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The unsung artistes of Santhal Parganas

The rich cultural heritage of the Santhal Parganas region of Jharkhand is mirrored in the State’s ubiquitous legends, art and culture. And painting occupies the pride of place in this rich spectrum of folk media. It is still customary among the Santhals in this area to paint motifs known as Bhittichitras on the walls of houses and on tree trunks — a reflection of the vibrant present and expectant future of the tribe.
The Santhal tradition of Bhittichitra is very rich and ancient, a reflection of their unique social, cultural and economic identity among all the tribes of the State. These paintings depict their socio- cultural traditions, which are steeped in religiosity with an overtone of mythology. The tribe attributes the beginning of this art to their legendary fort of Chai Champa Garh, whose walls and ramparts, according to their songs and lore, were adorned with beautiful paintings in this style. Paintings themselves show difference in execution and form according to two main regions where it is practised, Santhal Parganas and Chotanagpur region. The paintings of Santhal Pargana are more primitive in form and style, and lay emphasis on form and shape; while those of Chotanagpur show a lot more refinement and emphasis on the use of colours.
Most of the paintings are done after harvest, when mud houses get repaired that were damaged by rains. First, the old mud plaster is scraped off the walls and the cracks and crevices filled. Then they are plastered with a fresh layer of clay, locally known as fotahosa, using a wooden implement named roosa to ensure that the surface is flat and even. In some places, a layer of black colour extracted from burnt hay is applied to the walls. The motifs to be painted and their location are decided during the repairing process or while building a new house.
The motifs are first lightly carved on the walls and doorways with a sharp tool and then colours are applied. Themes are chosen from their natural surroundings or everyday activities that range from harvest, a happy family, a field, dances and quarrels torevered gods and goddesses, plants, fish to birds of different kinds. Wild flowers, leaves, creepers, peacocks and geometrical shapes, such as rectangles, circles, semi-circles, parallel lines (as stripes), also figure prominently. Flowers are usually circular in form and with three or four petals, a reflection of their significance in the Santhal culture. Potted plants and gracefully curving creepers with pointed leaves and blossoms are commonly painted as growing out of the pot on both sides of the doorways and meeting at the top of the door. Animals are rarely depicted and peacocks are always shown in conjugal pairs above the plants. Fishes are also drawn in pairs, connected by water hyacinths or fishing hooks. The colours used are mostly clay-based and made from the different coloured clay found in and around their settlements. Colour schemes are devised as per the theme and motif. The Santhals of the region favour colours like white, blue, red and black, while the Chotanagpur area shows more use of yellow, white, green, blue and black, and shades created by mixing these colours. Three to four coats of colour are applied to make it dark and durable.
However, it is an irony that in a State that prides itself on its tribal heritage, very little has been done to bring this art form from its domestic confines to the mainstream. “This unique art form represents an unwritten social custom, but it has not been studied in depth and very little has been written about it,” says Prakash Oraon, former TRI director. The art has got hardly any commercial exposure and scholars have barely touched upon it, except a stray monograph or a passing mention in some books.
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