The handful of artists belonging to the Nakash caste and hailing from Cheriyal village in Telangana are the keepers of the visual form of storytelling popularly named after them as Nakashi art or Cheriyal paintings. Over the years, these artists have painstakingly preserved the rich cultural tradition of using pictures to tell stories from Indian mythology and local folklore. The proponents of this art form are heavily dependent on their art for survival, but the 15-month lockdown left them in the throws of woes.
“The Cheriyal art is on the brink of extinction. Today, only seven families are engaged in this art form. Five of these belong to the Nakashi community, and the others are outsiders who learned it from my father, D Vaikuntam,” says D. Rakesh, a young Nakashi artist. With no other source of income, his family of five – father Vaikuntam, mother Vanaja, brother Vinay Kumar, and wife Monisha – took to online workshops to fend for themselves during this period. The workshops conducted by SkillXn, Paramparik Karigar, Crafts Council of Telangana, Spic Macay, Dastkaar Haat Samiti, and Rajasthani Studios were creatively satisfying monetarily rewarding for his family. “The response was heartening, and the students showed keen interest in learning the art form. We want to keep it alive, and efforts like these will help us reach out to a wider audience,” says Vaikuntam.
The dying art form received a Geographical Indication status in 2007. Reminiscing the rich cultural tradition, Vaikuntam says, “Cheriyal scroll painting is one of the earliest forms of audio-visual entertainment. Hundreds of years ago, the storytelling communities travelled through villages, singing and narrating stories using the scroll as a visual tool. Each scroll measured about three feet in width and could extend to over 60 feet. A scroll contained about 40 to 50 panels, and each panel depicted a part of the story. These were displayed in a sequence to tell the tale.”
With newer forms of storytelling ruling the public imagination, the Nakashi artists have adopted unique ways to reinvent the art form and keep it relevant. “The pictorial tale from the epics doesn’t excite people anymore. The scrolls have been reduced to an aesthetic item adorning the walls, collected by art lovers,” rues Vaikuntam. To make the art form saleable, Nakash artists have designed utility items. “We made masks during the lockdown and sold them through our Facebook and Insta pages. We also use the traditional art form to make key chains, pen holders, and wall decor items,” says Rakesh.
Each Cheriyal scroll starts with a panel of Ganapati, followed by Goddess Saraswati. “It is customary for the artist to seek the blessing of the deities to ensure that the art flourishes without any obstacle,” says Vaikuntam. The Cheriyal scroll painting is drawn on handmade khadi cloth or canvas processed by applying a paste of tamarind seed, tree gum and white clay. Three coats of the paste are applied, allowing a day in between for the paste to dry. Once the scroll is ready, the artist outlines characters using a squirrel-haired brush. In Cheriyal scrolls, only natural colours are used like white comes from grounded sea shells, black from lamp soot, yellow from Pevidi stone, blue from Indigo leafs, red from Inglikam stone and the other colours from various vegetable dyes and ground stones. Every colour is mixed with thirumani tree gum, before being applied on the scroll. “The red colour fills the background. The face and skin colours are decided by the nature of the character, like blue and yellow are for gods and goddesses, respectively; brown or darker shades for demons, while pink and skin tones are for humans,” explains Vaikuntam.
Text by Shillpi A Singh and photographs by P Mohanaiah and Tejaswini Paladi.