The practice of storytelling in India is historically rich and rooted in various communities across the nation but it is perhaps at its most prolific in folk traditions. One such tradition is cheriyal or cherial from Telangana, which tells tales from religious texts and of rural life on painted scrolls. These scrolls are then used by bards as they travel through towns and villages to narrate these painted stories, accompanied by song and dance. The tradition remains alive in small pockets of Telangana.

Different communities have their own band of storytellers – in the Goud community of toddy tappers, they’re called Gouda Shetty; those of the Chakali, or washermen, are called Chakalipatamvaru or Pattamollu; Kakipadagallolu for Muttarasi, the fruit pickers; Koonapuli-varu for Padmasalis, the community of weavers; and so on. The stories of each community are rooted in local legends or focus on its pantheon of gods and goddesses. The Mahabharata is also a popular source of stories.

Cheriyal art is characterised by bright colours, which are sourced from natural materials such as indigo, sea shells, tamarind seeds and coloured stones. The medium is a khadi canvas for which khadi fabric is processed with sawdust, tamarind-seed paste, rice starch, white mud and tirumani, or tree gum. The canvas is allowed to dry and the priming process is repeated once, after which it is ready to use once dry.

“We are just painters or nakashis, but we work with these storytellers who guide us while painting a scroll,” said D Sai Kiran Varma, who conducted workshops on cheriyal art in Goa in February, in collaboration with Heart for Art, a Pune-based art NGO.

To start work on a canvas, the storyteller sits with the cheriyal artist to help translate stories into vivid paintings on scrolls that are 3 feet wide and up to 30 to 60 feet long. The size of each scroll depends on whether the artist is painting a part of a story or the tale in its entirety. “We used to have scrolls on which the full Mahabharata is painted,” said Varma.

He is from the small village of Cheriyal in Telangana and is one of the few artists in the country who specialises in cheriyal art, which he learnt from his parents – state award winners, D Nageshwar and D Padma.

Varma says that due to advent of TV and cinema, this 400-year-old tradition of storytelling is fading with time – “But still you will find some communities doing this practice and they may mainly tell stories from Mahabharata.” He studied Fine Art at Sri Venkateswara College of Fine Arts, Hyderabad, specialising in painting with the aim of preserving cheriyal art and is working now with Kakipadagallolu storytellers, who narrate tales from the Mahabharata to the community of fruit pickers.

D Sai Kiran Varma. Photo credit: Arti Das.

In need of help

“Pata [scroll] painting as a folk tradition is perhaps one of the earliest painted art forms, which were prevalent in India before the arrival of the Aryans,” writes Charu Smita Gupta in her book, Indian Folk and Tribal Paintings. This storytelling tradition is found in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, West Bengal and Maharashtra.

Samples from each state may look similar but local flavours and influences make each one unique. “When you see a Pattachitra or Kalamkari or any other folk painting it may look similar to this [cheriyal] art,” said Varma. “Also we need to understand that earlier there were no delineated states [as there are now], so there were similarities.” He said that his forefathers migrated from Rajasthan, bringing this art with them to Telangana.

In 1976, the state government recognised cheriyal art as a handicraft and in 2008, it was accorded GI (Geographical Indication) status. Currently there’s a government scheme which allows students to study cheriyal over six months or a year. “It is known as Guru-Shishya parampara, where a student gets stipend every month,” said Varma. “But there are no takers for it and also there are not many artists in Cheriyal village.”

Anais Da Fonseca, who studied cheriyal art for her doctorate in 2016 from SOAS University of London, said, “Preserving the painting form of cheriyal means preserving the only tangible means to understand the cultural heritage of these communities and of the region which makes it very important.”

Keeping it relevant

She believes that even though this art is restricted to a few places, it does have relevance in today’s times. “Cheriyal art belongs to Indian folklore and used to narrate the local caste Puranas of middle and lower castes in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Because of the function of these paintings, we learnt a lot about these communities that commission, produced and performed with the painting then. Today Cheriyal art is exhibited in museums, it is sold in state government emporium and also taught through many workshop organised by various institutions and NGOs. All this tells us a lot about [current] interest in the art form and about the world we live in.”

Fonseca added, “The subject of the painting has changed a lot in the last 30 years, for many reasons, but one is following the homogenisation of Indian culture as a Hindu culture with Ram and Krishna as the main deities, which is seen on the painting more and more and which did not exist in the past. The format of the painting has changed too because instead of being scrolls unfolded in the village for a night performance, it is now displayed on the walls of museums and homes. So cheriyal art has always responded to the environment and still does, which makes [these artists] particularly relevant in today’s time to understand the socio-political circumstances in which we live.”

For his part, Varma constantly aims to make cheriyal art more contemporary and relevant by using its motifs to make utility items such as mobile covers, key chains, tissue boxes, paper weights and the popular masks which are made from coconut shells. “All these items are made from the same materials, with the same techniques,” he said. “I am not making it fully contemporary as then this art will get lost.”

Key chains made from tamarind seed paste with cheriyal art. Photo credit: Arti Das