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Timeless images

Last updated: 17 September, 2011

Tribal Musings

Saura art is intricate, has ritual significance and draws upon tribal folklore and ancient animistic religion. Bishnu Prasadís paintings are a vibrant fusion of this art and his own innovations and interpretations. Monideepa Sahu decodes his compositions.

New Age: An abstract painting of Lord  Buddha. Photo by Monideepa Sahu

Bishnu Prasad’s paintings are an eye-catching fusion of motifs from the ancient Saura tribal painting traditions of Orissa and his unique innovations. Over 20 years ago, while assisting anthropologists studying tribal cultures of Orissa, he was mesmerised by the vibrant art of the Sauras.

These intricate paintings were an integral part of tribal life since millennia. But with conversion of many tribals into Christianity, they began renouncing old customs. “Today, their once common wall paintings have all but vanished,” laments Bishnu Prasad. Interested in painting since childhood, this self-taught artist has honed his skills for many years and aims to present his renderings of Saura art before the world.

The Sauras are among the most ancient tribes of India. Savari, the woman devotee of Lord Rama in the Ramayana, belonged to the Savara or Saura tribe. Jara, the hunter, who mortally wounded Lord Krishna with an arrow by accident, also belonged to this tribe. Today, the Sauras are best known for traditional wall paintings, which they call italons or ikons.


These intricate paintings have ritualistic significance, drawing upon tribal folklore and ancient animistic religion. The paintings are created around Idital, the deity of the Sauras. Each Idital contains many significant symbols. The paintings reflect the daily life of the Sauras and even the tiniest detail is rife with significance.

Timeless images of people, horses, elephants and the sun and moon share space in these paintings along with contemporary objects such as guns, planes and bicycles. The paintings are created for various occasions such as marriages or the birth of a child. They invoke the blessings of tribal gods.

The ‘Tree of Life’, a recurring motif in the aboriginal abstract paintings of the Sauras, finds ever-changing interpretations in Bishnu Prasad’s paintings. It denotes peace, harmony with nature, and unity. Like the Saura painters, Bishnu creates his own compositions. In one of his paintings, the tree is made up of finely detailed female figures. This signifies beauty and human development.

 His different interpretations of the tree include birds, some single, some paired, and some in groups of three — the paired birds signify conjugal harmony, the groups of three birds signify the trigunas or qualities which a person is made of, which are satva, raja and tamas; peacocks and the lotuses that symbolise beauty and fishes that signify plentiful food and pure water.

Another ‘Tree of Life’ painting by Prasad shows numerous intricate details of tribal history and life. Also, one of his most striking works is a painting that portrays a dual tree — half of the tree is filled with images from nature while the other half shows indigenous technology. 

Bishnu has also executed his own ideas in the Saura style, one of them being a chariot made up of ladies. A modern day courtroom scene has touches of humour, showing Lord Ganesha in multiple roles as the judge, lawyer, court clerk and bystander. He also speaks words of assurance to the oppressed, and the entire effect can be compared with a comic strip. Lord Ganesha has his place in the Saura paintings.

The tribal deities are different but their paintings also depict gods with trunks. They also paint groups of three gods, which may be Lord Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra. Tribals do not know of Hindu gods, but research suggests links between their images and gods of the Hindu pantheon.
 
At first glance, the Saura paintings appear strikingly similar to Warli art. However, the two styles are distinct in their style and treatment of subjects. Warli paintings depict trees, animals and people. The human body is shown in Warli paintings as two juxtaposed triangles — the upper triangle representing  the male element points upwards and the lower one representing the female element points down.

They are joined at their pointed tips to form the human body. In Saura paintings, the human figures are not so sharply angular, and other details are also painted differently. Traditional Saura paintings were done on mud walls of huts. The background was prepared with red or yellow ochre earth. Tribals used tender bamboo shoots, mashing the tip into a brush like a cluster of fibres.

For paints, they used white stone powder, coloured earth, vermillion, flower and leaf pastes mixed with tamarind seed paste. Bishnu uses acrylic paints and artist’s brushes on paper or canvas. These colours last and the paintings can be transported to any place in the world. Bishnu’s aim is to revive interest in this little known art and reach a wider audience.

Apart from works inspired by the traditional Saura style, Bishnu also paints colourful abstract compositions of Lord Buddha and Ganesha. He has also tried his hand at paintings in the Pattachitra style, which was originally used by artists for depicting religious scenes in the temples of Orissa. Acrylic on paper landscapes of the Sauras’ homeland, colourfully painted beer bottles, Bishnu has many interesting works in store.

He has also painted canvasses with auto rickshaws, cows, bicycles and Ambassador cars, which are popular with foreign tourists.

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