The Painted Forest Villages of Hazaribagh

WE HEAR SO much about hi-tech India, the emergent global super-star. But what about rural India, village India, hardly urbanised at all? Or is it? Two photographic exhibitions are currently exploring the state of the art and the state of sociological change in such villages. For The Painted Forest Villages of Hazaribagh, Deidi von Schaewen’s images have captured the living tradition of annual redecoration of homes by women. Deep among the wooded hills and valleys of Hazaribagh, a remote area of the state of Jharkhand, mothers pass on to daughters down countless generations the skills and motifs to create murals depicting their belief systems, both animist and Hindu, local and personal.

The other exhibition, The Future of the Rural world? Indian Villages, 1950-2015 is an anthropological comparison of life in three villages in three states, the first study made in the 1950s, and the second this year. A vintage photograph of oxen and a very basic wooden plough is mirrored by another recent one of the same type of plough again pulled by a couple of white oxen, though the charming period poster for the show proudly proclaims Developing Village (author’s italics).

In 1991, the painted forest villages were ‘discovered’ by members of the Indian National Trust for Art & Cultural Heritage (INTACH), whose convenor and curator of the current exhibition is Bulu Imam. Over the next few years coincidentally a dozen major Mesolithic rock-art sites also came to light in the area, suggesting a lengthy continuity of mural art there.

The extraordinarily talented and lively murals are still painted today on both the exterior and interior walls of forest homes entirely by women and young girls as an artistic expression of their matriarchal tradition. The images are a potent social statement about a particular woman, who she is, and where she’s from. When, for instance, she moves into her husband’s home in another village, she never abandons the particular style of her village, including its specific motifs, nor her own individual creativity. Naturally her new village has art forms of its own. Following the domestic tradition of communal family life, a village home will display a range of stylistic differences brought there by brides, and not least by the powerful mother-in-law. Despite that formidable influence, the new daughter-in-law will never imitate her mother-in-law’s art. As the wives become mothers, they teach their daughters their specific heritage in an apprenticeship system known as parampara. Doubtless too, there are inspirational cross-fertilisations of styles and motifs among the women.

The choice of subject-matter for this rural art largely depends on the location of the village – whether in the forested hills or in the wooded valleys and plains. Living in the remote hill villages, the women there depict birds and wild animals such as tigers, elephants, snakes and deer in more or less accurate, figurative style. Whereas in the villages of valley and plain, the women paint domestic animals like cows, oxen and chickens, and the way they paint is more stylised and decorative, featuring lotus blossoms for example.

Perhaps because these murals are painted by women, relationships between mature and young animals and birds spring into vivid, sometimes tender life, whether in hill or valley villages. A mongoose fights with a snake, a peacock struts along with her chick on her back, and fawns suckle from their mothers. The heritage of local folklore is perpetuated as the ‘man-bird’, or the four-legged bird, the Chibba. Essentially a pre-urban art form, these murals preserve ritual sacred tradition, both animist and Hindu. In the hill villages Kurmi women paint the great God Shiva, though in anthropomorphic forms. In other villages, the forest god depicted as a tree is also Shiva, while elephants and tigers are forest deities too. As some of the valley villagers gravitate towards the town of Hazaribagh, and their daughters become educated, their depiction of deities becomes more Hindu and human. Based on the harvest and marriage seasons of these forest villages, two distinct stylistic divisions emerge, both forms created with different techniques and tools. Khovar marriage murals are created by an indigenous take on sgraffito using combs or fingers. Sohrai autumn harvest painting is done with chewed twigs from Saal trees, or cloth swabs.

The marriage season runs from January until the monsoon begins in June. The name Khovar is derived from two words: kho, or koh, meaning a cave, and var, which translates as husband. Essentially Khovar art celebrates the institution of marriage in which the mother of the bride and her aunts decorate the bride’s house and in particular the nuptial bedroom. Maybe in a perpetuation of the matriarchal heritage, the bridegroom must pay a bride-price and then spend the first night of marriage in his wife’s house. The decorative theme is forest plants and animals, again possibly inherited from formerly nomadic people of the area, who believed that the forest was where the couple must go to consummate their marriage.

The Khovar method of decoration is carried out following the sgraffito technique in which the artist incises into the surface layer of paint, plaster or in the case of pottery, the slip, to reveal a ground of contrasting colour. In Khovar art, the base coat is usually black, the top layer white and its symbolism is sexual. The bride’s house represents the Mother, or Kali, the fierce mother goddess. The surface to be decorated is covered with black manganese, representing darkness, the womb or ‘cave’ from which birth comes. Then the area is covered over with white kaolin and silica, known as dudhi, or ‘milk’, representing the sperm of the father god who brings light. When this top layer is cut with a comb, forms of the mother goddess appear. The small, fine combs are made of bamboo by women specifically for creative purposes, though in a few areas, fingers are used instead of combs.

Sohrai is harvest festival art, its name an ancient Palaeolithic word – soro – literally meaning ‘to drive with a stick’ and connected with the origin of agriculture in the region, specifically oxen ploughing and the domestication of cows. The two-day festival is celebrated by the Kurmi and Prajapati peoples just after the Hindu Diwali festival, when the crops are ready to be harvested. The cattle and their ancient male god Pashupati, Lord of the Animals, are worshipped to ensure the fertility of the land and the subsequent harvest.

On the first day of the Sohrai festival, the cattle are sent out to graze, and in their absence married women paint their houses with images that cross over between animism and Hinduism. Pashupati stands on the back of a bull (a Hindu icon – Nandi). His body is the shape of Shiva’s drum, though as we have seen, Shiva in this remote rural context can also be depicted as a forest god. Around him is a wheel of six lotuses symbolising the six senses to be conquered, and also a reference to a classic Hindu mandala. Other animals, particularly horses, along with fish and plants, stream along walls.

Instead of brushes, the women use chewed twigs (tooth-sticks) or pieces of cloth, applying pigments in several shades. The basic palette is red, white, black and yellow, all of whose raw materials are found near their villages, except for the white kaolin which has to be dug out of caves which occasionally collapse killing artists. Yellow is an ochre strand of earth used by potters and to wash hair. Its name is tila-mati, tila meaning child, mati the earth, so yellow is the colour of young earth and also that of the rice sheaves celebrated during this harvest festival. Red is the normal colour of the earth in this region and represents the blood of the ancestors; while black manganese symbolises Kali, the mother goddess, reminding us again that this is still a matriarchal society.

The second exhibition, The Future of the Rural World? Indian Villages, 1950-2015 is the result of a long-term study of three Indian villages quite different from each other in the states of Gujerat, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh. When they first came under scrutiny by three Western anthropologists, India was celebrating Independence, but despite the spirit of optimism, the countryside was viewed as a ‘vast rural slum’ in need of development. The second study of the same villages this year examined the changes (if any). Questions addressed included changing populations, agricultural production, effects of urbanisation, the caste system, religion, kinship and marriage.

The original anthropologists made various predictions, but hardly touched on gender and feminist issues, nor on violence, or starvation. More than half a century further on it is clear from the recent study that the villages have altered in fundamental ways. These range from an expanding market economy, industrialisation to the growth of nationalism. Photographs in the exhibition include images from the collection of the three original anthropologists, archive shots, and others taken recently.

So how has change during these decades affected the art of the rural villages of Hazeribagh? In 1993 the Indian National Trust for Art & Cultural Heritage (INTACH) received two small grants to kick-start a project for women to paint their traditional Khovar and Sohrai art on hand-made paper. The project gave birth in the same year to the Tribal Women Artists Cooperative (TWAC). At present around 50 women are increasing their income by selling their work in an emporium in Hazeribagh town, where the Sanskriti Museum & Art Gallery displays a large collection of their paintings. Tourists can now visit the villages during the Sohrai festival. What the anthropologists would make of these changes is a fascinating conjecture!

JULIET HIGHET

The Painted Forest Villages of Hazaribagh and The Future of the Rural World? Indian Villages, 1950-2015, until 12 December at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, Thornhaugh Street, London, www.soas.ac.uk/gallery