Somewhere among the pages of a thirty year-old diary, which I maintained as a schoolgirl, I still have “Maata ni Pachhedi” scrawled. The diary had questions from Quiz Time and India Quiz, and everytime Siddhartha Basu asked something interesting, it would be stored there for future reference. I did not have the luxury of Google then, but that was the way I whet my appetite for learning.
Maata ni pachhedis are wall hangings which have origins in religious narrative rituals, and have now evolved into a hand painting craft. In January 2019, in Ahmedabad, I had the opportunity to meet a master craftsman, Sanjay Manubhai Chitara, who creates these masterpieces.
Chitara belongs to the fourth generation of artists in his family. They have upheld this art-form, which has been passed down the generations for 300 years now. Sanjay started painting at the age of six. Now his wife Kailashben and his children also work with him. Chitara and his kin are among the five families in the Vaaghari or Devi Pujak clan to practice this art form. They have been the recipients of several national and state awards. Sanjay M Chitara was awarded the National Award in 2000 from President Abdul Kalam, while his brother Vasant M Chitara received it in 2001. His parents Manubhai Chunilal Chitara and Manjuben Manubhai Chitara were jointly awarded in 2004.
Literally translated, Maata ni Pachhedi means ‘the backdrop of the Mother Goddess’. It is a unique textile painting and block printing tradition practised by the Vaaghari community of Gujarat. Here, an elaborate painting on fabric depicts a story from a legend about one of the forms of the Mother Goddesses. These stories celebrate the female diety as progenitor, protector or provider.
As the story goes, people belonging to the nomadic Vaghari community of Gujarat lived in settlements outside the village. They were considered low castes and were prohibited from entering temples. So they found an inventive solution of their own. They created their own makeshift shrines using these detailed paintings, and these travelled with them. Sometimes these pachhedis are joined to make as a canopy to form a temporary shrine to the Mother Goddess. Now, alternatively, the pachhedi is used as a chadar as a thanksgiving offering to the shrine of the Mother Goddess. On auspicious occasions, the pachhedi forms a backdrop during community gatherings.
The craft reflects the creativity and cultural heritage of the Devi Pujak community of Gujarat. Each pachhedi tells the story of a particular avatar of the Mother Goddess. She is usually seated on her vehicle and is depicted without her consort. In India most legends were transmitted orally and there were hardly any written documents. These drawings and paintings served as the perfect accompaniment to visualizing the stories. The bhopa or the priest usually guided the narrative and directed how the Goddess was to be depicted. It is fascinating to learn how these stories have been kept alive generation after generation.
The drawings usually feature the Goddess seated in the centre, while all around the paintings are intricately drawn motifs of animals and plants. Peacocks, trees, fish, crocodiles, mountains, seas, creepers— all feature in these amazingly detailed motifs. The image often displays the Maata as central, dominating figure holding a weapon to ward off evil forces.
The art of making Mata Ni Pachhedi is a good example of how our religion and beliefs give rise to art forms. I was particularly intrigued by the different vahanas or vehicles that the Mother Goddess (Maata) is depicted using. Ambika Maata who is the goddess of motherhood rides a lion or a tiger. The Khodiyar maata who protects from physical disabilities is seated on a crocodile. Visat maata is seated on a water buffalo. Hadkai mata is sometimes shown riding a chariot pulled by dogs and perhaps reigns over uncontrolled mania (rabies-like) that leads to death and destruction. Bahuchara maata(also called Becharaji maata) who is the goddess of fertility rides a rooster and is worshipped by the transgender community. Dashamaa who rides a camel is worshipped by the so-called lower castes during Navratri where a ten day fast is kept in her honour. Vaahanvati maata has a ship as her vehicle riding the crest of a wave, while Meladi maata who protects farmlands is seated on a goat. Meladi maata is worshipped by Harijans and the legend goes that she was created by the dirt (mel) of the goddess and being impure she is kept outside the temple. It gives such an insight into the culture if you read between the lines!
The process of painting these pachhedis is long drawn. It takes months to complete one pachhedi. Traditionally these paintings were done on maader paat or the unbleached handwoven cotton cloth. Now mill-woven cotton cloth is also used. Initially the outline is made in black with a kalam or a pen which is made of bamboo, twigs or wooden sticks by the master craftsman. The women and the children in the family usually take over the painstaking task of filling in the colours in these very intricate drawings. The process of treatment of the cloth and application of different colours in different stages and is a long and tedious one.
Natural colours derived from flowers, vegetables and stones are used for colouring the sketches. Yellow is derived from mango or turmeric, orange from henna, blue from indigo and black from iron rust, jaggery and alum. Originally, maroon and black were the predominant colours in the pachhedi palette. These days they do add in other colours keeping with the market trends.
These days, a Mata ni Pachhedi is a collector’s delight and it keeps the art alive. Keeping in with buyer tastes, Chitara has made innovations to the traditional design trying to make them more colourful and adding more shades such as mustard, green, mauve, beige and pink, which appeal to his patrons. While he retains the pachhedi‘s religious overtones, he has not shied away from experimenting with newer motifs such as the Tree of Life, which were traditionally not part of the pachhedi repertoire. I didn’t see his work use much of block printing, except at the borders. After learning all about the painstaking work and creativity that went into creating one, I couldn’t but pick up a small Maata ni pachhedi. I had to bring the blessings from the Goddess home.
To plan tours to see the textile and craft heritage of Gujarat, you may contact my friend Deepa Subramanian at Shakti Holidays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone: +919840236872