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Exploring the art of masses

Exploring the art of masses
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Colourful paintings with panels depicting a story whose sequence is explained through narration, scrolls were perhaps the first storyboards or...

Colourful paintings with panels depicting a story whose sequence is explained through narration, scrolls were perhaps the first storyboards or PowerPoint presentations known to us. These works are not to be viewed as art in isolation but as an amalgamation of painting, story and narration, which complement each other.

A dynamic thought process finds expression in these works defined by the cultural complexities and sensibilities of artists, who capture the universe on their canvas. While in China scroll paintings were part of the sophisticated traditions of the nobility and the courts, in India, they have been confined to the rural areas as a folk tradition limited to the village artist or the itinerant bard.

Scroll painting traditions like the Patuas of Bengal, the Bhopas of Rajasthan, the Garodas of Gujarat, the Chitrakathis of Maharashtra and the Patamkatha of South India reflected the belief and culture of the community and were broadly brought under the umbrella of ‘folk arts’. The scroll paintings of Telangana also known as Nakashi paintings were different from the rest of the country in terms of style, presentation and social functions dealing with occupational castes.

These scrolls contained stories that proclaimed the identity of a caste and located genealogical evidence in the tradition of gods, sages and cult heroes. Known as ‘Kulapuranas’ (caste genealogies) these parallel Puranas fulfilled the needs of socially deprived communities, elevated their status and filled them with pride when they traced their origin to a venerated sage or gods and goddesses from the Hindu Pantheon.

The regional consciousness that permeated every activity since the emergence of the new state of Telangana brings fresh focus on Nakashi painting said to be the only painting tradition that originated here. The ‘Patamkatha’ of which the Nakashi painting is an inherent part is also the only important oral tradition of the deprived castes and therefore needs to be preserved and propagated. What is the present state of this art form unique to the state and how did it originate?

A thesis presented by eminent artist A Laxminrayana popularly known as Laxman Aelay, with respect to ‘Markandeya Purana’ and the ‘Nakashi’ art throws up interesting insights apart from dispelling the myth that marginalised communities had no role to play in the context of intellectual contribution to civilisation. His study mapped the scroll painting tradition of Telangana, analysed specific features, discovered roots in South Indian mural painting, and delved into its purpose.

It offered an alternative view that compels studying these scrolls as an art practice instead of merely a folk tradition. Says Laxman, “As both painting and performance go beyond the puritanical notion, these scrolls are produced, consumed and patronised by occupational castes. They are for the people and sustained by them without institutional support, and therefore fall under the category of a popular art form.”

Laxman’s study dwells on the tradition of storytelling through the use of Patam (painted scroll) as a parallel to the classic Purana tradition. For instance, the “Gowda Puranam” is associated with the toddy tappers community, which traces its lineage to caste progenitors born with the blessings of Lord Shiva.

This was done to endorse caste genealogy on the lines of Brahmanical notions of purity. The “Korrajula Katha” is another version of scroll art combined with storytelling where the narrators of the tribal community trace their origin to goddess Lakshmi. It is, however, his detailed study of the Markandeya Puranam linked to the Padmashali community that provides vignettes about the social implications of art.

The story explains the origins of the weaving tradition with the blessings of Lord Vishnu who bestows Bhavanarishi, the founder of the Padmashali community with the lotus stem from his navel from which he creates beautiful clothes of different hues. The next part of the narration describes his heroic deeds in protecting clothes from the Asuras (demons) who swallow the entire bundle of clothes meant as an offering to the gods.

Several stories about Bhavanarishi with paintings providing the backdrop and the narrator using his wit and imagination enthralled people from the Padmashali community who were filled with a sense of pride concerning their origin and standing in the communal fabric. Through this unique system, they asserted their self-conformity as well as their communal identity within a larger hierarchy of caste politics.

It is not the stories themselves but what they convey about the social mores and practices that become relevant to our understanding of art not merely as a vehicle of thought but as a historical chronicle of the social mosaic of the time. As the ardent collector and connoisseur of Deccani scroll paintings Jagdish Mittal points out, “The purpose of these painted scrolls was to reach out to people in remote areas and those belonging to the ‘lower castes’, who were unable to access the murals in temples or denied temple access since they were treated as untouchables.”

He also tells us that these paintings were influenced by the Nayaka paintings of Lepakshi in artistic style. These observations reveal quite lucidly that Nakashi paintings and narration, which were part of the “Patamkatha” were an attempt by the lower castes to draw a parallel to the more privileged upper classes both in the attribution of divinity as well as in the pursuance of a style that was more polished and defined.

It is these traditional elements followed in contour, figures and pictorial delicacy that led eminent artist Dr Kondapalli Seshagiri Rao to call these scrolls “traditional art” rather than the folk art. “The Nakashi artistes drew paintings just as a beautiful handwriting,” he avers.

The tradition of Kulapurana exists as a significant genre in Telangana region. Laxman shares, “This tradition can be traced back to 12th century based on an inscription found at Kolanupaka of Nalgonda district. A few literary works such as the Panditaradhya Charitra and the Basava Puranam belonging to 12th and 13th century substantiate that the tradition was initiated by Veerashaivism and was active during Kakatiya period.”

He adds, “According to a Telugu scholar, Nanumasaswamy, the creation of Puranas for occupational castes was initiated by kulapithas under the supervision of Veerashaivites and Veeravaishnavas during the Kakatiya period (12th century). The kulapithas, came into force subverting ancient religiosity and subsuming all the “lower castes” with greater reformations.

The eighteen castes created eighteen Puranas even before the establishment of kulapithas. The occupational castes, which are embedded in Hindu religious tradition, have not found a place in the eighteen Maha Puranas. Hence, there was a need for creation of “Vritti Puranas”.

Subbachary remarks that Kulapuranam’s focus and intention in the valourisation of caste and cultic heroes is what makes it a distinctive form of expression that sets it apart from the Classical Puranas. In addition, the function of Kulapurana is to establish the importance of the shudra occupational castes and to demonstrate their self-esteem in a rigid social hierarchy.”

Most castes had their own “Kulapuranam” (caste genealogy), painted scrolls and an assigned performing group to narrate the stories for the caste community. The performers who belonged to a sub-sect of the same caste were granted rights to narrate called “Mirashi Rights”.

The castes who granted these rights were called the “Asami” (patron caste) and the performers commissioned scroll paintings on the request of the patron castes. The entire hierarchy is very similar to the one that existed among the higher castes and was seen as a parallel system or an organisational structure that was “their version”. The artists possessed tremendous skill in terms of creativity and execution of themes parallel to the classic tradition.

The pictorial arrangement of the scrolls may be seen as a conventional style of Indian painting and sculpture as the story is divided into running panels. The performers often insisted on maintaining a schema to suit their narrative order. However, over the years the size of the scrolls that measured about 60-70 ft, originally have been getting smaller with reduced panels due to both, lack of space and patronage. This has also left many artists disillusioned with their work move on to more lucrative professions.

The Cheriyal scroll painting, a stylised version of the Nakashi art rich in local motifs peculiar to Telangana too faces an existential threat today. The scrolls painted in the narrative format, much like a film roll or a comic strip depicting stories from the Puranas once boasted of 40-50 panels.

It was an inseparable part of the storytelling balladeer community known as “Kaki Padagollu”, who entertained audiences with folklore and stories related to the Puranas. Cheriyal scroll paintings have today become single panel wall hangings or masks with their vibrant hues adorning key chains and other memorabilia. They, however, still lack the reach and fame that they rightfully deserve.

With changing times people in interior areas too have taken to television viewing. The ancient method of storytelling replete with local anecdotes, dialect and wit, is no longer in demand. We now see a situation where families that were earlier totally dependent on such art are slowly weighing other options to eke out a living. What does one do to keep this art alive? There is no denying that without the panels, colours and themes that defined them, Nakashi paintings would lose their soul.

The accompanying narrators may have lost their relevance in the present world but the exquisite painting tradition of scrolls with their unique medium and style will always have a special place that remains unchallenged by technology. The imagination that breathes life into contemporary works establishes a connection with divinity and transcends limitations, makes works of art timeless.

It is this shift that has enabled the scroll painting or Patua art of Bengal, thrive in a changing world. It is only this shift and a concerted effort to provide an environment for its revival that will help the Nakashi tradition stay alive. For a state that takes great pride in its festivals, culture, and language a fillip to its unique art is not a difficult task.

To retain the uniqueness of its rich tapestry of art and to ensure its continuation should be a goal of the rulers, who have golden dreams for the state. As a chronicle of history, culture and art, scroll art remains unparalleled. In its many panels remain the story of civilisation and man’s quest for divinity.

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