Meet the Gangavane family, masters in Chitrakathi painting, who wants to make Sindhudurg the cultural hub of Maharashtra

The once popular Chitrakathi, storytelling through paintings, is being revived due to the efforts of the Gangawave family.

Updated - June 10, 2024 06:21 pm IST

Published - June 10, 2024 06:13 pm IST

A Chitrakathi painting by Chetan Gangavane

A Chitrakathi painting by Chetan Gangavane | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

When Ram effortlessly picks up the bow, strings it and snaps it into two pieces, the crowd assembled under the cashew tree bursts into a roaring applause. Sita then goes on to garland Ram amidst loud cheer and claps. We were witnessing a puppet show by Chetan Parshuram Gangavane at the luxury retreat Coco Shambhala in Sindhudurg. Post the show, Chetan proudly displays a series of colourful paintings called Chitrakathi. “When we think of tribal arts forms of Maharashtra, it’s mostly Warli paintings. But Chitrakathi is a much older form of art from the state which sadly not many people know of,” says the 36-year-old, a third generation Chitakathi artist and puppeteer from Pinguli, a small village in Sindhudurg.

Expertise of Thakar community

‘Chitra’ means picture and ‘katha’ means story. Chitrakathi is a vibrant performance art of western Maharashtra, where stories unfold through hand-painted illustrations. The art was practised exclusively by the Thakar community, a nomadic tribe that moved from village to village regaling people with their colourful pictures and puppet shows. “Paintings of gods, kings, queens, demons and Nature were used to narrate stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharat. It was used not only for entertainment but to also spread social messages. Chitrakathi was our only source of livelihood,” says Chetan. The Thakars would make 20-30 paintings depicting specific events such as swayamvar, sita haran and the war of Kurukshetra on paper and set it to music from tambura, veena and dumru.

Kala Aangan Museum and Art Gallery in Pinguli

Kala Aangan Museum and Art Gallery in Pinguli | Photo Credit: Courtesy: Chetan Gangavane

When the Maratha ruler Shivaji Shahaji Bhonsale heard of them, he not only rehabilitated the community from the forest to the village, but also patronised the art form by providing handmade paper for the paintings. He also recruited them as his spies. “So the Thakars moved from village to village, singing outside temples at night and mingling with villagers during the day. All the while they kept their ears peeled for information and reported anything suspicious to the king,” reveals Chetan. Sadly the art form has lost its lustre. “Things changed with time. People would treat us like beggars when we went to their village to perform. We were not allowed to eat in the village or drink water from the community well. The Thakars then shifted from villages to towns and got themselves an education and jobs. Even today locals call us Adivasis and refuse to eat or drink at our home, despite the fact that foreign delegates and people from the rest of the country visit us and even stay with us,” says Chetan.

A string puppet performance accompanied by music and singing

A string puppet performance accompanied by music and singing | Photo Credit: Courtesy: Chetan Gangavane

The Gangavane family is the last Thakar community still engaged in the centuries-old art form. In 2006, Chetan’s father Parshuram Gangavane converted a cowshed at his family home in Pinguli into a museum of art and artefacts. He has been touring the country, regaling people with his paintings and puppets. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 2021 for his efforts to revive the art form. Interestingly, the community came to limelight when the popular song ‘Aamhi Thakara Thakara, hya raanaachi paakharn’ (we are the Thakars, people of the forest) from the Marathi movie Jait Re Jait Mar released in 1977.

Parshuram Gangavane with his Ganesha puppet

Parshuram Gangavane with his Ganesha puppet | Photo Credit: Courtesy: Chetan Gangavane

A museum of performing arts

Thakar Adivasi Kala Aangan Museum and Art Gallery in Pinguli is a good place to initiate someone into Chitrakathi and other traditional art forms of the Thakar community. Apart from old paintings there are also ancient musical instruments created and used by the tribals. Most charming are the hand-carved wooden puppets. “The Thakars were also known for their puppetry or kalsutri bavlya. They used both string and shadow puppets to tell mythological stories and give out social messages. While the string puppets are made of wood and dressed up in colourful costumes to depict gods, demons and mythological figures, shadow puppets are made of leather beaten into thin sheets and then cut into patterns for various characters,” explains Chetan. The nimble manoeuvring of the strings by the artist along with live singing and robust drumming create a riveting show.

Parshuram Gangavane has been touring the country to create awareness about this art form

Parshuram Gangavane has been touring the country to create awareness about this art form | Photo Credit: Courtesy: Chetan Gangavane

Chitrakathi today

Apart from churning out new paintings and touring the country with their puppets, the Gangavane family has been busy holding Chitrakathi painting workshops for the younger generation. While Chetan’s four-year- old nephew is wowing audiences with his amazing vocal acrobatics, his six-year-old daughter is a keen painter. But the ultimate aim of the family is to build Sindhudurg as a cultural hub of Maharashtra. “We want people to come to Sindhudurg not just for the fantastic beaches and the delicious seafood but also for art and handicrafts. We have so much to offer,” assures Chetan.

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