Thirubuvanam, Tamil Nadu, India...
Pithora paintings are mainly done to invoke Bab Pithora who is preferred as most important god. The ‘Pithoro’ or ‘Baba Pithoro’, as popularly known amongst locals, springs from their faith in the village ‘Tantric’ (witch doctors) power to heal all grievances and undo all bad omens. The Tantrik or ‘Badwa’ is held in the highest esteem by the Rathwas who seek his consultation and advice for any ill that befalls a family.
The Pithora paintings have an important position in Rathwa symbolic representation. The Pithora paintings are done on the walls of Rathwa tribe dwellings as vows in a ritual. The tribes also paint their surroundings in vivid colours and in abstraction. Though the tribes consider it a divine painting and not used for commercial purposes, nowadays it is done on fabrics and also used as wall hangings.
The Pithora paintings are abstract descriptions of the surroundings they live in. These are not literal depictions but of how they perceive the elements of their environment and nature. The recent ones also have modern elements like railway tracks, airplanes, and computers too.
These paintings are also considered to be highly sacred. The villagers consult a ‘Tantrik’ or a witch doctor of sorts to cure illnesses or release them from bad omens. They pray to ‘Baba Pithora’ and if the prayers are granted, they paint a Pithora painting on their walls in gratitude. This painting is also supervised by the Tantriks or priests. The completion of the painting is celebrated with ceremonies.
Anybody who has the Pithora painting in their home is highly respected in the society. The one who performs the ritual is called the Badwa or the head priest. Only males from the tribe are allowed to learn the art.
The presence of a Pithora painting is considered auspicious in a household. A Pithora is always located at the threshold or the ‘Osari’, outside the first front wall. The Pithora artists are called ‘Lakharas’ and the ones who keep an account of the paintings are called ‘Jhokaras’. ‘Badwa’, the head priests performs the rituals. When the ‘Lakharas’ paint, the ‘Badwa’, with his colleagues, sings and chants. In the evening, before the sacrifice, the priest goes into a trance and finds out what has been forgotten in the painting. That too is drawn and painted in. Most of the work is done by hand. Only men from the tribe are taught this art and allowed to paint. They are trained by the senior members from a young age.
The story of the deity ‘Pithora’ is a very popular legend amongst the tribes in this regard.
The King of Gods, Raja Indra had seven sisters. One day, one of his sisters, Rani Kadi Koyal went into the forest where she met Raja Kanjurana. She had an affair with him and after 9 months and 9 days, she gave birth to a son. Since she was still a maiden, out of fear of her brother, Raja Indra, she set the child afloat in a stream. That day Rani Kajal and Rani Makher (Indra’s other sisters) went to fetch water from the stream and found the baby crying. Rani Kajal fed milk of Akda / Banyan tree flower to the baby and bathed him with seven kinds of auspicious things. She named the baby “Pithora” and took him to the palace with her.
As the time passed, Pithora grew into a fine boy. One day when he was playing, he broke Rani Kajal’s earthen pot. This made her angry and she scolded him saying, “As it is, your maternal uncle holds the share of the entire kingdom, She indirectly told him that Raja Indra is his maternal uncle.
Hearing this, Pithora decided to find out who his parents are. He went to Raja Indra’s court and introduced himself. After hearing his story, King Indra accepted him in the family with great joy and decided to find a suitable bride for him. But Pithora needed to know about his parents, if he wished to be married. So Raja Indra invited a grand court. He invited everyone; all the gods and goddesses, kings and queens, noblemen and respected citizens. When Pithora came in the court, he pointed at Raja Kanjurana and identified him as his father. After much rejoicing, a grand wedding ceremony was arranged and Pithora wed Pithori with much aplomb. All the gods and goddesses attended the wedding. They arrived on horses and elephants. Hence Pithora painting has gods arriving on horses along with Pithora and Pithori.
The style of the Pithora paintings is believed to have originated for use in a sort of cartography. These maps were created in codes using abstractions for the natural elements around them by the tribes in Bharuch. It started in the 11th century when Bharuch was an important center for traders from the North. The roads and pathways were rugged and treacherous to travel in if you did not know them well. So the tribes took to escorting the Indian and foreign traders through Bharuch in exchange for silver coins, creating a niche profession for themselves.
To keep the land a mystery to the outsiders and make it easier for the locals, the tribal leader devised a method of creating a map with codes. Thus, the seven hills became represented by seven horses and the mouth of river Narmada by two tigers. The leader also ordered the escorts to make the same painting in their houses. The people who showed loyalty by painting the map at their home came to be known as ‘Rathwas’ while those who disagreed, were called ‘Talavis’. The Rathwas then got rights to climb and dwell atop the seven hills. This practice went on till 1812 A.D. till the British rulers put a stop to it. Then the act of making Pithora painting became a ritual and Pithora became the god of Rathwa tribe.
Ornate borders called ‘Cok’ or a ‘Dhartini Hadh’ are drawn which is considered as the sacred rectangular enclosures for the main myth to be painted in. The sacred enclosure contains the pictorial depiction of the mythology of the Rathwas. Generally the uppermost section of the enclosure, above a wavy line with geometric motifs, represents the world of Gods. Just below this line there is the procession of the marriage of Pithora and Pithori. ‘Tipna’ are orange dots made with the fingers in a smaller rectangle in the centre. The God Pithora is painted and then his wife Pithori is near these dots. Elements like the sun and moon are drawn on the top.
There are three horizontal rows, out of which the central one containing the Pithora figure is the most important. The last row has figures of procession like elephants and Raja Bhoj. ‘Khatro’ horses are painted to the right, which are considered to be the horses of their ancestors. On the left wall, they draw two white horses, which are for ghosts, and witches, who have to be satisfied with gifts and horses. The lower half of the enclosure depicts the actual myth of creation wherein the Earth, the mythical farmer, the cowherd, the kings, the Bania (trader/grocer), the Badvo, the goddesses of destiny, the cow and the bull, the various creatures of the forest and the minor deities are shown. The painter also accommodates the commodities essential for the survival of the tribe. The painting is regarded as an abode of the deity and it should have all the crucial things depicted in it like water, farming, hookah, livestock, food, hunting equipments and other things which invoke apprehension in bribe such as snakes, scorpions, guns and evil spirits.
Cow dung – The walls to be painted are coated with a mixture of cow dung and mud. This is the first step in the process called ‘Leepna’. This is done to temper the walls before painting begins.
Mud – A mixture of wet mud is used along with cow dung to coat the walls as a base for the painting.
Plaster or white chalk powder – This is used as a second coat in the ‘Leepna’ process and is done over the cow dung and mud layer.
Mineral colors – These are available in powdered form and prepared by mixing them with milk and ‘Mahuda’, a local liquor extracted from the ‘Mahua’ tree.
Poster Colors – Since the last quarter of the century, poster colours are being used as they are easily available and are slowly replacing mineral colours. The main colors used are red, vermilion, orange, yellow, indigo, ultramarine, green, silver and black.
Paper or fabric – As the craft is growing in popularity; these are used as canvases for commercial purposes.
Khakhra leaves – These are used to make paint mixing bowls.
Khakhra stems – The stems of the ‘Khakhra’ plant are used to make brushes.
Mahua – This is a local liquor made from the extracts of ‘Mahua’ tree.
Milk – It is mixed along with ‘Mahua’ and mineral colors to make paints.
Brushes- These are made from the stems of ‘Khakhra’ plant.
Bowls- These are made from the leaves of ‘Khakhra’ plant and are used for mixing paints.
Canvas- The chosen walls of the house are used as a canvas. Nowadays, paper and fabric are also used.
Pithora painting is not done for any decorative or ornamental purpose. Pithoro or Baba Pithoro, as the tribals would call him, is an important deity in a region where several deities are worshipped. If someone, especially a young child or an unmarried girl is unwell or domestic animals are affected by an epidemic or if the land is not yielding enough, all believed to be signs of god’s anger or displeasure, the head of the family vows to provide a proper, respectable abode to ‘Pithoro’ in his own home. He therefore gets ‘Pithoro’ painted (or repainted, if there already is one) on the main wall, if and when he can afford the high cost involved.
Pithora Painting can be called a ritual rather that an art form for it is ‘performed’ to thank God or for a wish or a boon to be granted. A comprehensive understanding of this ritual will call for a narrative. The head priest of the community, who is called ‘Badwa’, is summoned when a problem occurs in a family. The problems are narrated to the Badwa, who offers solutions which almost always involves the painting of ‘Pithoras’ on the walls of the house.
The Pithora Baba is considered to be the reigning deity of the community and his presence is considered to be the solution of all problems. The first wall of the house is considered to be the right place for a Pithora. A Pithora is however, considered to be a three-wall affair, so the first wall and the other two walls around it are prepared for the painting.
The walls to be painted are first plastered with mud and cow dung by the unmarried girls of the household and then coated with chalk powder. This process is called ‘Leepna’. And then the painters proceed to do their work.
In the forest clearing, they dance; men and women, boys and girls, to the pulsating rhythm of the ‘Mandals’ and the echoing pipes. The musicians play faster and faster, the dancers get into a frenzy and all of a sudden, some of them roll on the dusty ground. As they do so, calves charge in and trample on them. When the ritual is over, the dancers rise unhurt. The tribals believe that they have been cleansed of their sins by the grace of the Goddess. These and other tribal rituals mostly form the themes for traditional Pithora paintings.
When finally the painting is finished, a branch from the ‘Karam’ tree is taken and fixed on the ground in front of Bhadu’s house. This is the time to start the ceremony. Obviously, this does not start without ‘Kochar kaka’ or the priest. So, he initiates the process. Both Kochar kaka (or Badwa ) and the Lakharas belong to separate villages and they test each other’s authenticity. After some time, when the ceremony gets a little more intense, Kochar kaka starts taking incarnations of various beings. He first takes an incarnation of a woman, then of a farmer, a hunter, a washer man, a barber, a man, a monkey and a water bearer. The others danced outside the house. The Pooja ceremony goes on for the entire night.
After all this is over, to finish all the rituals, it is important to sacrifice some animals. So, as a result, 7 goats were sacrificed from within Bhadu’s house. 6 more goats are sacrificed, that were got by his relatives. Also, 7 cocks are sacrificed. The heart of these sacrificed animals is served to the gods along with liquor, ‘Urad’ pulse and kept along the holy fire.
At the end, all the guests are served the meat. It is only after serving everyone can Bhadu’s family eats, so they eat at the end.
Also, if any time in life Bhadu is to shift to a new place, he would have to make this Pithora painting all over again. And also, no girl can touch the painting and no one can go near the painting with slippers on. Mostly, after every 8 years, this process had to be repeated. This is called the ‘Pangu’ ceremony.
Pithora paintings are created on the walls of the house chosen by the ‘Badwa’ (tribal oracle).Under his direction, the ‘Lakharas’ (tribal artists) make colorful pictograms depicting the wedding of ‘Baba Pithoro’ and ‘Pithori’. Other elements from the tribal way of living are also included in these colorful paintings using simple tools and colors acquired vernacularly.
Color Preparation : Mineral colors and natural pigments are used to create paints, though nowadays poster paints are also used. These are mixed with milk and ‘Mahua’, which is a local liquor made from the extracts of ‘Mahua’ tree and kept in separate bowls made from ‘Khakhra’ leaves. Red, vermilion, orange, yellow, indigo, ultramarine, green, silver and black are the major colors used.
Wall Preparation : The painting process involves a long ritual celebration on the day before painting, where the walls are white washed. As Tuesday is usually picked for this white wash ritual, the day has locally been named ‘Pandudio’ or whitening day.
Before painting begins, the ‘Badwo’ selects the walls of the house on which the ‘Pithoras’ will be created. Purely for reasons of respectful hierarchy, the largest wall in the house is chosen to create the main ‘Pithora’ and the adjacent walls serve as extended canvas. These walls are cleaned and readied for painting.
Mud, cow dung and white chalk powder are brought in five new (unused) baskets covered with new (unwashed) pieces of cloth.
Before painting begins, a base layer of cow dung and mud is coated on the walls followed by a layer of white chalk powder or white plaster. The raw materials for this are brought in five new (unused) baskets covered with new (unwashed) pieces of cloth.
This process called ‘Leepna’ follows strict religious protocols wherein only unmarried adolescent girls of the house can participate. The process of ‘Leepna’ is done to temper the walls and create a white canvas.
As the girls perform the ‘leepna’, the ‘Badwo’ lights ‘Diyas’ (earthen lamps) and prays to the God for the wall’s purification. After the purification process is over and the wall has dried, with the blessings of the ‘Badwa’ the ‘Lakharas’ (pithora painters) begin painting.
Painting Begins: The Lakharas begin painting the stories. The painting is supervised by the tribal priest while the artists go about it. The stories and symbols are painted in, taking about a day to finish. Stencils are mainly used for the body of the horses and the figures. Most of the drawings and outlines are done by hand. After it is drawn, they make an outline with a bamboo twig and fill it with color. At the end, they finish with silver color or some bright dots or lines. Celebrations and ritual offerings follow the completion of the painting.
List of craftsmen.
Interview Sri Pema Fatiya
Interview: Local People