Three artists from small villages paint scenes from rural India as part of an artist-residency programme in the city

Baba Dev Pithora and his consort Pithori must be the happiest gods in the villages around Vadodara, Gujarat. In return for their blessings, devotees of the Rathwa community offer them not flowers, not fruits or sweets, but a riot of colourful paintings — so what if they are done on their walls? “We start painting our walls a month ahead of the Raksha Bandhan festival,” say Bhaddu and Harikishen Hamir of Chota Udaipur, squatting on the floor of Book Building, the Tara Books bookstore in Thiruvanmiyur. “We believe it brings good luck and fortune.”

The father-son duo paints through the conversation — and within the hour the panels are filled with shapes of men and women, trees, birds, animals, insects, horses, the sun, moon — each depicting a specific scene. On my request Bhaddu takes a break — twirls his moustache to show how in his village a well-trimmed mush is a fashion statement, declares he is proud of his red pagadi, made of a cloth 14 feet long. His son cuts in: “Mine is 15 feet!” We collapse laughing.

You can’t miss their smooth skin and sharp features beneath the weather-marks left by a farmer’s life — contours they carefully etch in their paintings. As the sheets come alive with figures, they say: “We are invited by householders to paint, we do it in one night, whatever the size of the wall even if it takes 20 of us to do it.” Only the men paint. The wall gets a coat of wash made from white/yellow/maroon soil to cover older pictures. The horses go in first, are surrounded by other figures. It’s like a game of Find the Hidden Animals. Spot the scorpion, spider, snake, peacock, waterbirds, deer! “We are traditional, we do not paint vehicles on the road or in the sky,” they are emphatic.

A neat frame of intricate lines borders the scenes. A jungle has a man beating the dhol to drive animals away. It’s a scrub forest, with black stones strewn on the ground. A scene from Holi shows men and women dancing, peacocks, dogs and birds in a festive mood. A large canvas is filled with a procession of horses, people chatting and domestic animals. There’s drinking and hookah-smoking. A fourth shows an array of hunting paraphernalia — men with guns, scythes, bows. Both men and women ride horses.

“Earlier we used natural colours, we would crush the colours out of seam leaves, kakre flowers, roots, coal, limestone,” they say. “We are modern now. We found acrylic paints in the market. Besides we now paint on canvas.”

What we paint is what we see around us, says Subhash Singh, the translator from the Bhil tribe of Madhya Pradesh. “Ours is Adivasi art, original. These are true happenings, not imagined.” Subhash is working on a book that illustrates the joy of the annual carnival Bhagoria. In his panel you see the neela-peela (boys in blue, girls in yellow) dancing and teasing each other. “Bhagoria means bhagna. During Holi, girls and boys pair up and elope.”

The pictures are records of life — they show birth, death, a drunken brawl, festivals, hunting with bows, arrows and guns. What is remarkable is no pencil drawings precede the colours. “We don’t measure the walls,” the artists say. “We mix paints, dip brushes and paint. We grow crops during the day, paint at night.” Harikishen’s three sons go to school. “But they paint too,” he says smiling shyly.

Tara Books got to know of Bhaddu and Harsingh at a workshop in Manav Sangrahalay (Museum of Mankind) in Bhopal, says a release. They along with Subhash will be at Book Building till November 21 as part of Tara Books artist-residency programme. Two books — one of them for children — will eventually emerge out of their visit.