By Riddhi Doshi
If it doesn’t sell, it won’t survive. Revivalist Pooja Singhal tells us how she mixed business and art to revive the dying tradition of Pichvais
Pichvai, that which is behind the deity, is part of the elaborate temple tradition of Rajasthan’s Shrinathji temple, dedicated to the seven-year-old Lord Krishna. The intricate miniature paintings, depicting the details of the deity’s different looks and festive celebrations in the temple, had over the years sunk into mediocrity, become a fast art, mainly consumed by worshippers who wanted a piece of Krishna in their cars or at homes. Pichvai was fast losing its essence.
Enter Pooja Singhal, a Delhi-based collector, curator and revivalist, credited for bringing Pichvai to the forefront with her not-for-profit Pichvai Project: Traditions and Beyond. She started as a collector and soon became the champion of Pichvai, by training traditional artists to create finer paintings, experiment with sizes and mix different art styles to create works that entice young and modern buyers. Her Interventions – Pichvais in a checkered pattern, red frames, highlighting just an element from the works, such as a lotus, or the Shrinathji temple’s map, are particularly pathbreaking.
Singhal’s May exhibition, Interventions, at Delhi’s famous Bikaner House, was another such endeavour at promoting Pichvai, which has now become Singhal’s life goal. However, what’s more impressive about the Delhi-based entrepreneur (Owner of clothing line Ruh) is her keen sense of marketing. From hosting small, private musical and culinary events to taking on to the social media, Singhal plans innovative promotional strategies to get people to interact with Pichvais. “Even though the project was born from personal interest, I had launched it with a certain strategy,” says Singhal.
Show that it’s relevant
It was not just to create awareness about Pichvai, but to also show people how diverse it is. The plan was to position it alongside contemporary art and make it more relevant to the younger collectors. The very first public showing of some of Singhal’s works, in Chennai, in 2013, by her friend, had gotten a great response. “I realised the immense potential of the project then and decided to make it big,” says Singhal.
For her debut show, at a bungalow in Jor Bagh, Delhi, she waited for two years to find the right space and a right collaborator. “It had to be big and impactful,” says Singhal. In 2015, she hosted the exhibition of over 100 Pichvais in a colonial bungalow in association with businesswoman, philanthropist and media personality Feroze Gujral’s The Gujral Foundation, which supports arts and culture.
The next year, in 2016, she participated in the India Art Fair, prime space for top-notch contemporary art, which for the first time had set up a booth for traditional art. Later, she did a collateral event at an old Chettinad house for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. “That was a special event. In many ways my eureka moment,” says Singhal. A representative from international auction house Christie’s and art scholar Amin Jaffer were stunned to see the superior quality of work on display. It was then that I realised that I have achieved the desired quality and must now focus on marketing. It was at that moment that I also realised that my atelier of artists had reached the level of perfection, at least in their skills,” says Singhal.
Two years later, in 2018, Singhal planned one of her most ambitious projects. 400 works covered the 10,000 sq.ft. industrial space of Mumbai’s Famous Studio, decorating its black and grey walls. “In a space like that we reiterated that Pichvai is a versatile art form,” says Singhal.
The online canvas
After leveraging the diverse offline spaces, it was time to go online. “Initially for us, social media was not a conscious strategy,” says Singhal. However, after their Jor Bagh show went viral, Singhal experienced the impact of social media. “I had to extend the show by ten days because so many more people wanted to see the show now,” says Singhal. “While I do manage to tap into my social circles and get a good footfall for my shows, it doesn’t beat the reach of social media.”
A successful online and offline marketing strategy is, in fact, imperative in the arts. “You don’t have repeat customers,” says Singhal. The Pichvai Project’s consumer base has been mainly built through shows. For each exhibition, Singhal’s team gives particular emphasis to the invite. They are all personalised, giving guests a sneak peek into the show. Another approach is collaborations. “When we partner with an institution like Bikaner House, they spread the word in their database. If you do an edition at the Art Fair, you get a much larger audience,” says Singhal.
Art for everyone
However, it’s essential to cater to everyone’s demands and choices. The traditional client wants Pichvai in its pure form, young art collectors, with a modern and contemporary aesthetic, want contemporary versions of the Pichvais. “There is the greyscale, the sketches, the clusters and the colourful paintings. We create something for everyone and in different budgets,” says Singhal. She also introduced ledges, brackets and shelves and rested artworks against it to give a different dimension to the display.
The successful run of Singhal’s projects has had its share of challenges. “Dealing with unwilling younger artists is tricky,” says Singhal, who currently works with a community of 50 artists in Rajasthan. “They all want to make quick money and do not want to go through the rigorous training and discipline that is required to become a master Pichvai painter and that their forefathers had gone through.”
However, one keeps at it, creating and recreating different work and communication structures. “It is not always possible to have seamless communication with the artists.” Communication gap plays a truant, which is why Singhal has created a layer of younger people, either from an artist’s family or his neighbourhood, who are more exposed to the art world and modern technology. Singhal seeks their help to explain her vision to the artist. While it did take some time to put the process in place, there was no resistance from the artists. “They had almost lost their source of livelihood and were happy to be associated with the project,” says Singhal.
Next, she says, is the time to look beyond. “The market now seems to be saturated with bad quality copies,” says Singhal. “We will continue to focus on Interventions and will be exhibiting in Kolkata and Hyderabad next”. There has also been much interest from overseas, especially Singapore.
From trying to revive the art to now thinking of going abroad, Singhal has come a long way. “It’s been a cerebral, creative, artistic and intellectual journey. I have discovered my creative depth along the way and realised that there could be no revival without commerce. It is always about working with history but keeping it relevant to the current times,” says Singhal.