A Unity in Diversity
Express freely and innovate Modernised Chitravana
By Dr Kailash Kumar Mishra
THE folk aesthetics is always under evaluated by the people of cities, however, if you try to understand it from close, it has an extraordinary element of uniting the urban and rural, the folk and classic, the non-literate and literate, tradition and so-called modernity. One such practice I observed during my recent visit to Ujjain and Gwalior-in Chitravana. I found some painters depicting something on the walls. They are called Chitera. Chitera word is derived from the Sanskrit chitra, meaning to draw. And the art is called Chitravana. This folk heritage is practised in conjunction with festivals, religious and the ritual occasions. Uniquely, this painting is done without any prepared sketch. The artist starts from a point on the canvas, and the whole painting flows from that point, as the artist envisions his theme. The prominent figures in the paintings are religious deities, auspicious symbols, animals and birds and nature. Chitravana has been widely prevalent for hundreds of years in the interiors of Gwalior, Jhansi, Ujjain, Malwa and Bundelkhand.
Chitravana is a commercial art. In Gwalior, Chitera Auli is a famous locality, where Chiteras reside. It bears influences of three styles-Hindu style, Mughal miniature and Gujarat or Jain tradition of painting. Chiteras paint and sell panas of Lakshmi, Kanhaiyya, etc. Richly ornamental narrative painting has been a part and parcel of Chitravana. Since its beginning there has been a tradition of painting Tirthankars in Jain temples, and gods and goddesses in other Hindu temples.
Chitravana art style uses locally available colours, and does not display much use for mixing them. Traditionally, the Chitera art style uses soil-based colours. Red, blue, yellow, white and black are the base colours - obtained from the nature. These colours are used on contrast basis to enhance the appeal and freshness of these paintings. Chiteras make handmade brushes with hair from the goat- tail. Every Chitera keeps 25 brushes in his collection. The handle of the brush is made of bamboo. Fine brushes are made with hair of squirrel’s tails. These brushes can be used for extremely fine work, to the extent that nine elephants can be painted on a single human nail!
The background for Chitravana is a white-washed wall. Artists now use white paper also. Transparent water soluble colours are used on paper. These days, readymade poster colours have become quite popular.
There is a long and unbroken tradition of Chitera artists in the Chitera Auli in Gwalior. Many artists have expired but are still remembered for their magic with brush and colour. The salient facts about the Chiteras are as follows:
Chiteras do not belong to any specific community or caste. Some Muslims of Jhansi also are well-known artist.
As it is linked to rituals and religious practices, its survival depends on continuity of these practices in social and cultural life of society.
It is mainly practised by the men; however, there are a few women who are independent artists in their own right.
Chiteras paint on walls and papers, make torans for doors and decorations and columns for wedding. This is mainly done by women artists.
The art form is surviving only due to work opportunities in religious shrines and in public celebrations and weddings.
What is the ritual context of this art? The occasions and topics of Chitravana are traditionally fixed and determined. Traditional topics are mainly, the Akhyans from the Puranas, the Ramayan, the Mahabharata, Shiv-Parvati Charit and Krishna Lila. In addition, paintings are based on legends, folk tales, popular beliefs and myths.
There is an ancient tradition of painting gods and goddesses in Chitravana. The favourite deities of painters are the Navshaktis, especially the tiger-riding goddess, the Simhavahini. Then there is Hanuman holding the sacred herb Sanjivani, or the flag of Rama, the Kaal-Bhairav, the standing Ganesha, Ganesha with Riddhi-Siddhis, the Naag-Nathaiyya, Krishna playing the flute, the Baal-Gopal, Standing Vishnu, Shiva, Parvati and Kartikeya. A special feature of the Lakshmi Pana is that Lakshmi is depicted seated on a lotus, and either two or four elephants are shown to be bathing her with kalash held in their uplifted trunks. Popular wall paintings in Chitravana also include trees, plants, flowers and leaves. The animal motifs include lion, tiger, Nandi bull, panther, fish, tortoise, parrot, sparrow, peacock, elephant, etc. It is important to note that the shapes and colours of these birds, animals and flowers are also governed by conventions of Chitravana. Their place, occasion and specific importance are also pre-determined.
The drawings and paintings on paper is today a well established and popular art form. This form is called Pana. No religious ceremony is complete without Pana. Pana makes use of poster and acrylic colours.
I have experienced a moving spirit of innovation in the art by a Chitera who was a Muslim. He painted a Muslim devotee offering namaj in typical religious posture. I asked him: "Are you not scared of painting a Muslim?" He responded innocently: "This is art. It is a tradition beyond religion. It suggests you to paint whatever you like. While painting Hindu gods and goddesses I thought to paint a Muslim devotee and I painted it without any fear. I am happy with my work. People like it and appreciate my creativity".