The roving stories

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Known for themes: A Cheriyal painting depicts a rural setting.

Just over an hour’s drive from Hyderabad took me to Cheriyal, a small village in the district of Warangal in Telangana. My mission for the day was clear. I wanted to familiarise myself with the age-old art of Cheriyal scroll-painting.

Making my way through the dusty lanes of the village, I landed in the house of Ganesh and Vanaja, known for their expertise in this art form. As we settled down on the mat with a steaming cup of coffee, the artist couple explained the process behind the making of Cheriyal scrolls.

Owing its origins to the ancient tradition of storytelling, Cheriyal scroll-painting is a stylised form of nakashi art, believed to have travelled south along with the Mughal emperors. Each scroll, measuring anything from three feet in width to 40-45 feet in length, narrates stories from the epics and puranas including the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Shiva Purana, Markandeya Purana, Shree Krishna Leela, and so on.

Then & now

Traditionally, storytellers would stay with the chitrakars and narrate the stories that chitrakars would then paint on the canvas. Once the scroll was ready, it would be celebrated with a sacrificial offering of an animal to God, and the storytellers gifting the chitrakars new clothes and rice. The storytellers would then go from village to village with these scrolls, in groups of four to five, to assist them in storytelling by playing musical instruments like the harmonium and the tabla, and dancing. Villagers, in turn, would wait for storytellers as that was the only form of entertainment for them.

In the villages, these scroll paintings would roll out vertically, depicting stories in a horizontal format, going with the story narrated by the storyteller. In bright-red colour, these scrolls captured the attention of the gathering.

These scrolls are khadi cloth treated in several layers. “The cloth is treated with rice starch, chalk powder, the paste of boiled tamarind seeds, and natural tree gum. Each coat should be dried before applying the next one. This has to be done thrice for the canvas to be stiff, smooth, and paint-ready. Once the canvas is prepared, we start painting directly with our brushes,” says Ganesh, as Vanaja readies herself to show it in action. As her hand deftly moves with a brush in hand, I watch a figure of Lord Krishna take shape.

All natural

She then starts filling up the drawing with colours. They are natural, obtained from various elements like stone, tree bark, lamp soot, and seashell. They are ground well, mixed with water to make a thick paste, and then treated with natural tree gum to preserve them and obtain a sticky paste. While the background colour used is bright red, the other colours used are white, black, yellow and green. “Traditionally, brushes meant squirrel hair tied to a stick, but now we use brushes available in the market,” he adds, as Vanaja, done with filling the drawing, picks up another brush to define finer details of the painting like facial features and jewellery.

Each Cheriyal scroll earlier had up to 50 horizontal panels, which would take up to four months. It is now made mostly in single panels, depicting just one episode or character from the epics, to be used as wall art at homes and offices. Breaking from tradition, they also paint scenes from rural backgrounds including the village folk going about their chores, fishing, commuting in a bullock cart, etc. They also make Cheriyal masks and dolls inspired by the folktales. Being unique to Telangana, this form of painting was given the GI or Geographical Indication tag in 2007, and the state government considers it an apt gift to visiting dignitaries. Such is its special status. Though Cheriyal scroll-painting has come a long way from its days of origin, it would do well with more support, feel the artist couple. And, in their effort to popularise the art form, they also conduct workshops on a regular basis. After my engagement with the artist couple, I only had one word for them: Wow!

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