India's rich heritage and culture has been fascinating the people around the world since ages. Traditional art forms and painting styles of India are celebrated worldwide. The practice of storytelling in India is historically rich and rooted in various communities across the nation but it is perhaps at its most prolific in folk traditions One such art form is Cheriyal Scroll painting. Cheriyal is a small village located almost 100 km from Hyderabad in Telangana’s Warangal district. Hence one can easily make out that this painting style find its roots here.
Cheriyal scrolls were once sociologically and culturally significant. Conventionally used as a tool for educating the unschooled villagers, these painted scrolls were also used by the village bard as visual aid to go with his stories and folk songs. Since the scrolls required artistes to paint meticulous lines, the royal state machinery termed the artistes as ‘nakshas’ (naksha means fine line) and thus the art from came to known as the Nakashi paintings.
While every state has a scroll tradition of its own, Telangana scroll paintings carry the depiction of heroic legends about particular communities. The scrolls were a colorful backdrop to the equally interesting oral traditions of the common people, that narrate stories in line with caste professions, rooted in the local legends - the village hajjam-barber, toddy tapper, dhobhi-washerman, chamar-leatherworker, fisherman, weaver and farmer: (Madiga, Goud, Mudiraju, Malas, Padmashali, Chakala and Mangali) the seven working and marginalized castes and communities of the village. Different communities have their own band of storytellers – in the Goud community of toddy tappers, they are called Gouda Shetty; those of the Chakali, or washermen, are called Chakalipatamvaru or Pattamollu; Kakipadagallolu for Muttarasi, the fruit pickers; Padmasalis, the community of weavers; and so on. The scrolls are painted in a narrative format, much like a film roll or a comic strip, depicting stories from Indian mythology, and intimately tied to the shorter stories from the Puranas and Epics. After the scrolls were painted, the story was performed by artistes in front of village gatherings. The scrolls were pinned in the background and the artistes danced and sang to every narrative painted on the scroll. It was also customary to sacrifice a goat after the recitation of the story from the scroll in some communities.
Cheriyal paintings were arguably brought to India by the Mughals in the 16th century. However, many claim its roots to go back to the 5th century in India itself. We can find a lot of influence of Kalamkari and Deccani scroll paintings in Cheriyal paintings. The resemblance of even the 12th century Kakatiya paintings can be witnessed in the Cheriyals especially in the Pillalamarri temple of Mahbubnagar, Telangana and the hill temple of Tripurantaka. Temple art traditions have a high influence on Cheriyal Paintings. The scroll paintings display some influence of the Nayaka period paintings (c. 1540), which are an extension of the Vijayanagara style of painting. While the affluent classes brought the scroll for aesthetic purposes, for the unlettered it was a great medium of entertainment and education.
The traditional art form became an inseparable part of the profession of the story-telling, balladeer community known as Kaki Padagollu. They displayed the scrolls and accompanied by music and dance went from village to village narrating and singing their ballads based from their rich folklore which was rooted in the Puranas and Indian Epics, enlivening many after a hard days work at their village.
In a typical performance, the storyteller-balladeer would wander from village to village in a team of usually five people, with two to narrate the story while the others would use harmonium, tabla, and other instruments to bring about tune and music in their narratives. The stage would also be a simple affair (many times even to the extent of being a rough and ready fixture), erected on four poles with a horizontal bar on which the scrolls could be displayed. The scroll would flow like a film roll. It was generally about three feet in width and went up to 40 – 45 feet in length, depending upon the story. The traditional scrolls are normally in vertical format, illustrating stories in a series of horizontal panels. A floral border in the middle separates the two panels, while the linear narrative is demonstrated by holding in both hands or suspending it from a tree or a pole and continually rolling it. Like large sized comic strips, each panel of the scroll depicted one part of the story. Hence, a scroll would easily have around 50 panels. As the bard would narrate the story, the panel depicting that part of the story would be displayed. The choice of episodes and iconography of each deity was painted, keeping in mind the caste for which the scroll was made.
Cheriyal’s carry the rich cultural history and heritage with them. These small but wealthy stories were also used to educate the uneducated. They acted as a wonderful means of communication and conveyed significant moral virtues. Various panels are separated by architectural bodies and their caste lineage which is an important aspect of cheriyal painting. Cheriyals have mythical narratives. There is also a ritual that is performed if a scroll outlasts 100 years. It is immersed in the holy river. In the past, the scrolls were the backdrop to the oral traditions of common people. Each community had its peculiarities and its favorite heroes and heroines and a selection of stories from the local myths. One cast could only narrate for specific other castes. For example, the Bhavnarushis and Markandeya Puranas were performed for the Padmashalis by the Kunapuli subcaste. It was not only the entertainment but also the rituals, usually performed for over three nights in a row but would stretch up till 20 days. The presence of such storytelling performers goes back to as early as 10th-century Telugu literature. What is different about Cheriyal paintings is that they have all the community-specific stories. Besides, the mythical narratives they also focus on the day to day lives of simple communities like fishermen, food gatherers, cobblers, etc. We can also see Cheriyals as the stylized version of Nakkashi art rich in local motifs peculiar to the Telangana region.
Nakashi Masks or Cheriyal Dolls
Besides paintings, Cheriyal artists also used to make masks and dolls. These dolls and masks were also an integral part of the storytelling traditions. As far as their making is concerned, the masks were made of coconut shells (smaller masks) and the sawdust and tamarind seed paste (larger masks). Whereas a light wood called tellapuniki along with sawdust and tamarind seed paste was used to make the dolls.
Process to make Cheriyal Paintings
The making of the canvas is a very elaborate procedure. Here is how the Cheriyal Paintings were made:
- Canvas - First, the Khadi cotton is treated with a mixture of starch (from rice), suddha matti (white mud), a paste of boiled tamarind seeds and gum water thrice. It must be ensured that every coating is thoroughly dried before the next one is applied. This process would take a couple of days.
- Sketching - Once the canvas is ready, the artist’s sketch the outline - the figures and other elements like architectural features, landscapes, animals, forests, birds and rituals directly onto the canvas using a brush. Sharp outlines were then made directly by the brush to define the drawings. The outlines are very well defined and sharply reflecting the quality and experience of the craftsman.
- Colors - The colors are made by the artists from natural sources. The scroll paintings are done on bright red backgrounds and follow a colour scheme of blue, green, yellow, black and white. Originally, black was extracted from soot, white was obtained from river shells. Red was extracted from stones called Ingligum and yellow from Pevadi stones. . Brushes are made with hair of squirrels tied to a stick.
- Painting - Lastly, the colors were filled in the paintings. Now, the colors used in the figures had a certain meaning and symbolism attached. The background was painted in red color to highlight the figures in the paintings. The face and skin were painted as blue and yellow denoting the gods and goddesses respectively. Brown and darker shades were used to represent demons and pink skin tones were used for humans. All these colors were naturally obtained. Natural color stones were finely crushed, and water was added and mixed well to make it a thick paste. White was obtained from white seashells, black form lamp yellow from turmeric, blue from indigo and other colors from various vegetable dyes and ground stones. Later, tree gum water was added to preserve them and make them a sticky paint.
- Borders - Once the painting was completed, leaves and flowers were made in the borders.
Characteristics of Cheriyal Paintings
Cheriyal Paintings can be easily recognized by the following peculiarities and unique characteristics:
- Painted in vivid hues, mostly primary colors, with a predominance of red in the background, the paintings are characterized by the unbridled imagination of the local artisans who were not constrained by the academic rigor that characterized the more classical Tanjore painting and Mysore painting. For example, the artist hardly bothers about perspective in Cheriyal paintings and sets out the narrative by placing the relevant figures in appropriate order and position in the relevant background. The iconography of even the major deities like Shiva, Vishnu, etc. has a strong local idiom.
- The subjects of these scroll paintings are easy to relate to – as the themes and stories are familiar – drawn from ancient literary, mythological, and folk traditions. The common themes are from the Krishna Leela, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Shiva Puranam, Markandeya Puranam interspersed with the ballads and folk-stories of communities like Gauda, Madiga and so on.
- The main narrative involves scenes from the common rural life such as women performing kitchen chores, men working in fields or experiencing merry, festival settings, etc. The costumes and settings in which the figures are depicted are typical and reflect the culture of Andhra, where these paintings originated.
- Within the narrow panels, proportion is created by depicting trees, or a building, a pillar with drawn curtains, etc. However, the proportion of individual characters is determined by their relative importance in that particular scene, with the most important character being the largest and most detailed and the lesser characters being smaller and less detailed.
Carrying the Legacy
The advent of new forms of entertainment the practice of scroll paintings got faded. Now, Cheriyal is the only place where this craft still survives. With changing times, the artform has also seen various changes. Nowadays, the long mythological stories have been cut short as there are no traditional patrons for long scrolls and the whole picture has narrowed down to an event. The artists have been forced to adapt and nowadays they paint smaller versions of the scrolls, depicting a single episode or character from the traditional stories. These are amenable to framing and can be hung on walls in modern homes. Further, the colours are no longer prepared in the traditional manner.
D Sai Kiran Varma
Varma says that due to advent of TV and cinema, this 400-year-old tradition of storytelling is fading with time – “But still you will find some communities doing this practice and they may mainly tell stories from Mahabharata.” He studied Fine Art at Sri Venkateswara College of Fine Arts, Hyderabad, specialising in painting with the aim of preserving cheriyal art and is working now with Kakipadagallolu storytellers, who narrate tales from the Mahabharata to the community of fruit pickers.
For his part, Varma constantly aims to make cheriyal art more contemporary and relevant by using its motifs to make utility items such as mobile covers, key chains, tissue boxes, paper weights and the popular masks which are made from coconut shells. “All these items are made from the same materials, with the same techniques,” he said. “I am not making it fully contemporary as then this art will get lost.”
In a growing technology driven world, we are increasingly leaving behind the traditional arts and crafts and embracing industrialization and modernization. Due to this artists and artisans who were practicing these art forms are moving to alternative income generation methods, for instance the daily wage labor. Hence the people are moving from rural to urban cities in search for new opportunities, leaving behind their rural homes and culture. The recent reverse migration during the 2020 pandemic might have made us realize the sheer volume of people who have moved to urban cities creating new problems for us to solve.
Preserving and protecting the skills and knowledge of traditional artisans and crafts men/women is an ever-growing challenge. Government and NGO’s working in this area are conducting reforms to keep these art forms alive. But until we the public are aware and lend a hand to revive the sector its going to die soon.
Some shocking truths
- There are around 8 million artisans as per official records and around 20 million artisans as per unofficial records in India
- The average household income of an artisan family is INR 8000 a month
What can you do?
- Replace your machine-made products with handmade or handicraft products.
- Learn the art and share it with others.
- Create your own home décor with these traditional art forms.
- Make it fashionable – Do your part to make these hand made products fashionable.
Courses we have for you with this theme
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With our artist's in-depth 3 hour guidance, someone even without any previous art experience will be able to create this lovely painting and reconnect with the art practiced by our ancestors. Let's indulge in some cultural conversations during the session, discussing about the history of story telling in rural India, and the influence of it in Telangana and Andhra cultures.
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