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Telling tales on the wall

An unknown man stepped into the City wanting to say something about tribal life in Orissa. In the course of listening to him, one found in the man, no more than a matriculate, not only an artist but also glimpses of an anthropologist.

Bishnu Prasad Maharana with one of his works.

WHAT IS a person, who seems to know a lot about tribal life in Orissa and is not a researcher in the strict sense of the term, doing in a bustling city such as Bangalore? A very unsophisticated question like this sometimes opens up unanticipated facets in people. Bishnu Prasad Maharana has studied the life of a number of tribes in parts of Orissa so thoroughly that a conversation with him on the subject leaves you thinking why he is not part of a university or why the Government there cannot make use of what could be valuable insights from him into Orissa's tribal life. Bishnu describes himself as a tribal artist, a reason why the researcher side to him surprises one. He almost comes across as an anthropologist or a sociologist at work. And it is not usual to think of anthropologists as artists or artists as anthropologists.

Bishnu had qualified as a matriculate when he began his first explorations into tribal life in 1978. There wasn't much that he was doing until then. Perhaps owing to this, he tells us, one of his relatives, an anthropologist working for the Orissa Government's Tribal Welfare Board, asked him to study the life of tribes. The relative had in mind that the study could help Bishnu get a job, some income perhaps, and by the way, help out his own work for the Board. Bishnu took the suggestion seriously and started off.

His first forays were with the Saora tribe living in the forests on the Andhra Pradesh-Orissa border. Initial questions about their everyday life, for Bishnu, gradually turned into a study of their social, cultural, religious, and economic practices. In effect, their meaning systems.

Bishnu, in the course of his study, found that Saoras had a tradition of painting, and a painting on the walls of their houses. The paintings, he found, were reflections of the assumptions on which the Saoras based their lives, as well as the form through which they gave expression to these assumptions.

"The paintings on the walls I found were expressions of certain fundamental desires of the Saoras — to keep away disease, to secure peace and happiness, and to find wealth and wisdom. Each of these desires had a painting. If the Saoras felt they had not had enough of any of these, they would paint, and paint in the hope that their God was satisfied. If the God was satisfied, they were likely to get some happiness. And everything they painted, they did in relation to God. I liked the way they expressed their hopes and desires."

The paintings were not merely an expression of art. They were stories of meaning, of history, of the Saora life in total. "And they were impressive". Bishnu made himself an artist in that moment of inspiration. He decided he would take to painting in the Saora style and tell their stories the way they did.

Bishnu lived with the Saoras for years, going back home for brief periods. He looked into their religious beliefs, habits around agriculture, such as the harvest dance, into aspects of sexuality and marriage, that had connections to polygamy, and their beliefs around rain. He made a painting of each of these, "holy paintings", as these were originally known, made by "holy painters", on the walls, and drew a composite picture of their life. He believed it was not enough to just collect information, but represent their life, a little aesthetically.

Something about the tradition of their painting, its value of rarity, and the possibility of making some kind of a livelihood from this helped him make the decision to take to painting. "The Saoras usually paint on the inside of the walls, a belief they have acquired from their religion. The work on the painting, itself, is fairly elaborate. A brush from a bamboo split, black colour collected from soot generated out of lamps, powder crushed from sun-dried rice, mixed in water, and juice from roots and herbs are all collected to make a paste. The colour that finally emerges is black and white. That is when they start the painting. This is a tradition that has continued over centuries. The paintings themselves have not changed over time. It is this historical continuity that inspired me. I also thought that such a tradition needed to be preserved."

Bishnu does his painting on paper, and on "American" card boards, with the help of acrylic. His paintings are a replica of the paintings one finds in the Saora villages; except that Bishnu now brings these paintings to the cities. "It will serve the purpose of urban aesthetics. It will also bring to very different people the culture and life of the Saoras. I don't mind admitting that it gives me a livelihood too. I of course don't do this entirely for money, though I realise that some money is required to live a generally decent life." He has done a couple of wall paintings in Madras and Bangalore, and he hopes to do the same in other cities. He has displayed his works in Delhi too.

His observations of the Saora life perhaps spurred him on to observe other ways of life too. He gathered sensibilities about the Bondos in undivided Koraput District, the Dongria Kondh in Raigargh district, on the Santhals on the Orissa-West Bengal border, and the Didai in Malkangiri. In all this, he found the Saora paintings to be one of their kind — geometric in style, but with a net-like approach within larger characters. "The paintings of the Warli tribe are also geometric, but the insides of characters do not have the Saora net-like approach. That is why the Saora paintings are rare."

Bishnu has, as a result of all this, compiled notes on Orissa tribal life running into almost 400 pages. The notes are yet unpublished. But he did manage to write articles in Oriya, not being familiar with English. His work did get some attention when once he was featured in a private TV channel.

But not many know of the man and his fairly extensive information on tribes in Orissa. The Government there does not seem responsive. "In fact one of the officials asked me where my paintings would sell. The official said that a certificate could be issued. I told the official that my work itself was a certificate. I also said I was interested in highlighting my work and through that, the culture of the tribe. It may have meant some gains for me, but no one was serious."

And what does his family have to say about Bishnu's endeavour? "They don't really know what I am doing. What matters is that I ensure their sustenance. I need to send some money for their living. I have to ensure the education of my three children. They of course tell me to take care of my health."

Working through all this was not easy for Bishnu. He has walked kilometres together, 30 to 40 a day, to get to a place. Sometimes people gave him wrong directions and he had to find his way back. To get to the right village itself in the forest was the first step. Then, he had to stay for days on, listen to different people, eat their food, and learn some of their habits to authenticate his work. He did this for almost 20 years. He did not earn much through this work. What little he got was for the information he gathered about the tribes. The paintings, he learnt during the field work. "I realised after some time that for both reasons of preserving their art, and my own living, I would have to fan out to different places in the country."

That was how Bishnu was in Bangalore. That little interest to explore the life of somebody unknown, coming all the way from Orissa, made the difference in knowing that here was a man who was both artist and researcher, one who may not have given the impression of either. His own little interest helped him know, something and more, about tribes in Orissa.

Bishnu Prasad Maharana lives at Village Post Karamul, District Dhenkanal, Orissa — 759014. His telephone number there is (06762) 89836.

But in the next fortnight, if you'd like to get a glimpse of Bishnu's art, you could catch him at Nataraj Hotel, 107, Police Road, City Market, or call on 2873131/2.


Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

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