From scrolls to masks: How Telangana's 400-yr-old Cheriyal paintings have evolved

While some Cheriyal artists have adapted the art to make keychains and wall art, others are struggling to survive.
 From scrolls to masks: How Telangana's 400-yr-old Cheriyal paintings have evolved
From scrolls to masks: How Telangana's 400-yr-old Cheriyal paintings have evolved
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Located almost 100 km from Hyderabad is the sleepy village of Cheriyal in Telangana’s Warangal district. In its narrow lanes, one can find houses clustered on either side, similar in build and hues. It is here that Ganesh and his wife Vanaja have been practicing the centuries old art form called the Cheriyal scroll painting. They are one among the only four families left in the state who still practice the dying art form.

A quaint little mud house, Ganesh’s painting studio overlooks an open courtyard garden from where abundant natural light streams in, making it the perfect setting for painting. He has been practicing the profession for 25 years after learning it from his master, D Chandraiah, a famous scroll artist of his time.

“The scroll painting, around 50 years ago, provided employment to a lot of people in the villages. Slowly, with the advent of television and movies, people started losing interest in ballads and folklores and now there are hardly three or four families left who still practice the profession,” Ganesh says.

Today, despite having a Geographical Indication (GI) tag, this 400-year-old art form struggles to remain relevant.

History of scroll paintings

A part of the Nakashi artform, Cheriyal scrolls were once sociologically and culturally significant. Conventionally used as a tool for educating the unlettered villagers, these painted scrolls were also used by the village bard as visual aid to go with his stories and ballads.

The earliest known painted scroll can be dated back to 1625 in the Telangana region which was then ruled by the Qutub Shahis of Golconda. The art form involved paintings that depicted scenes from the Hindu mythology and also stories that were meant to educate the village folks.

Since the scrolls required artistes to paint meticulous lines, the royal state machinery termed the artistes as ‘nakshas’ (naksha means fine line) and thus the art from came to known as the Nakashi paintings.

The scroll paintings display some influence of the Nayaka period paintings (c. 1540), which are an extension of the Vijayanagara style of painting. While the affluent classes brought the scroll for aesthetic purposes, for the unlettered it was a great medium of entertainment and education.

“After the scrolls were painted, the story was performed by artistes in front of village gatherings. The scrolls were pinned in the background and the artistes danced and sang to every narrative painted on the scroll,” Ganesh shares.

While every state has a scroll tradition of its own, Telangana scroll paintings carry the depiction of heroic legends about particular communities.

Different communities have their own band of storytellers – in the Goud community of toddy tappers, they are called Gouda Shetty; those of the Chakali, or washermen, are called Chakalipatamvaru or Pattamollu; Kakipadagallolu for Muttarasi, the fruit pickers; Padmasalis, the community of weavers; and so on.

“The Telangana scrolls are community-based paintings that narrate stories in line with caste professions, rooted in the local legends. For example, Bhakt Markandeya Puranam' is meant for the Padmasali (weaver) community as Rishi Markendeya was the seer who weaved clothes for Gods. Slices from the Mahabharata were narrated to fishermen as the author of the epic, Ved Vyas, was born into a fisherman’s family,” Ganesh explains.

Ganesh and Vanaja also specialise in making Nakashi masks, another art-form typical to the Telangana region. While the name Nakashis derived from the caste of the people who practiced the art, the scroll paintings are now called the Cheriyal paintings after the only location where the art form still lives.

Ganesh’s home is adorned with awards and certificates which he has earned over the years. He also displays two huge masks, priced at about Rs 20,000 each. Two such masks are also displayed in Hyderabad’s Hitec city. “I also made the scroll paintings at Secunderabad, Kacheguda and Lallaguda railway stations which fetched the Telangana government the second-best award of the best railway stations in India,” Ganesh says.

How the Cheriyal paintings are made

Living 30 km away from Hyderabad in Boduppal is D Vaikuntam, a scroll artist who migrated from Cheriyal to the city in search of a better market. His paintings won him a national award in the year 2004 and his entire family, including his sons, wife and daughter-in-law, are now scroll artists.

Vaikuntam now earns a decent living from practicing the art, having adapted the paintings to present day market requirements. “While a larger part of the tradition still remains, technology has taken over certain aspects due to unavailability of raw materials and ease of doing business,” he says.

The scroll paintings are traditionally painted on a khadi cloth after the fabric is processed with sawdust, tamarind-seed paste, rice starch, white mud and tirumani, or tree gum. The canvas is allowed to dry and the priming process is repeated once, after which it is ready to use once dry.

“The scroll paintings are done on bright red backgrounds and follow a colour scheme of blue, green, yellow, black and white. Originally, black was extracted from soot, white was obtained from river shells. Red was extracted from stones called Ingligum and yellow from Pevadi stones. But now due to the unavailability of natural colours in the region, we buy and stock colour powders in bulk from artists in Rajasthan,” Vaikuntam’s son, Vinay Kumar, says.

Even Vaikuntam’s father has contributed to keep Nakashi painting alive. “My father Venkateshwariah, after he migrated from his village in Vemulawada to Cheriyal in 1945, learnt the art of scroll painting from his sister who was married off in Cheriyal. Even after the art form started degenerating, he strived and became the lone practicing artist in the entire village, even as others turned to carpentry and masonry,” Vaikuntam recalls.

Meanwhile, Mallesham and his wife Manga, also residents of Cheriyal, explain how Nakashi masks are made. Mallesham says that the masks are created directly on coconut shells with tamarind seed paste and sawdust for the base. For bigger masks, cement moulds are made and a newspaper is placed to separate the mould from a half inch layer of tamarind seed paste and sawdust. This is allowed to dry for two days.

“Every year, we use 100-150 kilograms of tamarind seeds, which are ground to powder form at a local flour mill and since it is hard, it requires nearly 5-6 rounds in the machine,” Mallesham says.

Struggle to survive

As television and radio began conquering entertainment means, Cheriyal scrolls have become merely aesthetic pieces that now find space only in the living rooms of art lovers. 

While Ganesh, Vanaja and Vaikuntam earn a decent income with their paintings, the situation is different for Mallesham and Manga. Their entire single bedroom home is Mallesham’s art studio where he makes the Nakashi masks and toys, also used to narrate stories.

Mallesham with his Nakashi toys

“A set consists of 52 toys, which when assembled together, narrates popular folklore. Each toy has a story of its own,” Mallesham says.

The economy is especially dull for them during monsoon, when the humidity makes it difficult to create the moulds and dry the masks. More than the cost of their sculptures, what hurts is that people are not willing to pay for the tedious handiwork that does into making them.

Even Ganesh and Vanaja, both of whom are government-recognised artists, know that their art has few patrons. The couple has ensured that their two daughters get formal education. “We are reluctant to give up the tradition as it is an art form that has been passed down from generations in this region. The girls help us when they get time off from school,” Ganesh says.

Further, several of the scroll paintings have been lost due to certain traditions followed by the balladeers, says Vaikuntam. “Storytellers considered these paintings holy and as part of their religious customs, used to immerse them in water after performances. Very few paintings from 17th and 18th century survived this and exist today.”

Adapting to modern times

From a scroll that once had up to 50 panels, the Cheriyal paintings have now come down to a single panel, as these artists adapt to its use as wall art. “I also have got orders from government offices and luxury hotels for scroll paintings, which have now become a piece of home décor,” says Ganesh.

The paintings are priced between Rs 250 to Rs 1 lakh based on size. The artists are also invited to exhibitions where they can set up stalls for free. As for Vaikuntam, who just returned from a trip to Thailand, awards and laurels have been many and market has been running smooth after he shifted to the city.

Cheriyal paintings at Secunderabad railway station

“To get a mass appeal for the art, we have started thinking out of the box. We make utility items such as key chains, pen holders, wall décor and paint on melamine plates which could be used as wall hangings. This way, we have been able to pull more people to buy our traditional art pieces,” Vaikuntam says.

Mallesham however, is not as content. “Scroll artists in the state need better publicity, more market places and an international audience to cater. Though the government organises workshops and camps, we receive no monetary help, which is crucial in keeping the art form alive,” Mallesham rues.

“We have likes of Trump and Ivanka who visit and encourage local talent. But the need of the hour is that the government recognise our talent and improves the condition of the local artists,” Mallesham adds.

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