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Painting a New Story: Sohrai Art in Jharkhand

Traditionally painted by women, Sohrai and Khovar are indigenous art forms depicting weddings, harvests and life in the forests.

Putli Devi grew up in rural Hazaribagh in Jharkhand, the ‘land of forests’. Growing up, she watched her mother paint murals with her fingers and learnt the art form too. “I used to see wolves and wild cats run away with hens in the forest, so I started depicting them in my paintings”, says Devi, now a globally-travelled and well-known Sohrai artist.

Sohrai and Khovar are traditional art forms from Jharkhand; Sohrai, named after the namesake harvest festival that falls around Diwali, depicts the crop cycle, and Khovar depicts marriage and fertility and is traditionally made for weddings. Depictions of animals abound too; like Devi says, “I paint from memory, things I have seen growing up and things that I see around me.”

What is special about the art form is that it is only made by women and passed on by women.

With her small pots of natural colours, extracted from different kinds of soils and rocks, Devi makes deft strokes on the wall as Community Correspondent Basanti Soren talk to her about the art form. “What is special about the art form is that it is only made by women and passed on by women, and a handful of them at that. Most of them belong to the Kurmi community and live in Hazaribagh,” says Basanti.

But Putli and her co-artists were not always recognised for their work, neither did they do it commercially. “One day, Bulu Imam came this way and really liked my paintings. I was reluctant to meet him but my sisters-in-law insisted. He encouraged me to paint on paper and took my paintings to a global audience”, says Putli, thrilled at having showcased her work in countries like Australia and Germany.

India does not recognise the term ‘indigenous peoples’, making the UNRDIP inapplicable. 

Imam is an environmentalist working on the preservation of indigenous art and culture in Jharkhand. “Indigenous peoples, world over, have rights over the lands that they historically inhabit, but in India, there are limitations on these rights,” Imam explains. India has voted in favour of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) but does not recognise the term ‘indigenous peoples’ itself, making the declaration inapplicable to India.

On ground, this translates to a violation of the rights of indigenous communities. Imam, for instance, points out that while Adivasis are dependent on their land for their livelihood, they have no rights to the “crops under the land”. “I am talking about mining”, he says, referring to the rich mineral resources that the Chotanagpur plateau is home to.

The question of indigenous art and culture is strongly linked to identity, and rights. “I found proof of Jharkhand’s adivasis’ indigeneity in their art, the caves in the region bear similar art from thousands of years ago. For indigenous communities to claim their rights, we have to establish that they have been living on the land historically”, says Imam.

Basanti, who also belongs to a tribal community, feels that it is important to preserve one’s art and culture. “The newer generation does not know much about its history, which is why it is important to promote local cultures. We must be aware of our traditions, it is a matter of identity.” Devidas Gaonkar, a correspondent who documents indigenous cultures in Goa, feels the same way about art, culture and identity.

Sohrai art is now known as the state art of Jharkhand. It has come to receive patronage from both the state government and corporates like Tata Steel based out of the state. Railway stations in towns like Hazaribagh and Jamshedpur now greet travellers with Khovar and Sohrai murals that only adorned village homes until recently.

Has taking the art form from the villages to global and commercial spaces brought prosperity to its practitioners? Basanti says that there has definitely been an improvement in Devi’s financial situation but it’s not a lot. Imam, however, points out that the difference that it has brought in Devi’s life is a sense of identity and confidence. “It is priceless,” says Imam.

Video by Community Correspondent Basanti Soren

Article by Alankrita Anand, a journalist in the VV editorial team

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