Nita Ambani is a fiercely passionate woman. As onehalf of India’s wealthiest couple and the founder and chairperson of the Reliance Foundation, she supports education, culture, sports, health, and disaster response initiatives in her beloved country. Working for the first time on an initiative outside of India’s borders, Ambani and her foundation have made The Art Institute of Chicago’s major exhibition Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings possible.
Her decision to support the exhibition is a reflection of her love of India and Shrinathji, a form of the Hindu god Krishna. “We founded the Reliance Foundation in 2010, and culture is one of its pillars. When Madhuvanti (Ghose, the exhibition curator) and
Douglas (Druick, President and Director of the Art Institute) came to me last January and asked for our support, I got very excited. I said yes, if you can showcase India’s diverse culture and take it to the world to see, we will sponsor it.”
Ambani notes, “Our family is a strong believer in Shrinathji. It preaches universal oneness and love. And I think we are living in a time when the world needs these things the most. In Hinduism, we believe Krishna is our friend and he appeals to the heart and mind both, and he is always preaching harmony, love, and peace. I thought, if we can open the doors of your heart and you can see what India can bring to the world it would be wonderful. And it would be wonderful to bring this art to Chicago and let the world see it.”
Gates of the Lord presents a magnificent assembly of over 100 objects including drawings, pichvais, paintings, and historic photographs and highlights one of the world’s oldest living art forms. Created in the temple town of Nathdwara in Western India by members of the Pushtimarg sect of Hinduism, the works celebrate devotion to Shrinathji, the Hindu god Krishna in his 7-year-old form. Extraordinary textile paintings called pichvais (pronounced “peach-why”), designed as temple hangings, comprise the majority of the exhibit and depict images of Krishna throughout the seasons.
When asked if she had a favorite work in the exhibit, Ambani thought carefully, “It is very difficult because I am a believer in Krishna and Krishna’s philosophy. So, for me to select one it is hard because in Shrinathji we celebrate all seasons, but one that I do love is the mra (peacocks)” she says. The Ambani family has visited the temple town of Nathdwara many times. “Nathdwara is where Shrinathji resides, so I go there to see almost all of the festivals,” says Ambani, “but he (Shrinathji) lives in our hearts always.” Seeing all of the works representing Shrinathji come together in Gates of the Lord has far exceeded her expectations. “It is so wonderful. We’ve been working with the Art Institute from January of last year, and with it being our first initiative we wondered how it would be and how it would be received, taking India abroad. I was quite surprised and pleased with all of the reactions [during opening night]. It was everything I expected and so much more. It absorbs you! It’s beautiful, and Douglas and Madhuvanti have worked so hard.”
Gates of the Lord will undoubtedly leave a lasting impression on visitors who experience it. Ambani’s hope is that the exhibition will “spread tolerance of all religions, love and universal oneness.” The City of Chicago and its people have left an indelible impression on her as well. “To me, it is an architectural delight here. It is such a beautiful city. I came for the first time as a mother with my young children to show them the Anish Kapoor (referring to “Cloud Gate,” the sculpture by Indian-born British artist Anish Kapoor located in Millennium Park). Here, in Chicago, it feels almost like walking through art in every form.”
Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago in Regenstein Hall through January 3, 2016. For more information, visit artic.edu.