In the early winter months, ‘kathakalu’ or bards in Telengana villages unroll ‘Nakashi Patam’ or Cherial paintings -- some more than 150 years old -- and start telling stories of yore.
The vibrant Cherial paintings form an essential prop to the oral story telling tradition of the region, being pictorial depictions of the stories, which could be anything from the Mahabharata, Siva Purana and Adi Purana to local legends and myths. Evocatively squirrel-brushed in indigo, black from lamp soot, white from seashells and red from the Ayurvedic lnglicum, the Cherial painting is an integral part of the story itself.
The fish-eyed figures seem to move sensuously across the horizontal panels of the canvas which is unrolled, bit by bit, for the pictorial narrative.
Musicians add ragas and talas while the tabla’s rhythmic beats lend a sense of heightened drama to the flickering lights on the painting, which come from the lanterns held aloft by the villagers. Since the Cherial canvas is often 60 ft long, a single story can extend to weeks or even a month.
Vaikuntam Nakash is today the lone practitioner of the 500-year-old Cherial painting tradition, just like his father was. His father chose to train his sons Vaikuntam and his brother. The genesis of the art form lay in wall paintings in temples and on ‘vahanas’ and gradually became part of the region’s oral narrative theatre.
“We make our paintings on the instruction of the story teller and the narrative sequence. Then the story teller leaves to return after a year during which time the ‘chitrakars’ would have completed the scroll. In the olden days, the chitrakar or nakash would receive articles such as rice and dried coconut, as a fee on the completion of his work. Offering of coconut still accompanies the ritual handing over of the painting to the story teller, after which it becomes his property.”
As Vaikuntam works on a scroll, with the cloth canvas stretched across a work table, he explains the process. “We buy khadi cloth, cut it to the required size and stiffen it with three coats of a mixture of boiled rice, white clay, edible gum and tamarind seed paste. Once the surface is prepared, we sketch free-hand with a squirrel brush dipped in geru or red oxide. We prepare the natural colours ourselves. The stone and earth colours are ground in the mortar, mixed with water into a fine paste, dried and then taken out when required.”
It is fascinating to watch Vaikuntam paint on the red background first, leaving out the sketched figures to be painted gradually from light to darker colours: red and yellow for the face, Radha Krishna and Vishnu painted in a mix of indigo and white, lemon yellow for ornaments and the final finish done by defining the figures with sweeping black lines. Once a Cherial scroll has outlived its life of 150 years or so, it is immersed in the river to the accompaniment of appropriate rituals.
At the Crafts Council of India’s recently held Crafts Bazaar, Vaikuntam had exhibited Cherial style wall hangings and painted boxes. An exquisite ‘Tree of life’ piece showed slender women in red going about their chores on the fields. Another equally delicate rural scene in horizontal panels celebrated birds and animals. Also on view were ‘Ras Leela’ paintings and Sita Swayamvaram scrolls. Even without the words of the bard every Cherial scroll seems to tell its own story.
“Yes, Cherial painting has a future,” says the National Awardee. “It is part of our culture. If I can open a training centre, I can train more aspirants. Today there are hundreds of story tellers, but no Cherial painters apart from me and my sons.”