It is with good reason that our elders say ‘Art is an expression of the soul’. Any good artist will willingly tell you how important art is for humanity. A story that began with a cave painting in Spain and went on to the birth of some of the greatest artists of mankind, art is a universal language conveyed by the swift stroke of a brush.
In India, too, art is highly regarded. There is no denying the fact that art has been an integral part of Indian culture since the dawn of the age. Indian rulers and the aristocrats have ever so often acted as a patron for local painters and artists. This heavily encouraged the upbringing and endorsing of art in Indian society, which luckily has continued over time. Indian painters like Raja Ravi Varma, Amrita Sher-gill, and many others have actively produced thousands of masterpieces that India is proud of. However, apart from the big-shot painters, we must also provide the appreciation that Indian regional paintings are due for. We’ve all heard of some renowned local painting art India is famous for – Madhubani painting, Warli painting, Tanjore painting, and others- but one of the lesser-known folk art forms of India which deserves to be equally known is Sohrai painting.
Sohrai paintings are beautiful tribal paintings that are usually based on natural elements of the universe, this includes forests, rivers, animals amongst others. These ancient paintings are made by tribal (Adivasi) women with the use of natural substances like charcoal, clay, or soil. It is also interesting to note that the word ‘Sohrai’ comes from soro – translating to ‘to drive with a stick’. The very primitive form of the Sohrai art was in the form of cave paintings. Although, with the advancement in human civilization and technology, it was expertly implemented in houses and mud walls (Yes, mud! In ancient Jharkhand women used to make art on mud walls with the intent to celebrate a good harvest season).
Talking about the origins of this art form, there happens to be a very interesting story behind Sohrai paintings. Taking reference from the Santhal tradition, in the ancient times, Jaher ayo (goddess of the forest), Marang Buru (god of mountains), and the Santhal’s elder sister would often descend upon the Earth to meet their brothers. During this time precisely, the famous harvest festival was celebrated by decorating the walls of the house with Sohrai art. Superstitions dictate that the Sohrai paintings bring good luck upon the household and thus, this art began to be well known all over India.
The making of the Sohrai painting is a unique and distinctive process, although somewhat time-consuming. As mentioned before, instead of using artificial colors, artists make use of natural resources. For instance, sometimes clay is thoroughly mixed with various forms of mud such as Kali Matti, Lal Matti, and Pila matti. This intermixing gives rise to a multitude of colors such as brown, red and yellow which are prominently seen throughout the painting. After making the colors, painters usually use a cloth to dip them in the colors and dab them on the walls to make attractive pictures. The go-to figures that painters usually create on the walls include a wide variety of natural components such as trees, animals like bulls and horses, deities, lotuses, and more. Usually, artists make sure that the animals are the centerpiece of the painting (hence are drawn to be gigantic and prominent), then the rest of the space of the wall is filled in by painting subsidiary figures such as flowers and trees.
Artists extensively make use of their memory to draw these figures instead of using a live reference. This is why the artist’s own experience with Mother Nature and his feelings towards it is paramount.
The Sohrai art, while is visually pleasing, also carries several meanings to it. Firstly, this art form is passed down from the mother to the daughter as is tradition. This tells us about the importance given to the maintenance of harmony in a mother-daughter relationship. Secondly, the walls are covered with Black soil; this represents the womb of a woman and her ability to reproduce. Following that, the white earth (known as Dudhi) which covers the black soil is symbolic of the god of light and sperm. After the white and black soil is applied, a red line is drawn on the wall immediately. This red line portrays procreation, fertility, and the early ancestors of the family as well. The red line is followed by the marking of a black line which is representative of Lord Shiva and the Shiv Ling (which is famously worshipped as a symbol of Lord Shiva all over India). Next, artists approach the end of the painting by drawing outer lines encompassing the entire painting. This signifies the cultural values that the people carry – protection, chastity, and fidelity. At last, the last element of the painting, which is the white paint, is created by grounding old rice with milk until it is liquid. This white liquid portrays food.
The Sohrai paintings are truly a wonderful art piece that elevates the cultural heritage of India. With simple but alluring geometrical patterns and the use of thick bright paint to bring the painting to life, the Sohrai painting never fails to mesmerize its critics. Even after stressing the beauty of this indigenous art form, it saddens me to think how under-appreciated it is. Day by day, the Sohrai art is disappearing actively and the day won’t be far when it will be completely wiped out from the surface of Earth. However, recognizing this, the Government of India along with the people have avidly stopped this from turning into reality. One can see the Sohrai paintings drawn on the walls of railway stations and other government buildings frequently. Moreover, young artists and painters have been rapidly trying to revive this art form by incorporating it in their pieces. These along with other steps taken to make sure that the majesty Sohrai art doesn’t die will surely pay off. In the meantime, why don’t you try to make a Sohrai painting? With artificial colors, of course!