Apart from depicting primitive everyday life, Saura paintings are meant to appease the presiding deity, Edital.
Saura paintings almost always become a victim of mistaken identity. The reason being that the-less-promoted Saura with origins in Orissa and the-very-popular Warli from Maharashtra seem separated at birth.
The common factor between the two begins and ends with them both being tribal pictographs and thus having similar elements expressed in a similar idiom, which in this case is stick figures. That apart, there are subtle differences that distinguish a Warli from a Saura; and once pointed out by masters of the art, there's a lean chance of not being able to make a distinction between the two.
Decreasing in number
The Sauras are considered amongst the oldest tribes in India. They have features resembling the pre-Dravidian tribes, and largely inhabit the currently-strife-torn tribal zone of Orissa, particularly Koraput, Gajapati, Nabrangpur and Rayagada districts. In addition, sizeable numbers are also settled in Chattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Assam.
Tribes across the country have a thread of commonality running through their customs, and the differences that exist have been observed to be largely region-specific. All tribes have a close affinity with nature and besides worshipping its bounties in all forms, their daily existence, including household chores, livelihood and entertainment, also revolves around it. It's no different in the case of the Sauras, who live in a terrain that is hilly and has dense forests. Their huts are characteristically built with bamboo and mud on a raised platform and are very basic in design— rectangular with a small main door. The tribe is known for contoured farming and their sustenance depends on shifting agriculture, hunting and fishing.
On the face of it, it's this primitive everyday life that is depicted in the Saura paintings. There is, though, a deeper meaning to each work that the artists produce. Most significantly Saura paintings are done to appease their presiding deity, Edital, who is invoked during all rituals and celebrations. This invocation in the Saura paintings is shown through assorted symbols drawn from their day to day living, cults and myths with each holding a meaning for their worship.
“The most important tradition among the Sauras is praying for the well-being of their ancestors. This is followed by other celebrations as child-birth, harvest, marriage etc. During each occasion the painting called ekon, or nowadays eponymously referred to as edital, is worshipped,” says artist Kesudas of Baleswari Kala Kendra, Balasore. “The ekon is made on the walls—it's mandatorily done when a new house is constructed—and traditionally the Sauras choose a dark corner inside their home for it. Every occasion does not demand a new ekon and the existing one is regularly used; until and unless it is a significant family/societal event or time to give the house a new coat of paint, which is when specific set of prayers are done before an ekon is created,” he adds. These days artists draw ekons but customarily it was only the Kudangs, or the community of priests among the Sauras, who were qualified to do ekons. These men had the expertise to explain their meaning to village gatherings and the ekon thus was looked at as a valuable feature of a vocal tradition through which the Sauras connected with their customs.
According to convention, the only colours used by the Sauras for the paintings are geru (from red earth) and white (from rice paste). Saura art, as mentioned, uses the stick figure iconography and their motifs consist of people, trees, sun, moon, animals, village activities etc. Among some distinguishing characteristics of their paintings when compared to its fraternal twin Warli, is each painting being constructed within a specific geometrical framework. “In a Saura painting the border is drawn first after which the interiors are filled, which is called the fish-net approach. This is not the case with Warli wall art. These days market-driven customs and more awareness about other forms, have seen both Saura and Warli picking up each other's nuances,” says the artist.
The other major characteristic element in a Saura is their figures. In a Warli the torso of men/women is constantly represented by two equilateral triangles placed conversely, such as to form a stylized numeric 8. In contrast, Saura stick figures are more fluid and usually have one inverse triangle while the latter half may have a triangle of a different dimension, or an altogether different shape. “Usually it's the Saura women who are represented with two triangles, while the men are shown with just the upper triangle while the lower half is projected on horseback, playing the drums etc. At times a little movement is shown in the triangles by giving the segments a curvature,” he explains.
Saura paintings have travelled from walls to handmade paper and tussar silk in keeping with demands of contemporary times, which is also seeing the widespread use of black ink in these drawings; leading to the misconception that traditionally Warli is done in white and Saura in black! The subject has also moved away from being solely religious to that showing various social acts. Modern icons like buses, cars, television have also been incorporated in the paintings. Saura paintings are treasures of folklore and a fantastic pictorial tradition that convey a community's literature and beliefs.
Keywords: Saura paintings