Incredible India: Sohrai Kurmi painting of Bhelwara – Hazaribagh
The ritual designs are based on the cattle, especially the bull, as being the source of agriculture. The image of a tree or the god Shiva as Pashupati (Lord of Animals) appears standing on the bull, and we are reminded of the local rock art images. The bull is sometimes wheeled and spotted. Identical images are found in the nearby Isco rock paintings – Bulu Imam*
The Hazaribagh region of North Jharkhand state in eastern India has over the past decade gained international acclaim for its unique Khovar and Sohrai art painted by tribal women in the jungle villages and remote agricultural valleys. Among these natural expressions, one finds several images prevailing in the region’s already famous Mesolithic rock art. Hazaribagh has shown itself to be a very rich archaeological area, and the evidence of human habitation can be traced to the Lower Paleolithic, with many examples of Middle and Upper Paleolithic stone tools, and a vibrant Mesolithic phase in which finely tooled Vindhyan microliths appear in the painted shelters, along with Neolithic axe-heads and decorated pottery.
Among the several resident tribes that have taken to this popular form of art: Oraon, Prajapati, Teli, Ganju, Kurmi. The later one is notorious for developing a form of art that is closely related to prehistoric iconography and style.
The Kurmis are a semi Hinduized aboriginal tribe practising householder worship and living along densely forested areas. Their art has two major and uniformly distinct expressions, both having their source in the region’s rock art. One form is a comb-cut sgraffito style in black and white, mainly found in the Jorakath complex of villages in south Hazaribagh, and one other being a painted form which is found in east Hazaribagh in the Bhelwara complex of villages.
Khovar is an art practised during the summer marriage season, while Sohrai is the harvest festival during the onset of winter in which a specific art in praise of the cattle and the Lord of Animals, Shiva Pashupati, takes place. Shiva also signifies The Tree. The Kurmi tribal women of Bhelwara, 45 km east of the district headquarters town of Hazaribagh, and 80 km N-E of the closest rock art site at Isco, is the site of the most exuberant and stylistically exclusive art related with the Sohrai festival. Images of striped and spotted wheeled animals (cattle, elephant etc.) with a horned deity standing on the back of a bull, or a Tree of Life, signify agriculture and nature. The horned deity and Tree of Life are found in their earliest form in the region’s rock paintings, along with spotted wheeled animals as in the rock art of Isco.
Since 1994, INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) has been working to promote the Kurmi Sohrai art of Bhelwara as perhaps among the oldest continuing artform in India. The villages are swept by fierce rains from June to September, and all painted images are washed off as they are only painted with natural yellow and red earth ochres, kaolin white and manganese black. Red and yellow ochres are dug up in the fields, and the black and white earth near the hilly ranges behind the village. The designs are painted after the monsoons are over, as the harvest approaches during October-November. This is a wonderful season in the villages, and a restful calm prevails. The Sohrai festival takes place the very day after the Divali or Festival of Lights but has nothing to do with it in these Semi-Hinduized villages where an ancient pre-Vedic cattle-cult prevails, dating back to the era of the first village settlements of agriculturists.
The houses have been re-plastered and images of fertility and fecundity associated with the harvest appear, painted on the walls by the married women and young girls, carrying on an ancient pre-historic tradition. By 1994 the tradition had become threatened when INTACH began its campaign to revive the art, as well as bring it to paper. The best available handmade paper was coated with mixtures of clay and glue diluted in water to replicate exactly the colour and texture of the walls. In the Sohrai art, the shade of the clay will vary from village to village. The women were asked to paint in the traditional manner on this ground using the chewed tooth stick of the Saal tree (Shorea robusta), or using cotton swabs dipped in the colour. The unique stylism of first tracing the image with a nail in the clay, then outlining it with red, black, and white is done. This is a stylistic pattern also observable in the region’s Meso-chalcolithic rock art.
The ritual designs are based on the cattle, especially the bull, as being the source of agriculture. The image of a tree or the god Shiva as Pashupati (Lord of Animals) appears standing on the bull, and we are reminded of the local rock art images. The bull is sometimes wheeled and spotted. Identical images are found in the nearby Isco rock paintings. The sacred iconography consists of various common Indian esoteric symbols such as triangle, circle, square – the triangle being expressed variously, the circle bisected into the sacred lotus, and the square horizontally divided.
Indian rock art witnesses spotted bulls in the rock art of early agricultural societies. The spotting of the bull has certainly something to do with the ancient origins of hybridization (1st image). Spotting of the cattle is done with clay cups dipped in coloured liquids. The unique aspect of Sohrai art is the various forms of Shiva it expresses, many of which are deeply associated with the minimalist symbols of rock art, which take a new meaning, and gives an insight into the minds of the ancestors and their continuous re-expression in new-old forms, as in the anthropomorphic icon, the zoomorphic, and the simple triangle, as the base of the natural world, part of the human-animal form, or mark of the mother goddess.
On the day of the Sohrai festival, the cattle are taken early in the morning by the householder to the jungle while the wife prepares the house to receive back the animals. A ritual path or Aripan , consisting of several mandalas in rows (found in the rock art) are made by dipping a white liquid gruel made from rice paste and milk. The head of the Aripan has a clay cone with a sprig of wild grass which is auspicious and represents the mother goddess.
The day after Sohrai there are a series of “bullfights” (Khuta Bandhan) which are reminiscent of the famous bull leaping images in Mesolithic Indian rock art . The Sohrai and Khuta Bandhan festival and their mural art are the manifestations of a living Mesolithic cattle-centred tradition of the early animal-keepers and agriculturists who painted the last rock art in the caves.
The cattle live in sheds adjacent to the dwellings of the villagers in which rooms are built around a well-drained, open central courtyard. The setting is natural as in the art itself, painted with breath-taking rustic ritual simplicity and force, such as in the paintings of Parvati Devi, Dugni Devi and other great Kurmi artists.
Appreciating that the widespread application of the art to paper could spoil a genuine natural village artistic tradition, the INTACH project was contained within a small group of specially chosen women artists in Bhelwara village. Slowly but surely their art found a discerning audience when it was exhibited first in the cities of Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta and Bangalore. It was a new tribal artform that was first exhibited abroad in 1995, after which over two dozen international exhibitions have been held in premier galleries and museums in Australia, Germany, and England.
Today, the Bhelwara artists are grouped in a Tribal Women Artists’ Cooperation started in 1995 by Bulu Imam at Hazaribagh. Selective stylistic examination of the art and a distinctive curating standard for the art is sought to be maintained at the tribal art village “Sanskriti” maintained by Imam, who has also built up an archaeological museum and art gallery at Hazaribagh.
Along with promoting paintings on handmade paper, the dying art of the tribal embroidered crib-quilt or ledra has also been rejuvenated.
As in the case of paintings, ledras are made in very limited numbers so as to keep the art within its natural ritual role and precincts and avoid its over-commercialization which would surely have an adverse effect on its ancient purpose and expression as India’s oldest indigenous genius and the tribal spiritual foundation of its pre Vedic worship.
*Bulu Imam is an environmental activist working for the protection of tribal culture and heritage in Jharkhand. On 12 June 2012, he received the Gandhi International Peace Award, 2011 at the House of Lords in London. He also established the Sanskriti Museum & Art Gallery in Hazaribagh along with Tribal Women Artists Cooperative (TWAC) to promote the tribal art of the region, which has held over 50 international exhibitions of Khovar and Sohrai paintings in Australia, Europe, and the UK. He is the author of the book Bridal Caves & Antiquarian Remains of Jharkhand
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team