It was that time of the evening when all had gathered to listen to stories. The stories of ancestors beyond what granny knew or could remember, stories of heroes that made them proud, stories that they would sleep with and dream about. Today, the Kunapulis were coming to perform Markandeya Puranam for the Padmasalis and the show will go on anywhere from 3 nights to 20 nights. Later, the Dakkalis will come to perform Jamba Puranam for the Madigas and this cycle of performances will continue till genealogies of 7 local castes (the barber, toddy tapper, washerman, fisherman, leather worker, weaver and farmer) have been recited by bards from their sub-caste.
The perfomers paraphernalia consisted of large scrolls that were 3 feet wide and 40 to 60 feet long on which the stories were painted and sometimes colourful masks for the days when story telling would turn into play acting. Over the years these wandering minstrels diversified their repertoire and included stories from the other Puranas and epics educating the unlettered rustic folk.
As a preparation, the story tellers would go to the ‘Nakaashs’ and recite their story that would be painted scene by scene, character by character onto a scroll. The earliest reference to this tradition dates back to the 12th century; the Kakatiya times where Ekamranatha in his literary text Pratapa Charitram indicates the presence of 1500 painter families living in and around Warangal. Even today the Nakaashs live in Cheriyal, a small village with winding alleys about 85 kms from Warangal city.
A non-descript village like any other in rural India and crowded with houses that has pretty wooden doors, Cheriyal is easy to find but not the Nakaashs. It took a lot of asking around and negotiating through narrow streets where one led to the other like a never ending maze to finally reach the humble house of an artist. Once inside his living room cum showroom cum godown, Mallesham carefully unwrapped the colourful frames of Cheriyal paintings depicting both the deities and the everyday life of people in the region.
The processes still remain the same wherein the canvas is prepared after coating and drying a handwoven cloth (mostly khadi cotton) with boiled rice starch, white clay, gum and boiled tamarind seed paste in layers. Every coating is allowed to dry thoroughly before the next is applied. When the canvas is dry and hard, an outline of the painting is made using indigo on an essentially red background and later colours are filled in. The colours used are natural derived mostly from seeds, flowers and stones like black from lamp soot mixed with gum from the thirumany tree, white from sea shells, red from tamarind seeds, brown from geru. The frame is marked by a floral border indicating the end of a scene on a scroll. Now, it is merely ornamentation as the scrolls have miniaturized into frames meant for hanging on a wall. Yet the scenes retain a strong local flavor as it follows the tradition of oral story telling.
Drying on the sidelines were masks of gaily adorned men and women of Telangana along with an occasional parrot and cow. The masks, made from coconut shells, are layered with wood powder, gum and tamarind paste over a khadi cloth before finally painting them. From face fitted to fist fitting, the masks are available in many sizes.
But if you thought the delight ends here then you have not seen the colourful dolls yet. Made with the same raw materials as masks are made of, these dolls are a lilliput version of the performers of yore. Relegated to the role of producing souvenirs, this unique art got a shot in the arm when it received a GI tag.
The traditions do not remain nor can we hit the rewind button but isn’t it wonderful that the artists have given us a chance to revisit those times. It was heartening to see a complex built on the periphery of the village which is not just used as a centre for showcasing and selling the Cheriyal art but also as a centre for teaching the art to those interested.
Author – Zehra Chhapiwala
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org