Because of the heavy use to which the pichhavais were subjected in the Sri Nathji temple, there was a need for their constant replacement. There was also a large demand for devotional pictures by pilgrims coming to Nathadwara, the present headquarters of the Sri Krishna Nathji cult. These needs kept traditional Indian painting more active in Nathadwara than perhaps at any other place in India.
The town of Nathadwara, nestling beside the Banas River in the hills north of Udaipur in Rajasthan, was an insignificant village until 1671 A.D., when the idol of Sri Nathji was installed there after the Mughal Emperor Aurangzib's iconoclastic destruction of the Mathura temples two years earlier. Here, under the protection of Maharana Raj Singh of Mewar, the original village of Sinhar developed into a thriving pilgrim center under its new name, which means "portal of the Lord".
In the course of time, the practitioners of various crafts such as painters, enamellers, musical instrument makers, textile printers, toy makers, perfume manufacturers, etc., came and settled in Nathadwara in order to serve the Deity and shrine, and produce articles for sale to the many pilgrims who thronged the town's narrow streets.
The painters of Nathadwara are one of the most important of these craft communities and today number between 150 and 300 persons, divided between forty to fifty extended families. These families are divided into two main castes, the Gaur and Jangir, who describe themselves as Brahmins immigrating from Udaipur in the first case, and Jaipur and Jodhpur in the second. A third group, the Purbia, describe themselves as have migrated from Delhi and Alwar. These places of origin are congruent with the stylistic characteristics of Nathadwara paintings.
It is equally uncertain to what extent painted hanging were used by the sect before the move to Nathadwara, since the earliest known surviving examples of pichhavais post-date that event. Nathadwara has certainly been the chief place of their origin in recent times, but examples do exist which should definitely be ascribed to other centers, and these appear on the whole to be earlier in date than most of the examples from the headquarters of the Sri Nathji cult.
To distinguish its characteristic stylistic features, it is necessary to consider Nathadwara painting in relation to Indian painting as a whole and in doing this one becomes aware that the religious and literary movement, of which Vallabhacharya's cult forms a part, played an important role in the development of Indian painting at about the time when Vallabha lived.
The 15h and 16th centuries were a period of acute religious ferment and revival as Hinduism began to recover in the North from the shock sustained by the collapse of the Hindu dynasties following the Muslim conquest. The great era of religious patronage by powerful rulers was over and the revival of Hinduism began to take place on a popular level. Although the Muslim invasions of several centuries earlier had proved a powerful setback, a modus vivendi gradually developed between Muslims and Hindus. Despite their apparently irreconcilable differences over deity worship, the two religions began to fertilize each other, as the Muslim Sufis and Hindu bhaktas found that they had much in common.
A similar synthesis was also developing in other fields such as the arts, where language, music, architecture and painting were undergoing changes as a result of the new influences brought in from Persia and Turkistan. The chief representative of North Indian painting at this time was a type of manuscript illustration that was being prepared for the Jain sect, mainly localized in Gujarat, Central India and Rajasthan. These pictures were executed in a very angular, schematic style, mainly using primary colors, with little attempt at naturalism. The subjects tended to be repeated over and over again as wealthy members of the sect vied with each other in making pious donations of illustrated texts. This constant repetition, together with the conservatism inherent within such religious art, led to highly conventionalized picture-making, but within these conventions the artists were capable of developing very lively and sensitive standards of drawing.
Although Jains appear to have been the principal patrons of this art, there were many vernacular works dealing with Krishna's childhood being illustrated about a generation before Vallabha's birth, and the devotional literature generated by his sect was soon to play an important part in the development of vernacular poetry. Dealing as it did with the exploits of Sri Krishna's boyhood, as well as His rasa lila relationships, this literature had great appeal. Much of it was in lyric form and presented the episodes of Krishna's life briefly and with a wealth of descriptive imagery that provided ideal subject matter for pictorial illustration.
Source: "Rajasthani Temple Hangings of the Krishna Cult", by Robert Skelton.