When you think about the southern part of India, you think about green; the coconut trees, the acres of paddy fields; you think about blue, the colour of the seas and the ocean that lies on one side of each of the state; and you think about the immense culture that these 5 states have and the deep roots in tradition that they still boast of. Even today, if you look at goddess, god paintings online, there is a strong chance that at least one out of the many that you shortlist is a form of art that emerged from the southern part of the country.
In our series related to the fading arts of our country, today, we move the spotlight to Cheriyal painting, also known as Cheriyal scroll painting – a style of painting that is actually a modernised version of Nakashi art. The term ‘nakashi’ comes from the name that was used for the artists who used to make scroll paintings – the fine lines would be called naksha and the artists earned the name Nakshas. Given that these were forms of scroll paintings, the Cheriyal style took much inspiration and evolved into a school of its own.
Cheriyal Scroll Paintings

The origin and history:

The method of paintings on scrolls has been around for the longest time and this has been a way of telling tales and spreading religious awareness all across Asia. From China to Nepal, from India to Sri Lanka, there have been references to paintings being made on long pieces of paper or cloth, so that they could be rolled and carried with ease from one location to another. While in some cultures, priests or monks would carry these paintings to tell tales of gods and spiritual leaders, there were also performing artists, who would carry these scroll paintings from one village to another, singing songs and using these paintings as props or ways to carry forward the narrative.
The version that emerged in the present-day Telangana and the areas surrounding it were given the label of Cheriyal Nakashi paintings. What is interesting to note about the Cheriyal paintings is that they are limited to a very small geographical area – no where apart from the small village of Cheriyal was this art form practised in those days, although, today the remaining practising artists have spread out.
There are those who believe that the most important influences on this style of painting comes from the Nayaka period – for the affluent of the Vijayanagara empire, these paintings were wall decor items, but for the people who lead a simpler life, these paintings were for story telling and at times for learning too. The paintings on the scrolls would be used to tell stories to entire villages and teach moral values and even tell tales of local heroes. A unique aspect of this style of painting was that each community had their own storytellers – the Gouda Shetty were for the toddy tappers, the Chakalipatamvaru for the washer folk and the Padmasalis for the weaver community, and so on.
On lazy evenings, the story tellers would arrive at the scene and liven up the ambience – they would spread out the Cheriyal scrolls like a movie roll (the lengths would go up to 40-45 feet at times) between trees or pillars and the entire performance would take place in front of it. The multiple panels within one scroll would work as scenes of a story and every time a particular corresponding scene arrived in the story telling, the narrators would move away to the side, to allow the viewers to see the paintings. The story telling sessions could last anywhere between a few hours to a few days and at times, even weeks!

Process and materials:

As is the case with a lot of these old styles of paintings, the Cheriyal scrolls painting were also highly labour intensive – the paintings were almost always made on khadi material and this had to be prepared in advance. The fabric would be treated with a mix that would be created using rice starch, white mud and a paste that would be made by boiled tamarind seeds and gum water, three times. This process itself would take a minimum of three days and only post that, could any of the work be started. The first step would be to draw all the outlines, figures and outlines – these would include animals, birds, landscape and so on. Once all this was done, the colours would be filled in and the background would always be red, because that allowed the faces to be highlighted in natural colours.
The Cheriyal painting materials were simple - with brushes that would be made using squirrel hair, the colours would be filled in – faces of gods would be blue and those of goddesses would be yellow, humans would be pink, while demons would be brown. All the colours would be obtained from natural sources – whites from seashells, black from the soot of a lamp, yellow from turmeric, blue from natural indigo and so on. When the entire painting was complete, a layer of gum water would be applied to ensure preservation and finally, the borders would be prettified with flowers and leaves.

Main characteristics:

Unlike the traditional schools of painting like Tanjore and Mysore styles, there were no restrictions for Cheriyal art and even though the themes were those seen in religious paintings, one could see imagination that was unrestrained. The subjects were easy enough to relate to, because the themes were taken from stories that were known to all – from Ramayana to Mahabharata, from Shiva Puranam and local legends. In order to make the story telling sessions even more relatable, scenes from the daily lives would be added to the narrative – women going about their chores, men in the fields, local celebrations, and temple festivals.
Today, the onset of modern methods of entertainment has reduced the need for all these modes drastically – the main painters of Cheriyal have been left restricted to the village of Cheriyal and those who have chosen to move out are looking at evolving the form of art. They are either painting much smaller versions or they are paintings them as murals on walls. The canvas is not always khadi anymore and paints are no longer made using natural ingredients. Modern day brushes have replaced the squirrel hair ones, but the spirit of the style remains to date.

Frequently asked questions:

  • What were the most common sources of inspiration for these paintings?
    Stories for the Cheriyal art form often came from Indian mythology like Ramayana, Mahabharata and stories from the Puranas.
  • Were any musical instruments used during the performances?
    Yes, instruments like the table and harmonium would often be used to enhance the performance.
  • What is the one truly unique facet of this style of paintings?
    What made these paintings truly unique were that they all had community specific stories – each community would have a set of stories created for them.
  • Did this form of art only have paintings?
    Cheriyal artists made not only paintings, but also masks and dolls – these could be made using coconut shells, sawdust and lighter woods. The masks and dolls would be painted with vivid colours.
  • Which artists are still creating Cheriyal paintings?
    The main names in the domain include D. Vaikuntam, Venkataramana, Nageshar, and D.Pavan Kumar.
  • Does Cheriyal paintings have a GI tag?
    Yes, the Cheriyal paintings were given the Geographical Indication (GI) tag in the year 2007.
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