In Jharkhand's Hazaribagh, traditional art forms wither on the vine courtesy widespread neglect, govt apathy

Kelly Kislaya

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Hazaribagh: Nine years have passed since work was completed on the ambitious Bhelwara Tourist Complex, which was built to promote rural tourism and traditional tribal arts in Hazaribagh. Now, this complex lies in ruins and the art forms it was supposed to promote are not doing any better due to poor political and government backing.

Construction of the complex comprising eight deluxe rooms, two luxury cottages, three kiosks, kitchen, dining, common toilets, storerooms and office, along with gates and boundary walls began in 2008 and was completed in 2009. However, electricity supply and sanitation still remain to be provided. The building is being used by the landowner as a cowshed.

The complex was constructed on 1.5 acres of private land donated by Ram Kishor Mahato, a villager. Mahato readily gave his land for the project, hoping it would become a better source of income for the villagers and help promote traditional art forms.

"As there is no government land in this area, I gave my land for the construction hoping that in the future it would provide employment for villagers. We were told the complex would be ready in one or two years, but 10 years have passed. My land is just being wasted," Mahato said.

The tourist complex is only a small indicator of the widespread neglect of traditional tribal art in Jharkhand. "The traditional art of ours, if properly promoted through rural and cultural tourism, could help our village and the villages nearby. It could provide income for artists and also help conserve traditional art forms," Mahato added.

Take the case of Sohrai and Khovar, two traditional tribal art forms which originated in Hazaribagh and are moving towards extinction. In Lukuiya, a Santhal village, nearly every raw mud house is covered with beautiful wall mural paintings by the women of the house using red and black soil. This art form is called Sohrai, which locals also call phool or Baha (which translates to flower).

Sohrai and Khovar are commonly seen on mud houses of various tribes in Hazaribagh such as Munda, Santhal, Agaria, Ganju, Kurmi and Jarwadhi. Musoma Devi, an 80-year-old villager in Lukuiya shares how this art form is done, "We dip a cloth in coloured water prepared with red and black soil and paint the wall."

Tracing the history of the two art forms, archaeologist, environmentalist and Padma Shri awardee Bulu Imam said, "In 1991 we discovered the Isco rock art sight in Hazaribagh, subsequently uncovering over 20 such rock shelters, with Khovar paintings." He explained that Khovar paintings dating back to 10,000 BC were traced to ancient caves meant for bridal couples, with kho meaning cave and var meaning bridal couple.

Sohrai paintings are created as a ritual to say thanks for a good harvest. Soh means to drive away and rai is a stick, denoting the early domestication of animals for agriculture and accumulation of wealth. This art form was on the verge of dying out when Bulu Imam's son Justin Imam started promoting it in a few villages of Hazaribagh through his organisation Virasat Trust. "We started with four villages and 70 artists in 2014 and are presently working in 13 villages with over 350 women artists," Justin said.

Justin and his wife Alka Imam worked closely with the villagers, providing them with colours. As a token of appreciation, the couple distributed saris among the women artists. Anita Besra, a villager in Purnapani said, "Despite this being a traditional art form, we stopped doing it because it was too time-consuming and we had to travel really far to get the mud for the colours needed for the artwork. The red mud had to be dug around three-four feet near the riverside, while the black mud is found even further away. We started painting it again only two years ago when Justin bhaiya (brother) started providing us with colours."

Justin's efforts got international photographers and art curators interested in Hazaribagh's art, which then made its way to exhibitions in France and Japan. Despite the art getting international attention, local political leaders don't seem keen to support artisans or the art form.

Government apathy

Villagers from Purnapani claim that till date the government has not enquired about their well-being or done anything to promote the traditional art forms. Chhutki Devi said, "No one from the government even enquires about our artwork. Some time ago a few people came took photos and left. We never get any help, but were given saris a year ago."

Reshmi Kumari said that while people visit the village to see the paintings, no one talks about promoting it or developing it as a source of income for the villagers.

Bansilal Manjhi of Lukuiya village said that despite the art forms being quite old, none of the political leaders in the state ever talk about promoting it. "None of them come to our village except during elections. Even when they say that they would give us roads and hand pumps, but no one talks about promoting the art. If this art is promoted and the area is developed for rural and cultural tourism the villagers will be able to earn a decent amount of money," Manjhi added.

Justin said the government is aware of the villagers' work and gave his organisation Rs 1 lakh to distribute saris in 2017 and 2018. "We are asked to showcase the art in various exhibitions and programmes to represent the state. The current deputy commissioner is working to get a Geographical Index (GI) tag for the art form in the district," Justin said.

This will be the first GI tagging of the state and will officially confirm that the Sohrai and Kohbar form of paintings originated in Hazaribag.

Apart from the 13 villages that Virasat Trust works with, there are hundreds of other villages in Hazaribagh that practice traditional art forms and are being neglected. "The government needs to have a political will to get things done. Several good initiatives are yet to take off because of the lack of support. Places like Bhelwara Tourist Centre could have been an opportunity for people to visit these villages and appreciate the traditional art form," Justin explained.

The discontent across these tribal villages has a lot to do with the diminishing number of artists and the decline of the art form in the region. "When people get little from this kind of art, they give it up and migrate in search of menial work to earn a living. If such talent is not nurtured, this art form will gradually disappear," Justin said.

Certain steps were taken by the state government to promote these art forms in the district. According to Deputy Commissioner Ravi Shankar Shukla, self-help groups in villages are being trained to take this art form mainstream. "On New Year, we roped women artists to make Sohrai paintings for calendars, which were then distributed across the state. These artists were also paid for participating in this effort," he said.

Sohrai art is also painted on government buildings in the district to educate people. Also, around 10,000 toilets in Jharkhand have been painted with Sohrai art during the Swachcha Sundar Shouchalaya competition organised by the Centre.


Experts speak

The state government's efforts have drawn criticism from renowned artists who claim the original art form is being vandalised in the guise of promoting it. Artist Haren Thakur said, "Traditional art is being used to cover up dirty walls. This is degrading and cheapens the art form. We even heard that tent house contractors are making these paintings on contract."

Another artist from Jharkhand, Tarak Shankar, was vocal about how in the name of preserving the art form the government is only ruining it. "I have seen those who work on trucks and rickshaws painting Sohrai and Khovar designs on walls. Real artists are finding it hard to earn a living from practising traditional art and they are not being given opportunities by the government. The government provides contractors with chemical paints and prints to copy designs from. This work is done for cheap and at a faster pace. They have converted art into fast food," he alleged.

Tarak added, "The traditional art form is done using natural red, black and white colours. Nowadays, contract painters are seen using multiple chemical colours which kills originality. Art should be preserved in its natural form."

Artist Dinesh Singh said that historically, preserving traditional art has not been a poll issue. "Local artists are being neglected and it is high-time our leaders think about them. This is not just about culture, but this art form can also prove to be a great source of livelihood for many," he said.

The author is a Ranchi-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters

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