict Krishna's younger incarnation, known as Shrinathji.

Madhuvanti Ghose, the show's curator, noted the "cloistered" nature and "private devotions" of the Pushtimarg sect. "Even today, phones and cameras are not allowed within the precincts of its main temple at Nathdwara," Ghose said in a press release. "Thus, outside of the sect, there is little appreciation of its unique traditions that have been strictly preserved and elaborated upon since the 16th century.”

The exhibition includes drawings, pichvais (textile wall hangings), paintings and historic photographs. The show runs through Jan. 3, 2016.

“This is a chance to showcase this very special artistic tradition to our audiences in the United States," Ghose said in the release. "Nathdwara and its artists are renowned for having preserved painting traditions in an unbroken legacy for more than four centuries. The exhibition provides us with an opportunity to celebrate these living traditional artists who have gone unrecognized for too long.”

See a sampling from the "Gates of the Lord" exhibition below. All captions are taken from the "Gates of the Lord" catalog and written by curator Madhuvanti Ghose.

  • “One of the most significant festivals in the Pushtimarg calendar is the autumn celebration of Sharad Purnima, which co
    Anuj Ambalal, Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago
    “One of the most significant festivals in the Pushtimarg calendar is the autumn celebration of Sharad Purnima, which commemorates the raas, Krishna’s great circular dance with all the gopis (milkmaids) in Vraj on a night of the full moon … The painting, which portrays Tilkayat Damodarji (1797-1826), is an outstanding example from the period. Shrinathji is adorned for the festival in a skirt and crown, and stands before a stele draped in white. The painted pichvai (textile hanging) behind him shows a group of gopis who seem as if they are holding Shrinathji’s hand in the dance. The silvery moon casts a milky white glow that is enhanced by the round white bolsters and the steps; all the furnishings of the sanctum are in white for the occasion, decorated with moon and star patterns. Moreover, the utensils are made of silver, and the food offerings are also white in color. A favorite theme among the artists of Nathdwara, Sharad Purnima is highly anticipated year round by devotees.”
  • <i>&ldquo;Gval darshan</i>, the third viewing of the day, takes place at the hour when Krishna, as a youthful herder in Fraj,
    Anuj Ambalal, Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago
    “Gval darshan, the third viewing of the day, takes place at the hour when Krishna, as a youthful herder in Fraj, would take his cows to pasture. At this time, the chief of Nathdwara’s cow pen visits Shrinathji to inform him that all his animals are well. He is then offered light refreshments before he departs with the cows for the day. The third miniature painting shown here depicts the darshan at the upper left. The rest of the image is devoted to scenes from Krishna’s childhood adventures. Against the vivid green background of Vraj’s landscape, we see the god crawling, playing, sitting on Yashoda’s lap, and tending to one of his cows. At bottom right, he climbs up to the rafters to steal his favorite treat, buttermilk, while his mother admonishes him. All of these epidodes would have served to evoke the emotion of the vatsalya bhav in the devotee.”
  • &ldquo;This <i>pichvai</i> is a spectacular example of a favored subject in Rajput painting: 'The Hour of Cowdust,' the eveni
    Courtesy of TAPI Collection
    “This pichvai is a spectacular example of a favored subject in Rajput painting: 'The Hour of Cowdust,' the evening moment when the animals rush home from pasture, and the dust lifted by their hooves fills the dusky sky. The scene depicts Krishna, accompanied by this brother, Balaram, making his long-awaited return after a day of herding. Rightly, such pichvais are usually reserved for the sandhya arati, or evening worship, during the Gopashtami festival. The evolution of such scenes can be traced through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. An early example from Kishangarh at the National Museum, Delhi, dating from around 1705, conjures up a sense of Krishna’s rural youth in the hilly, forested Vraj region. In that work, gopis (milkmaids) anxioiusly anticipate his arrival outside a modest village. Nineteenth-century examples share these elements but gradually progress toward more majestic representations of Krishna’s homecoming. Indeed, the final destination becomes more of a courtly palace, much like that at Kishangarh or Udaipur, than a country settlement… Said to have been part of the collection of Kishangarh’s royal family, this late-nineteenth-century pichvai deviates from the 1817 example in layout, but the iconographical influence is clear. Krishan’s home is represented in the same palatial style, and Nanda watches from a canopied tower as Yashoda performs the lamp-waiving ritual arati over Krishna, who appears as Shrinathji. The deity, who is always portrayed frontally, commands the center of a symmetrical composition. The architecture ranges throughout the scene, and, as in the 1817 pichvai, the ghats (bathing steps) along the Yamuna River form the lower border.Gopis fill the balconies and archways of the palace, while gods watch from the sky."
  • &ldquo;In this large painting, Krishna joyfully presides at the center of a lush forest grove traversed by a stream in the fo
    Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago
    “In this large painting, Krishna joyfully presides at the center of a lush forest grove traversed by a stream in the foreground filled with leaping fish and blooming lotuses. The haloed blue god flutes and dances, wearing swirling yellow sashes and a long white flower garland. The entranced gopis (milkmaids), irresistibly drawn to his music, emerge from the trees bearing floral wands, garlands, and musical instruments to accompany his performance. The composition closely resembles Megha Rha, from a ragamala (garland of rags), a set of miniature paintings depicting various rags, or modes, of Indian music. There, Krishna dances beneath a dark sky to celebrate the arrival of cooler monsoon rains after a dry season of scorching heat. In a ragamala, painting, music, and poetry are combined to describe a particular bhav, or devotional sentiment, at a particular time of day in a particular season.”
  • &ldquo;Although made much later, miniature images of Vitthalnathji and Vallabhacharya are often based on portraits painted du
    Anuj Ambalal, Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago
    “Although made much later, miniature images of Vitthalnathji and Vallabhacharya are often based on portraits painted during their lifetimes. Here, the depiction of Vitthalnathji is supposedly based on his own self-portrait, while the composition and appearance of Vallabhacharya’s portrait is based on a portrait by the artist Hunhar that is worshipped in the palace temple at Kishangarh, Rajasthan."
  • &ldquo;This <i>pichvai</i> for Sharad Purnima is indicative of the style of painting practiced by artists in the princely sta
    Courtesy of TAPI Collection
    “This pichvai for Sharad Purnima is indicative of the style of painting practiced by artists in the princely state of Kishangarh, which can be identified by the slender, elongated representation of the gopis’ features, including their eyes. Illuminated by the moon, Shrinathji appears dressed and ready in a kachni (multicolored layered skirt), orange trousers, and mukut (crown); he is flanked by four gopis who are ready to engage him in a dance on the banks of the Yamuna River. The starry night is full of expectation as the gods come out in their chariots to watch the cosmic dance unfold.”
  • &ldquo;Vitthalnathji, who succeeded his father as the leader of the Pushtimarg sect, developed contacts with the Mughal court
    Anuj Ambalal, Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago
    “Vitthalnathji, who succeeded his father as the leader of the Pushtimarg sect, developed contacts with the Mughal court; he was said to have visited Emperor Akbar (r.1556-1605), who honored him with proclamations as marks of special favor. Courtly culture influenced Vitthalnathji’s taste and sensibilities, which in turn shaped the elements he incorporated into the seva (loving service) of Shrinathji. This can be seen, for example, in the shringar (adornment) he offered on his own birthday, when he dressed the svarup in courtly attire… Other important shringar also have direct ties to the Mughal court. The incorporation of suthana (trousers or pajamas) and a patka (sash) was introduced by Taj Begum, one of Akbar’s consorts, with the permission of Vitthalnathji himself, who served as her guru. It is said that her devotion to Shrinathji was so intense that the svarup often came to her chamber to play chess; the game has been played in the shrine of Shrinathji ever since.”
  • "[Shringar of Summer]&nbsp;illustrates a scene that took place in May or June, at the height of the season. Shrinathji is ado
    Anuj Ambalal, Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago
    "[Shringar of Summer] illustrates a scene that took place in May or June, at the height of the season. Shrinathji is adorned with a pearl crown and dressed lightly in cloths worn around the waist and draped over the shoulders. Vitthalnathji and Purushottamji are depicted at upper right; the latter holds a large fan.”
  • "This miniature comes from an early <i>Bhagavatapurana</i>, one of the most important religious texts from India, which could
    Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago
    "This miniature comes from an early Bhagavatapurana, one of the most important religious texts from India, which could be seen in its mature form by around the tenth century. It extolls the deeds of Krishna, who was by this time viewed as an avatar, or incarnation, of the Hindu god Vishnu. In the medieval period, this text was extremely influential in the development of the highly personal form of loving devotion known as bhakti; at that time, most of India was under Muslim rule, many Hindu temples were being destroyed, and worship had to be hidden or internalized. The painting illustrates one of the favorite lilas (divine adventures) from the early life of Krishna, who was hidden away in the northern Indian region of Vraj and raised as a prince of the cowherds. As a young boy, he was fond of the buttermilk that was made for sale by the gopis, or milkmaids. When they complained to his foster mother, Yashoda, that her beloved son had come and stolen their buttermilk, she would never believe them; for his part, Krishna would always mischievously tell her that he could not have stolen the tasty treat, which was stored beyond his reach. Yashoda’s heart would melt, and she would believe him every time. However, one day she discovered Krishna stealing the buttermilk by climbing on the backs and shoulders of his friends, and when they were caught, some pots got overturned and roken. Here, Yashoda pursues Krishna as he is trying to evade her stick. At left is a representation of their gracious home, Nandalaya; this served as a model for Pushtimarg temples, each of which was constructed as a haveli, or mansion—a familiar, domestic environment in which Krishna resided as a living boy. In the medieval period, stories such as these were used to arouse vatsalya bhav, a form of bhakti in which devotees aimed to love Krishna as a parent would a small child."
  • &ldquo;Vallabhacharya (1479-1531), the founder of the Pushtimarg sect, was born in the late fifteenth century, a singularly c
    Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago
    “Vallabhacharya (1479-1531), the founder of the Pushtimarg sect, was born in the late fifteenth century, a singularly chaotic period of Indian history. It was a time of political turbulence and religious upheavals that continued unchecked until conditions stabilized somewhat with the founding of the Mughal Empire in 1526. An unusual feature of this time was the growth of Hindu sects that stressed bhakti, or loving devotion to a chosen deity, as a means of achieving salvation. The effects of the bhakti movement, as it came to be called, were significant and far-reaching. In the course of this life, Vallabhacharya undertook three major pilgrimages during which he expounded his teachings and perfected his doctrines. According to legend, on one of these he traveled to Mount Govardhan in the north Indian region of Vraj, where he discovered the svarup (living embodiment) of Shrinathji, a form of Krishna as a young boy. He had a shrine erected over it and prescribed a simple seva, or loving service. The first of these paintings recounts this event, popularly known as the pratham milan (first sighting).”

 

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