A unique folk art form
Fifty kilometres from Aurangabad in Maharashtra state of India is Paithan, called Pratishtanpur in older times. It was the capital of the Satavahana dynasty, which ruled from the second century BC to the second century CE. It is mentioned in the famous first-century Greek book, the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.
Paithan is associated with many spiritual leaders from all faiths. It is known for its exquisite Paithani sarees, but the place is also associated with a unique folk art form called Chitrakathi.
Chitrakathi: A brief introduction
Story telling through pictures is an ancient tradition. A unique style of painting has evolved to be known by the same name, originating from Paithan and Pinguli in Maharashtra during the 17th -18th centuries. The community folk were travelling story tellers who roamed from village to village narrating tales from Indian mythology and the great Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. They used song, puppets, mime and paintings to illustrate their stories. This tradition was spread in mostly Western Deccan, Maharashtra, North Karnataka and some areas of Telangana. The term can be broken up into chitra and katha meaning picture and story respectively. A Chitrakathi is one who narrates a story using pictures or paintings.
The folk artists
The Thakar tribal community were Chitrakathi artists who came to this region in the mid 18th century and conducted shows to an enthralled audience. They used single sheets of 40-50 paintings, called 'pothi' relating to a particular legend, which after the show would be stored as a bundle and tied with a cloth called 'rumal'. The Thakar community is a nomadic tribe who painted on leaves and handmade paper. They narrated the stories from the epics as entertainment and during festivals at night. Shivaji Maharaj encouraged their art form. The community travelled as bards and became spies for the Maratha king and later for the Sawant Bhonsales of Sawantwadi who gave them land at Pinguli.
Bold and beautiful
This art form has bold and stylised figures reminiscent of both mural art and miniature paintings. The size was 22cm x 42cm usually but could be customised as per the village needed and size of the audience. However the Pinguli and Paithan styles are different and form the two types of Chitrakathi. Pinguli art shows Maratha-Deccan-Mughal influence whereas the Paithan style shows Ajanta influence.
The Salar Jung Museum Collection
Salar Jung Museum which opened in 1951 in Hyderabad has a large collection of objects and artefacts from European, Asian and Far Eastern countries of the world. The major portion of this collection was acquired by art connoisseur and nobleman Nawab Mir Yousuf Ali Khan Bahadur popularly known as Salar Jung III. The Salar Jung Museum has some Chitrakathi art consisting of scenes from the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata done with pigment on paper from pothis from the 18th and 19th century.
Lord Rama meeting Sage Sarabhanga (1800/1899)Salar Jung Museum
Lord Rama meeting Sage Sarabhanga
This painting shows an episode from the Ramayana, when Sage Sarabhanga is visited by Lord Rama during his sojourn through the Dandaka forest.
'Saat saal'' ór Seven trees episode (1700/1799)Salar Jung Museum
'Saat saal' or Seven trees episode
In this painting Lord Rama is shown proving his prowess by shooting the arrow through seven saal trees. His younger brother Laxmana stands with a bow.
Rakshasa Viradha seen with Lord Rama and others (1800/1899)Salar Jung Museum
Rakshasa Viradha seen with Lord Rama and others
Viradha is a demonic or rakshasa from the Ramayana. Rama and Lakshmana begin to battle the monster, but though they shoot it with many arrows, the arrows pass straight through him and leave him unharmed. A depiction of the rakshasa shows him unaffected by the arrows and his split head.
Lord Rama killing a demon with two swords. (1700/1799)Salar Jung Museum
Lord Rama killing a demon with two swords
This painting portrays a scene from the Ramayana where Lord Rama kills a huge demon.
Hanuman suduing demonesses. (1700/1799)Salar Jung Museum
Hanuman overpowering demonesses
This painting portrays a scene from the Ramayana where Hanuman can be seen overpowering demonesses.
Preparation to follow the sacrificial horse. (1700/1799)Salar Jung Museum
Preparation to follow the sacrificial horse.
An episode from the Indian epic Mahabharata about Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Pandava brothers, who performs the Ashvamedha (horse-sacrifice), the painting shows preparations for the sacrifice.
Nine persons working on a building. (1700/1799)Salar Jung Museum
Nine persons working on a building.
This painting shows a scene from the Ramayana depicting a group of nine workers working on decorating a building for an event.
Two warriors facing shooting arrows at each other (1700/1799)Salar Jung Museum
Two warriors shooting arrows at each other
This painting shows a scene from the epic Ramayana where two warriors stand facing each other and are in a stance of combat.
Lakhsmana in battle with Indrajit. (1700/1799)Salar Jung Museum
Lakhsmana in battle with Indrajit, Ravana's brother
This paintings depicts Indrajit's encounter with Lakshmana during the epic war in Ramayana, at whose hands he was finally killed.
A battle field with Babruvahana standing in the centre. (1700/1799)Salar Jung Museum
A battle field with Babruvahana standing in the centre
A scene from the Mahabharata, battle field with Babruvahana standing in the centre, capture of the ''Ashwamedha'' horse, bodies strewn around from Arjuna’s army.
Rama, Lakshmana and three monkey warriors with a peacock flying. (1700/1799)Salar Jung Museum
Lord Rama, Lakshmana and three monkey warriors
This painting shows Lord Rama, Lakshmana and three monkey warriors with a peacock flying.
Hanuman subduing Surasa, (female demoness). (1700/1799)Salar Jung Museum
Hanuman subduing Surasa, female demoness
This paintings depicts Surasa's encounter with Hanuman from the Ramayana. Surasa is the mother of the nagas who has to test Hanuman on his way to Lanka.
Bharata Shoots at Hanuman as He Flies Over with the Medicinal Herbs (recto), Hanuman Lands with the Medicinal Herbs (verso), Scenes from the Story of the Burning of Lanka, Folio from a Ramayana (Adventures of Rama) Bharata Shoots at Hanuman as He Flies Over with the Medicinal Herbs (recto), Hanuman Lands with the Medicinal Herbs (verso), Scenes from the Story of the Burning of Lanka, Folio from a Ramayana (Adventures of Rama)Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Few Thakar families still practice Chitrakathi and have old pothis with which they told stories, who are now settled in Pinguli. The ones which they have now are not earlier than 19th century. Some were made in early 20th century using British water marked paper.
At Pinguli, Parashuram Gangawane (a Padmashree awardee by the Govt. of India), and his family are Chitrakathi artists from the Thakar community who are continuing this ancient art form of story telling using old pothis, puppets, musical instruments and also innovating with contemporary interpretations.
Text and Curation: Soma Ghosh
Research Assistance : Dinesh Singh and E. Rajesh
Photography : M. Krishnamurthy and Bahadur Ali
Special thanks to Dr. A Nagender Reddy, Director , Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad.
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