Women keep it alive

Women keep it alive

The splash of the colourful folk art of sohrai and khovar enlivened the walls along the roadside in Ranchi, Jharkhand's capital. I had a feeling of déjà vu of seeing them adorn the mud walls of the huts of the villages in the Hazaribagh, Chatra, Koderma and Dumka regions of the state.  

I used to drive by these villages several times during my childhood spent in Bokaro. It seemed the ancient art was making itself relevant in modern times and gave an opportunity to people in the city to admire them.

I have seen warli art on Mumbai's public buildings and Gujarat's pithora decorating the Vadodara city walls near the railway station. The graffiti and art at public space in cities of Europe are quite common, which is slowly evolving in Indian cities, too. However, it gladdens my heart that our tribal and some other rural communities like Kurmi in Jharkhand have been painting the walls of their huts since time immemorial. From village to cities, the idea of art on the roads perked me up.

Seasonal markings

Traditionally, these sohrai paintings are linked to the winter harvest of crops in Jharkhand, and khovar (kohber) art is done during weddings. The bridal chamber is usually decorated with kohber. A portion of a black surface is coated with a layer of cream-coloured earth. Then it is cut with combs or fingers to expose the black portion making lovely patterns. Some artists compare kohber to the sgraffito technique of wall décor found in Greece.

Sohrai painting is done during the Sohrai festival of the Kurmis (they are not tribal) that coincides with Diwali. The agrarian community worships cows and rejoices by organising fairs. As the huts in villages get damaged during monsoon, they are repaired and then the mud walls decorated with motifs of plants and animals using different colours of mud.

As the state Jharcraft (A Government of Jharkhand undertaking) promotes several art forms of the state, they have urban haats in places like Deoghar and Hazaribagh to impart skills to artists and artisans and connect them to market linkages.

Though sohrai is a vibrant tradition of ritual art in the villages of Hazaribagh region, women are encouraged to paint on paper or cloth so they can sell them to art patrons.

In accord with nature

One such sohrai artist at Urban haat, Parvati Devi said that the paintings are done by the women of the community. Hailing from Bahera village (Churchu block), she speaks with pride that while several folk arts are languishing, sohrai painting is continuing the same way. She says all the 150 houses in her village are covered with a layer of fresh mud mixed with cow dung during autumn (coinciding with Diwali) and painted using red, yellow and white earth, while coal is used for black colour. The twigs of plants or datun (neem twig) are used as a paintbrush. So everything is natural and eco-friendly. The subjects of the paintings are plants and animals the rural folk encounter in their day-to-day lives. One can see bulls, horses, deer, snakes, cow, elephant, peacocks, fish and other wild animals alongside trees and flowers.

Sajo Devi of Jorakhat village elaborates on the decoration of cow with dhaan ka haar (garland of grains) after bathing them and anointing them with oil and vermillion. Then they offer grains and money to the cows.

Sohrai festival is an occasion of cattle worship where the tillers of soil pay reverence to the animals that are so important in their lives. The cows and buffaloes are taken for grazing and welcomed home in the noon when women worship them. Sajo said that some  10 to 12 days before Sohrai, the rice is ground to a paste and alpana (decoration) made on the path from where cattle return. Next day is the day when bulls are taken out in the fields, accompanied with the beating of drums and the singing of songs. Wooden posts or khunta are placed, bulls are teased and then tied to the posts as if enacting the drama of domesticating them.

During the evening of the three-day Sohrai festival, earthen lamps are lit. The entire village looks radiant with sohrai art in the background. The paintings show the richness of the artistic skills of the women, who pass this art to their daughters in a matriarchal fashion called 'ma-beti parampara'.  

Perhaps this is the reason the sohrai tradition flourished while other folk art of Jharkhand like jadopatia and payatkar languished.

One of the veterans to chronicle the art and culture of Hazaribagh and its vicinity is the environment activist Bulu Imam. He had been instrumental in showcasing the art of sohrai and kohver to the world. He had been a convener of INTACH (The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) since 1987 and established Sanskriti Museum  & Art Gallery (1995), and Tribal Women Artists' Cooperative.

Credit goes to him to discover the rock art near Hazaribagh in 1991. He speaks about similar sohrai art in the houses of the tribals of Oraons and Ganju. They paint wild animals and flowers. Though Pashupati, lotus and pipal trees were found, there were no engravings of any Hindu deities. Their lives perhaps revolved more on the natural environment and the forces of nature that they revered and protected.

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