In 2019, a fashion show was held at the JD Institute of Fashion Technology in Bengaluru. Among the clothes featured in that show were some that used motifs of Pithora, a form of painting practised by the Rathwa, Bhil, Bhilala and Nayaka Adivasis of the Chhota Udepur region of Gujarat, among other places. In a statement describing the show on the institute’s website, the student curators claimed that they wanted to “enable the revival of the Pithora art form, to provide recognition and employment opportunities for the tribes”.

About three years later, however, when some members of these communities found photos of the show online, they were deeply distressed by what they felt was the commodification of a sacred and ritualistic form. Members of the Rathwa community hold the view that Pithora is not merely an art, but that its creation is a sacred ritual that commemorates the communities’ ancestors and gods, explained Sejal Rathwa, a journalist and co-ordinator of cultural documentation at the Adivasi Academy, a research and educational institution for Adivasis in Tejgadh, Chhota Udepur.

In August 2022, members of the Rathwa community sent an email to JD Institute through the Adivasi Academy. They demanded that the photos of the show be taken down from the institute’s social media pages and website, and that the student designers display greater cultural sensitivity about the sacredness of Pithora.

Community members’ repeated efforts to contact professors and students responsible for the event were unsuccessful. Upon calling the institute, Sejal Rathwa was told that the students in question had already graduated by the time the institute received the email, and that the institute, thus, had no power to ask them to respond.

“People take these photos of Pithora from Google, and unthinkingly use it on clothes and other things,” said Paresh Rathwa, among the best-known lakharas, or practitioners of the form.

He added, “This is their ignorance. If they asked us to teach them Pithora, we would definitely do it. But we would also explain what the form means to us.” After this, he reasoned, people would be less likely to disrespect the form.

This was not the only controversy centred around Pithora in recent years. In 2022, members of the Rathwa community in Vadodara protested against a Pithora painting made on a wall next to the railway station in the city. “So many people go in and out of the station every day, it isn’t a place of respect for gods,” said Sejal. Following the protests, the Pithora mural was removed.

Paresh Rathwa himself faced some criticism in September this year, after he showcased Pithora at a stall as part of an exhibition that had been set up to promote India’s art and craft heritage on the side-lines of the G20 summit in Delhi. In a social media post, Paresh noted that he had heard some criticism from other members of the Rathwa community that he visited the G20 exhibition to sell Pithora paintings. He clarified in the post that his only aim had been to spread awareness among visitors about the form, and not to sell his work.

Practitioners of Pithora have opposed its commercialisation, maintaining that the form is not an art, but that its creation is a sacred ritual that commemorates the communities’ ancestors and gods. Photo: Nolina Minj

The subject is a sensitive one. Like Warli, Gond and Saura, Pithora too is a well-known Adivasi form in art circles. In response to government initiatives to promote such forms, and commercialise them to enable artists to earn a living, several traditional artists of the other forms have sold their works. In many instances, work has also been reproduced on clothes, bags and other items that can be sold. This has happened both with and without the community’s consent.

In contrast, members of the Rathwa community have remained firm that Pithora should not be commercialised through products. While some artists from the community have painted Pithora on walls and canvases for commercial purposes, they too maintain that Pithora should not be replicated on everyday items.

“The sensitivity with which a community member who is an insider, and an outsider look at Pithora is not the same,” said Sejal. “It is important that the place and values that produce the art are also publicised with it.”

This view is at the centre of a complex negotiation that the community is engaged in, to ensure that the form survives and thrives, while at the same time preserving its core values. In this process, they strive to protect Pithora from several forces that they see as threats to it, ranging from the forces of markets to those of cultural erasure at the hands of non-Adivasis.

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On the evening of October 15, I travelled by road from the dusty town of Chhota Udepur to the Adivasi Academy in Tejgadh, which is surrounded by lush vegetation. As we approached the academy, Koraj hill, jutted above the horizon on an otherwise flat landscape.

The villagers forbade me to visit the hill that evening, cautioning me about leopards in the area. The next morning, a little after dawn, I made my way to Koraj from the academy. The trail wove through a variety of fields, such as of corn, pulses and turmeric. As morning sunlight turned the sky a cotton-candy pink, I spotted a peacock gliding in the distance and saw leopard paw prints on wet soil. On ascending the hill, I was treated to a panoramic view of the region.

“Many Adivasi groups in Gujarat and neighbouring Madhya Pradesh trace the story of their origins to this hill, suggesting that they may have been its early inhabitants,” Alice Tilche, an anthropologist who has studied Pithora and the Rathwa community, wrote in her book Adivasi Art and Activism.

Alice Tilche, an anthropologist who has studied the Rathwa community, has written that many Adivasi groups in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh trace their origins to the Koraj hill in Chhota Udepur. Photo: Nolina Minj

In 1994, archaeologists dated rock paintings found inside a cave on Koraj hill to 12,000 years ago. The paintings depict human figures holding swords, and riding horses. This same motif is central to the Pithora form too. “We believe the rudimentary figures in the cave, made by our ancestors, must be the beginning of what has evolved to become Pithora today,” said Paresh Rathwa.

In the lore of Adivasis of Chhota Udepur, Baba Pithora is the supreme deity, one who is also viewed as a king and an ancestor of the community. According to legend, to attain his kingship, Pithora, who was raised by a foster mother, set out to find his biological parents, and claim his inheritance. After he completed this quest, he was married and crowned king. In her book Tilche wrote, using an alternative spelling for the deity’s name, “The story of Pithoro growing up to become king despite all odds represents the possibility of success while bringing auspiciousness to the house.”

Sejal Rathwa noted that Pithora’s stories were not documented in any texts. “In villages where the ritual occurs, there are songs that last the whole night,” she said. “These stories are mentioned in those songs. That’s where I found these narratives.”

Rock paintings in a cave on Koraj hill have been dated to 12,000 years ago. Pithora has motifs in common with the paintings, including of human figures sitting astride horses, and wielding swords. Photo: Nolina Minj

Adivasis of Chhota Udepur do not consider Pithora the form to be an art, but a sacred script, and thus traditionally refer to it as being written rather than painted, though in common use, it is also termed painting. “For us, it’s a script, but in front of the world we’ll call it painting,” said Paresh. “Because they don’t know what it is. How many people can we explain this to? Others will always see it as art.”

Tilche noted in her book that “the painting is not a representation of the sacred but is in itself a sacred entity”. In an article for The Hindu, GN Devy, the founder of Adivasi Academy, noted that “the making of Pithoro is the highest form of religion”. Paresh explained that it was through the form that the community prayed to deities and to nature.

Today, Paresh added, only between five and seven families continue to practice Pithora. “Out of that, people from only two-three families go outside of their area and go to exhibitions,” he said. “The rest have become too old.”

According to tradition, only adult men can be lakharas. While most lakharas learn Pithora from their fathers, Paresh was not born to a family of lakharas. “Growing up, I was interested in Pithora and so I learnt it slowly and started writing Pithora from the age of 25,” Paresh said. “But I couldn’t earn a living from it. I worked as a painter and designer.”

It was only when Paresh was 27 years old that he began to focus on Pithora, after being encouraged to do so by the curator of the Tribal Museum in Ahmedabad. “He told me that Pithora was going to go extinct, and I should work on it,” he said. “We got funds from the tribal department and started painting on canvas. Since then, I have been called to all states of the country.”

Paresh Rathwa, a senior practitioner of Pithora, noted that today, only members of between five and seven families practised Pithora. Of them, even fewer travel to showcase their work. Photo: Special arrangement

Traditionally an Adivasi family would take a vow to have Pithora made in their houses if they were seeking to tackle specific troubles, which could range from illnesses to agricultural stresses. The family would start by consulting a badva, the term for a traditional shaman. The badva would advise them to call upon the supreme deity’s blessings by taking a vow to have Pithora made in their homes after a specific period of time, which was typically at least ten years, but could go up to 25 years and longer. After this period passed, the family was dutybound to invite lakharas to create Pithora on the main wall of the family’s house over a few days. Through this period, the badva and others would conduct rituals involving food, crops and animal sacrifices. The family would mark the occasion with celebrations and invite the neighbourhood to participate with them.

Sejal explained that the beliefs associated with the practice were fluid. “It’s not that everything gets fixed after drawing the Pithora, but it’s a vow that needs to be fulfilled,” Sejal said. “Often in the five years, the fortune of the family does change for the better and often it doesn’t.”

Sometimes, Paresh said, a family omits to have Pithora written at their home, only to have their fortunes take a turn for a worse, after which they see through the obligation.

Pithora is generally created with the primary colours of blue, green, red and yellow, against a white background. Traditionally, the colours were made from natural ingredients, such as roots and flowers, mixed with liquid bases such as mahua and cow milk. Haldi was used for yellow, indigo for blue, sindoor for red and leaves for green. Nowadays, however, lakharas usually buy paint from the market, and even innovate with the form, adding new elements such as Kutchi mirrors and silver paint.

“Pithora celebrates everything that the Adivasis of the region observe in nature and the universe,” said Nagin Rathwa, public relations officer at the Adivasi Academy.

Several motifs of the form are inspired from flora and fauna such as corn, mahua, toddy palm trees, deer, snakes and leopards. “These too are sacred,” said Hari Rathwa, a veteran lakhara from Malaja village. “When a python comes into our village and steals an animal, we don’t beat it or go after it, because it’s a god. We pick it up and leave it on a hill. It probably came to the village because of some fault of ours. Perhaps we didn’t do enough sacrifices for it.”

According to Sejal, the fact that Pithora is often painted for the protection of animals and forests was indicative of the symbiotic relationship between Adivasi communities and nature. “In Adivasi society the value accorded to animals, crops and trees is the same as that accorded to human beings,” she said. “People say that Adivasis are nature worshippers, but I believe we don’t worship nature, we live it.”

There was a time when Pithora came close to extinction.

Paresh Rathwa explained that between 2000 and the mid 2010s, most community members ceased conducting the rituals. “This was due to the various religious sects that entered society,” he said. “People began following them, and the vows to have Pithora written decreased over time.”

Sejal, too, spoke of how the entry of Hindu religious sects into the community began to fragment Adivasis. “Adivasis have become divided into different sects – Rai Muni, Swami Narayan, Sat Keval, Kabir and others,” she said.

According to Tilche, Chhota Udepur has a long history of reformist movements that aimed to bring Adivasis under the larger fold of Hinduism. Chief among these was the bhagat movement, an umbrella term used to refer to various 19th-century socioreligious movements that were aimed at Adivasi communities across India. The bhagat movement advocated for a Brahminical reform of these communities, by promoting measures such as the boycott of alcohol and meat.

Tilche notes in her book that in Chhota Udepur the bhagat movement “contributed to a slow-burn erasure of a tribal heritage”. She added that today, Adivasis “are being appropriated by Hindu religious organizations to convey their message and as proof of adivasis’ Hindu origins.”

Indeed, while none of the Rathwa houses I visited had pictures of popular Hindu gods, they did have framed images of leaders of bhagat movement sects such as the Sat Keval sect.

The belief that Adivasi traditions were part of the Hindu fold was apparent in some conversations in the region. One evening at Chhota Udepur town, I visited a local homestay that also served food. The server, a non-Adivasi, became chatty when he learnt that I was there to report on Pithora. “There was a time when hardly anyone knew about it, but now it is the district’s pride,” he said with a smile. He added that a recent state government exam for teacher recruitment had included a question on Pithora. “They asked, ‘Which is the first deity to be drawn on a Pithora mural?’ The answer is Ganpati,” he said knowingly.

But Rathwa community members disagreed with this interpretation. “Adivasis are not Hindus,” asserted Sejal. “It’s not Ganpati the elephant god painted in Pithora, but a god named Ganeh. At some point, the name was mistaken for Ganesh and since then the misunderstanding has spread around.”

Sejal Rathwa, a journalist, noted that Pithora’s stories were not documented in any texts. Rather, they can be found in songs that accompany community rituals that are performed in villages. Photo: Nolina Minj

Similarly, Laxman Rathwa, a social worker and small businessman from the district noted that a warrior god with 12 heads in Pithora, traditionally named “Barmata”, was often referred to as the Hindu mythological figure Raavan. “By calling these gods Ganesh and Ravaan, they are confusing us,” said Laxman. “When they want us to work for them they’ll call us Hindus, but when they want to harass and discriminate against us, we become Adivasis.”

Tilche noted in her book that “the historical reconstructions promoted by the Sangh Parivar” portrayed the apparent presence of Hindu deities in Pithora “as evidence of the essentially Hindu character of adivasi societies.”

Despite these efforts to fold Adivasi culture into Hinduism, community endeavours to spread awareness of Pithora bore fruit and through the 2010s, the number of Pithora paintings in Rathwa homes steadily increased. “Even those who had been diverted to other religious sects came to a realisation that our ancestors had started this tradition and we forgot about it,” Paresh said. “This is why they were facing difficulties in their families, fields and forests. If we do Pithora at home, then our problems will be solved.” He added, “Samaaj phirse zinda ho gaya hai,” the community became alive again.

Adivasi communities had another reason to make efforts to reinstate the ritual of Pithora, other than to preserve their culture – practising it helped families assert their Adivasi identities to government authorities, particularly when the families sought to procure Scheduled Tribe certificates.

This process had become difficult in the late 2000s as Tilche noted in her book. “Rathavas were finding it hard to get their ST certificates reissued as people no longer looked tribal or practiced their traditional lifestyle, so the authorities argued,” she wrote.

Among the questions that authorities asked Adivasis of Chhota Udepur during this process was whether they had a Pithora mural in their homes – some officials went as far as asking for photographic evidence.

“In today’s time, you need to make an entire documentary on your family, lineage and culture to get a Scheduled Tribe certificate,” joked Naran Rathwa, a young lakhara from Malaja village.

The consequences of not having a mural could be significant. Naran said that he knew of a family in which the son was issued a Scheduled Tribe certificate because he was able to produce a photo of a Pithora mural on his phone; his sister, on the other hand, did not have a photo with her, and was thus issued an Other Backward Class certificate. In effect, siblings from the same family were slotted into different social and administrative categories, with different rights over land, reservations, and other benefits.

In January this year, Paresh Rathwa was awarded the Padma Shri for his contribution to Pithora. “This is an honour bestowed from the government on the entire community, not just me,” he said. “I’m just a vessel.”

Following this, several people approached him to express an interest in learning Pithora. In collaboration with the Tribal Development Department of Gujarat, Paresh conducted a workshop over two months for 30 college students from Chhota Udepur. “From those thirty, four students have now become lakharas,” he said. “This is a big thing for us. Instead of feeling ashamed of our traditions, now they earn, and have earned respect in society too.”

Lakharas continue to strive to balance the traditional approach to the practice with their efforts to spread awareness and appreciation for it. Nandu Rathwa, Naran Rathwa and his father Hari Rathwa, all lakharas, noted that they were happy to travel to places, paint Pithora on walls and canvas and even sell their work. But they were particular that the form should not be replicated on clothes and other common objects. “We go to design institutions to teach Pithora,” Naran said. “When we start our class, we always tell students about its origins and instruct them not to replicate Pithora anywhere else, but for walls and canvases.” Hari Rathwa added, “Even at the collector’s office in Chhota Udepur there is Pithora art which was made following the traditional rituals, and there is a yearly pooja conducted there.”

Nandu Rathwa, a practitioner of Pithora, noted that the community was not opposed to creating work for money, but that they were particular that the form not be replicated on everyday objects. Photo: Nolina Minj

Several artists noted that the government, and the art and textile industry, had made attempts to turn the production of Pithora into a business, but that the community had resisted this shift.

“We often get requests to make it on dupattas and lamps, but we refuse,” said Paresh. He explained that he teaches anyone who approaches him to learn the form, except students of fashion design, because “there’s a greater risk of them using it on clothes, bags or shoes”.

But even though practitioners are particular about adhering to what they see as the core values of the form, they have experimented in their work in recent years. For instance, while male gods would earlier only be painted wearing the traditional loincloth, known as the kasota, now, they are also shown wearing shirts and trousers. In some houses I went to, walls had paintings depicting trains and rifles for hunting. “Pithora is a reflection of society, and it changes along with society,” said Sejal.

In her book, Tilche noted that practitioners “also edited out and added new characters in response to the requirements of the market and to the shifting worldview of the local clients”. Further, she noted, they “also added new icons to their paintings and stylistic details derived from their expanded folk repertoire”.

Even as practitioners strive to keep the form alive, some noted that official apathy presented a significant risk to the form. Nagin Rathwa, the public relations officer of the Adivasi Academy, mentioned that Chhota Udepur, like other Adivasi areas in the country, had a long history of misrepresentation and erosion of Adivasi culture. He showed me a government catalogue with a photo of Pithora, in which the form was termed “Rathwa” painting. “This is what happens when Adivasis don’t speak up,” Nagin said. “This document will become the standard proof and in the future people will say this is just a Rathwa painting. They won’t remember it as Pithora. This is how Adivasi culture will come to an end.”

Correction: This story previously referred to the village in which the Adivasi Academy is located as Tejpur. This has been corrected to Tejgadh.

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.