An art form once used effectively to narrate folklore, Cherial scrolls today do not find many takers. HEMA VIJAY comes across a practitioner who has been innovatively adapting the scrolls to modern day demands
The vivid red background sets it off, like a subdued electric charge. Be it Radha and Krishna entranced in a moment of bliss, Rama taking off to the forests, or Vishwamithra in Tapas, these sharp nosed and wide eyed figures seem to leap out from the red scrolls, beaming their tales of love and hate, war and peace, and enlightenment. Get acquainted with Cherial scrolls, a much forgotten and dying folk art of the Telengana region.
Rich use of colours, traditional techniques and ideas are the hallmarks of the Cherial folk paintings. The drawing style bears some resemblance to that of the open-eyed Patachitra paintings of Orissa, pointing perhaps to a common origin. And curiously, all the icons in these scrolls sport similar features - identical sharp noses, wide eyes, receding foreheads and wide mouths, be it Rama or Ravana.
The only aspect that varies from icon to icon happens to be the colour factor. Rama and Krishna tend to be blue skinned while Arjuna and Shiva are white skinned. The demons take on a macabre brown colour.
“The identity is assumed from the adornments, such as the bow for Rama, the flute for Krishna and the snake for Shiva,” informs Danalakota Nageshwar, perhaps the only living Cherial scroll painter today, who conducted a workshop on Cherial scrolls in the picturesque ambience of the Dakshina Chitra Cultural Centre near Chennai city.
The Cherial scrolls take on their name from the Cherial village in Warangal district, Andhra Pradesh. The Cherial village was once at the forefront in producing these scrolls, besides dolls and masks which were also used to narrate myths and folklore subjects in the villages by wandering storytellers. While traditionally the stories were inevitably derived from Indian mythology like Madelu Puranam, Gowda Puranam, Ramayanam and Mahabharatham, in recent times, Nageshwar has been experimenting with introducing contemporary tales into the scrolls.
In the villages of yesteryear Andhra Pradesh, as in other culturally rich regions of ancient India, traditional art forms successfully met the requirements of the local storytelling community popularly known as "Kaki Padagollu". The scrolls were used as visual aids by local balladeers to tell stories to different communities. As in modern day picture strips like the Amar Chitra Katha, each frame portrayed scenes step by step such as Yudishthira playing dice in one, followed by Draupadi’s robe being snatched off in the next and so on, effectively picturising the highlights of the story. A Cherial scroll can thus extend to over 20 metres in length. This is the unique aspect that distinguishes the Cherial scroll paintings from other folk art forms. “No other folk art form has such an elaborate and lengthy format”, says Nageshwar.
The Cherial scrolls are distinctly different from paintings from other parts of the country because its subject matter assumes a community specific story-line and visual vocabulary. The Cherial scrolls were most often hung on temple walls where the storytellers held court, elaborating on the scenes.
As for the Cherial dolls, some of them seem to have been made from cow dung! “Coconut shell bases were alternatively used as a base for making the dolls and masks. They were known as Peda Bomalu or Gobar Bomalu. Thereafter, additions like nose, eyes and other embellishments are embossed on to the core, followed by sun drying and colouring. Here, as in the scroll paintings, fine lines for costumes, jewellery or eyes are applied last,” informs Nageshwar.
Nageshwar holds on to this technique in making the dolls, but he applies a layer of colourless varnish over these masks and dolls to prevent the colours from cracking or fading out. Traditionally, the Cherial dolls have a repertoire of 53 icons and colours again play the most significant role in identifying the dolls. For instance, yellow is associated with Ganga Bhavani, a local deity and blue with Mallikarjun – Lord Shiva.
In the 19th century, when there were many scroll painters in the Telengana region earning their livelihood from these Cherial scrolls, each community in Telengana had their own scrolls, typical to their sub-cultural identity.
However, with the demand for these scrolls and dolls almost non-existent in the countryside, thanks to the dwindling number of balladeers and storytellers, it is a wonder that Cherial art survives today. This traditional art form from the Telengana region would have died out, had it not been pursued with unflinching loyalty by D Venkatramiah, Nageshwar’s grandfather. The rest of the Cherial scroll painters deserted it, moving on to other crafts, because they no longer could eke out a living out of the art.
Until 1975, this was an art tradition that was known only among the villages of the Telengana countryside. There is hardly any documentation or reference to Cherial scrolls prior to this. There are perhaps no existing documents that highlight the genesis and process of making these paintings or dolls. Sadly, Nageshwar’s technique is the only remnant of this folk heritage.
The technique that Nageshwar works with consists of applying a base layer of a paste made of chalk powder and tamarind nut powder in equal proportions over khadi cloth. When this dries, an off-white shade is assumed by the cloth, which is used as a canvass material for the Cherial scrolls. The same concoction of chalk powder- tamarind nut paste is used in laying the base for the Cherial masks and dolls.
Nageshwar then goes on sketch the images with red oxide on the off-white scrolls and follows it up by filling it with bright colours, the predominantly used colours being yellow, blue, and green. The thin and thick lines for costumes, jewels and eyes are eyes are drawn last. The backgrounds are always painted red, and almost invariably, the frames have ornamented margins, varying from the simple to the ornate.
In the olden days, natural colours were used. For instance, white was obtained from ground seashells, black from lamp soot and yellow from turmeric. Today, these natural colours are being substituted for by watercolours.
Nageshwar continues to live in the Cherial village and is intent on carrying this tradition forward. His daughter Sowjanya, age 10 and son Shravan Kumar, age 7, are already adept in Cherial scroll painting, Nageshwar has managed to instill in them a passion for these colourful drawings. And though the demand for these scrolls and dolls from storytellers and puppeteers is almost non-existent, Nageshwar sees hope in the future as evidenced by a few overseas orders coordinated for him by various agencies like the Madras Craft Foundation, the South Zone Cultural Centre at Thanjavur and the Andhra Pradesh Government.In fact, a Canadian agency has commissioned Nageshwar to produce an entire story through these Cherial drawings to be animated and televised as a cartoon serial or film.
Nageshwar realises that the craft will survive only if it is metamorphosed into articles of daily use, fitting into the needs of the city dweller who is on a ‘discover India’ trip. So Nageshwar ventures into creating greeting cards, flower vases, pen stands, etc too in Cherial style. This is a far cry from the original aura and place that these colourful scrolls once held proudly. But well worth it, if this can give a new lease of life and a safe passage for these scrolls to the next century.
(Nageshwar Rao can be contacted at H.No.16-9, Cherial (PO & Mdl), Warangal District -506 223, Andhra Pradesh. Tel.: 08710 223117. Communication may also be made through the Madras Craft Foundation, G3 Madhuram Flats, 6, Urur Alcott road, Besant Nagar, Chennai –600 090, Tamilnadu, India.
Tel. O44 24918943. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)