Telangana’s Cheriyal scroll paintings: Stories of mythology and village folklore

Depicting forgotten stories through scrolls

Culture

September 9, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Telangana’s Cheriyal scroll paintings: Stories of mythology and village folklore

A contemporary Cheriyal painting informing the audience about Covid-19 safety (Photo: Saikiran Dhanalakota)

For centuries, Cheriyal paintings told tales of Indian mythological epics and simple rural narratives of townsfolk in the southern state of Telangana. The last few remaining Cheriyal artists strive to keep these ancient customs alive and pass on the techniques to the next generation of art lovers.

Cheriyal, a small, sleepy village in Telangana about 100 km from capital Hyderabad, denotes the one of the last places in India where ancient Cheriyal scroll paintings are still being made. Once it was home to several families who survived on scroll paintings, but many have moved away or given up in absence of patronage.

A revered folk tradition of the villages, Cheriyal paintings were used as a pictoral representation of stories from Indian mythological epics such as Mahabharata and Ramayana. These stories would be narrated by traditional folk singers who, accompanied by musical instruments like the harmonium and table to create the perfect ambience and used the painted scrolls as visual aids as villagers gathered around in the evenings. The paintings were also known for telling individualised stories and depicting the lives of common folk from various communities, such as farmers, fishermen, weavers and toddy tappers. Often acting as a tool for communication, the scrolls, which could reach down to a staggering 60 feet, were used for educating audiences about India’s cultural heritage and expressing moral values and conveyed these remarkable stories over performances that lasted up to 20 days or even a month.

Although the art form was once popular across the country and characterised by distinct local styles, especially in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, now only about four original families and their disciples remain to continue the dying tradition.

Saikiran Dhanalakota is a descendant of one of the most famous Cheriyal painters in recent Indian history, Venkata Ramiah Nakash. The Dhanalakota-Nakash family, who have won national and state awards for their unique artistry, is one of the last surviving families to carry on spreading Cheriyal art, which is disappearing in the whirlwind of mass media consumption.

“In the olden days, storytelling, puppetry and street performances were the forms of entertainment that was very popular among communities. But after cinema, print media, plastic dolls, the tradition is gone and no one seems interested in listening to these stories. Stories like Puranas and Ramayana take almost one month to tell, but now we can watch it in three hours on TV,” Dhanalakota tells Media India Group.

Painstaking process

Handmade Cheriyal dolls (Photo: Saikiran Dhanalakota)

The striking allure of Cheriyal scrolls comes from its completely eco-friendly and environmental elements.

“The paintings are traditionally done on natural canvas with natural colours; the scroll is made from Khadi cotton cloth, which we get from the weavers, tamarind seed paste, rice starch and tree gum. When the layers dry down, it makes a stiff canvas,” explains Dhanalakota.

The scrolls are usually painted in a vertical format with the stories illustrated in a series of horizontal panels, separated by a floral border in the middle and representing modern-day comic strips. Mostly popular in the 18th and 19th century, the scrolls were often displayed by suspending it from a tree and revealed panel by panel as the episodes were narrated. Unlike other court paintings of the time like Tanjore and Mysore paintings, Cheriyal was characterised by its simplicity and appeal to a variety of castes, unconstrained by academic prowess and depicting simple rural life such as farmers in paddy fields, women in the kitchen together, men drinking in the evenings and colourful festival scenes.

Cheriyal painting can be uniquely identified by their vivid hues, mostly primary colours which are made with natural resources: red from powdered red stone, white from ground seashells that are crushed and made into paste, lemon yellow from turmeric which is traditionally used for jewellery and golden yellow for depicting skin tones of the townsfolk, blue from indigo flowers and black from charcoal and lamp soot.

The distinctive Cheriyal masks are made from tamarind seed paste and sawdust, which is hardened into clay, and artisans carefully cast the features such as eyes, nose, and lips by hand, without the use of any mould.

Keeping the art alive

Modern artists have adapted traditional techniques to help commercialise the paintings and improve the appeal for younger generations. While completing his degree in Fine Arts, Dhanalakota experimented with Cheriyal painting on different methods, using a combination of natural pigments and acrylic and oil colours. He, like other Cheriyal artists, has expanded beyond scroll paintings in order to keep up with modern demand.

Cheryl artists have transferred traditional designs onto handicrafts and modern items to showcase the art form (Photo: Saikiran Dhanalakota)

“I have started to transfer my Cheriyal paintings onto T-shirts, blouses, kurtas and accessories like phone covers and jewellery boxes. There are many boutiques and fashion designers who use such designs nowadays,” says Dhanalakota, adding, “there are many such handicraft stores all over the country, like in Hyderabad and in Telangana, where we sell our items at Golkonda Handicraft Emporium. I also started selling them online, like on Flipkart or small online stores.”

Cheriyal artists feel it is crucial to expand their canvas in order to sustain the art form. Dhanalakota also reaches out to younger generations through workshops conducted in schools, universities and government or NGO-sponsored cultural art festivals. One of his recent trips was to Piramal Art Gallery in Mumbai, where he spent five days painting one of his favourite renditions of Markandeya Puranam, a popular theme in Cheriyal painting.

Not just within the country, the Dhanalakota family has taken Cheriyal traditions abroad as well, with state and government sponsored trips to countries such as Malaysia, Germany and Thailand to spread the culture internationally.

Although having experienced a slowdown during the Covid-19 pandemic, Dhanalakota credits social media for expanding his reach, revealing that many of his orders come through Instagram, where he often conducts livestreams and online workshops to teach the art form.

“I want to take this art form to the next generation, to the youth, so I target my audience through social media because when one person sees a phone cover or something they like with Cheriyal print, they upload it and so it gets across to many more people who discover it for the first time,” he says.

Artists like Dhanalakota strive to keep these important and unique customs alive and revive a once-celebrated part of India’s rich cultural heritage. The fourth generation Cheriyal artist in his family, he feels it is his duty to pass on the tradition.

“Nowadays, most of the Indian traditional art forms are dying, because no one is learning them. If I don’t learn this art form from my parents, it will die with them, and the story will not be completed.”

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