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.
Pithora is the name of a tribal deity and the name is also used generically for the paintings of tribals based in and around central Madhya Pradesh and parts of Gujarat. The ritualistic paintings capture the lives and celebration of the community.
On special occasions
“For weddings and other special occasions, we re-plaster the mud walls of our houses and make mud figures of Pithora Baba or Devi,” says Gangubai Bhil, a traditional painter from Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh. She was in Thrissur for a 10-day workshop on Pithora paintings organised by the Lalitakala Akademi. “Later, we got the idea of painting relief figures. We used to soak leaves and flowers for days in a type of liquor we get from the Mahua tree. Babool twigs served as brushes. Pithora paintings were originally done on the walls of our houses.”The practice of transferring these on to canvas or paper started only about a quarter century ago. Now Pithora paintings are done on these surfaces using synthetic paints and brushes. Painters also incorporate many modern subjects and it is usual to find a clock or a bus in the depiction of a village festival.
Pithora paintings have a sacramental value, the act itself has healing effects on the mind and spirit, not only of the painter but also of the entire village.
Bhuribai Bharia is one of the most skilled practitioners of the form today. Her daughter, Anita Bharia, accompanied by Gangubai Bhil and her son, Subhash Bhil, as well as Bhuribai Sakaria participated in the workshop organised by the Lalitakala Akademi.
Says Sathyapal, Secretary of the Akademi “Whereas in Kerala, traditional mural paintings mainly depict gods or goddesses, folk art from most other States records their culture and history.”
He has organised a series of workshops based on folk art from various regions of India, with the intention of creating a greater awareness in the common man. “Through an exposure to various forms of folk art, he must see and understand what he has inherited.”
Sathyapal also hopes to bring works of art within the purchasing power of the ordinary man.
“The paintings done here are appraised by the artists themselves and that is their true value.”