by Dominique Michelle Davis (photo credit: Dominique Michelle Davis)
Over the holiday I had the opportunity to visit the Art Institute of Chicago Museum to view the Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings exhibit. The exhibit featured over 100 artworks from private and public collections in India and the United States. Unknown to me, this is the first major U.S. exhibition to showcase the unique visual culture of the Pushtimarg, a Hindu denomination from Western India. Founded in the 16th century by the saint and philosopher Shri Vallabhacharya (1479–1531), the Pushtimarg is a religious community dedicated to the devotion of Shrinathji, a divine image of the Hindu god Krishna as a seven-year-old child. What most captured my attention as I viewed the collection were the vibrant and rich colors of the mediums and textiles. The religious and artistic center of the sect is based in the temple town of Nathdwara (literally, “The Gates of the Lord”), near Udaipur in the state of Rajasthan, India. The paintings and pichvais (peach way).
Within the past three years I’ve been drawn to spiritual teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism in search of meaning. This was an opportunity for me to explore and understand a part of Hinduism and learn more about what draws me to the teachings of Krishna. As I walked through the exhibition, literally going through the seasons within a Nathdwara year, I noticed the opulence of the pichvais (textile hangings, and miniature paintings). Gold, sequence, vibrant colors and detail of hand stitching captured my attention.
I was able to experience a story told through fabric, which brought me back to my original premise in a previous ‘Fashion Conscious’ column on Glamourtunist.com titled ‘Can Fashion Heal?’, of textile therapy as a therapeutic process for healing. Gates of the Lord comprises drawings, pichvais, paintings, and historic photographs borrowed from two major private collections in India, the TAPI Collection of Praful and Shilpa Shah (Surat, India) and the Amit Ambalal Collection (Ahmedabad, India). The textiles used to depict the Hindu god Krishna were not meant to be worn, they serve as a visual representation to be mindful of the teachings of Krishna and represent a depicted story of Krishna’s life. The elaborate detail that artisans use to construct the paintings and pichvais are time consuming because of the elaborate attention to detail that is needed to construct the pichvais.
I wish I had the opportunity to interview one of the artists, but what I learned without such an opportunity was that the artistic practice in the Narthdwara community has been in existence for centuries. Currently, Parmanand Sharma, is the head artist called the mukhiya who works in traditional style of Narthdwara painting. Most artist in the Narthdwara community maintain a state of anonymity, however one artist within the community used his art to mass-produce paintings. Ghasiram Hardev Sharma was a mukhiya and also head of photography for the Shrinathji temple was a contemporary artist who has had great influence within the Narthdwara community.
You never know how the muse will lead you in life, and where. This visit to view the Gates of Lord exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago has also inspired me to incorporate global awareness of artistic expression as a healing and therapeutic practice into my work. I was initially led to Buddhism and Hinduism following a chance discussion after attending the Puerto Rican Festival in the summer of 2012 with a close family friend. While there we came across a street vender selling various knickknacks. What caught my eye was a double-sided pendant. Each side of the medallion had different pictorials, one red and green, the other blue and red. Before purchasing the piece, I asked the merchant what it meant and she had no idea. I wore the necklace to work and was approached by a co-worker who immediately called out I was wearing the Om. I did some research and found that the other side was a depiction of Krishna, which led me to do further research about the culture of Buddhism and Hinduism.
What initially attracted me to a religion of beauty were the visual aesthetics, the design, colors and gold. What may have been a superficial introduction has led me to find a deeper meaning for purpose. The power of beauty is real, and as superficial as that might sound, can have a much deeper purpose if you allow yourself to search for meaning in beauty. Inspiration can be found in all cultures and communities. This anecdotal story is just an example of how cultures may intersect, knowing or unknowingly, to provide a deeper understanding of life for the girl who just wanted a pretty pendant.