A fascinating visual language conveying the Adivasi traditional culture of 'Fertility and Prosperity', the Sohrai and Khovar arts of Jharkhand have gained recognition in the past years, at both national and international platforms, improving the status, position and conditions of Adivasi women, the exclusive artists of these art forms. Author Pratiksha Sarika Bara explores the various aspects of these folk arts in the following article.
The Hazaribagh district in northern Jharkhand is home to lesser-known art and culture which is reflected on the walls of every house in the region. The painted houses of Hazaribagh are the hidden jewels of India showcasing beautiful ‘Sohrai’ and ‘Khovar’ mural art done exclusively by Adivasi women tracing their origins to the rock art from the Palaeolithic age. The rock art site was discovered by an environmental activist, Bulu Imam in the ISCO village of Hazaribagh in the year 1991. He unearthed ancient stone tools which revealed anomalous alikeness between the rock art and the paintings depicted on the walls of local people’s abode.
The art forms got accepted as the geographical identifications of the state of Jharkhand. The organization of Hazaribagh known as the Sohrai Kala Mahila Vikas Sahyog Samiti received the Geographical Indication (IG) tag certificate issued by the GI Registrar, Chennai not long ago. This is the first GI certificate of Jharkhand. Issuing this certificate enhanced the status of Adivasi women as it paved the path for them to showcase their soulful talent on both national and international platforms and also to earn a living.
Significance: Apart from the elegance and artistry associated with Sohrai-Khovar, the ritualistic values also hold a significant outlook. Subsequently, it is regarded as an expression of soulful divinity. As a celebration for the winter harvest festival which falls a day before Diwali, the walls are decorated with Sohrai art as an embellishment. Khovar on the other hand symbolizes wedding caves or chambers, as ‘Kho’ refers to caves and ‘Var’ refers to the bridegroom.
The Essence of the Art: The speciality of this art form is that it is mainly illustrated by the village women. It is a practice passed from mother to daughter, as an artistic expression of their culture and heritage. In the Adivasi society, the socio-cultural influence and position of women have been the result of lower levels of patriarchy and matrilinear living. Adivasi women create alluring images of mother nature justifying the commonly used phrase for Hazaribagh as the ‘Land of thousand Gardens.’
Inspiration: Traditionally, the mud walls are used as a canvas and the women bring alive the flora and fauna through their art forms. The Adivasi women design magnificent masterpieces using the awe-inspiring originality of the colourful natural elements surrounding them. They reflect the glorious mother nature depicting birds, animals and plants along with some geometrical patterns to enhance the final outcome.
Design Tools: Sohrai murals are painted using cloth swabs, chewed twigs of the local saal tree (datun) or broomsticks. Contrary to Sohrai, Khovar art is designed by women using four fingers of their hand or a plastic or bamboo comb.
Colour Palette: The art is created on the surface painted either with a black base or a natural mud-coloured base. Sohrai-Khovar arts use a natural ochre colour palette comprising red (lal mitti or red oxide from local mines), black (kaali mitti or manganese-rich clay), yellow/orange (peeli mitti or yellow ochre soil), off white/cream (dhudhi mitti) and white (charak mitti) colours.
Motifs: Pashupati (lord of animals), Kamla Baan (forest of lotuses), Tree of Life and many other species of animals and birds are depicted through Sohrai art. Women scrape out designs such as flowers, birds and majestic beasts including tigers, cows, deer, elephants and oxen while creating a Khovar canvas.
Process of Making: The process begins with the application of black shade imparted by manganese-rich clay onto a clean canvas surface (usually a mud wall). Once the base clay dries, another layer of white or cream-coloured clay is applied, while this layer is still wet the women use different design tools to scrape the layer and create the mural art. According to the art and its significance, other prominent colours such as red, orange and yellow are used thereafter to complete the masterpiece.
Art Symbolism: In Sohrai art, while drawing the line art, red colour is used first, representing the blood of the ancestors or fertility. Above the red line, black colour is applied in strokes symbolizing Shiva, the protector and destroyer to indicate their values of fidelity, chastity and protection. Thereafter the design is highlighted with a white line representing food. In Khovar, black clay represents the womb and the white/cream-coloured second stroke represents the light. For a nuptial chamber, a pregnant peacock motif is considered auspicious as it represents fertility.
Sohrai-Khovar artists usually capture what they see around them merged with their own imaginations. Hence, the art differs from village to village and from community to community, which is one of its distinguishing characteristics. Traditionally, the painting was done to adorn only the mud walls of the dwelling but, with time it travelled across borders widening the scope of its creativity.
The art got recognized on international platforms like Brunei Gallery London, United Kingdom. The culture-painted houses of the Adivasi villages in Hazaribagh were showcased by the photographer Deidi Von Schaewen in the art exhibition 2015 at the Brunei Gallery. Furthermore, the paintings of around 40 women from Hazaribagh village were exhibited at Madison de LA Culture du Monde in Virte, France in 2019. Apart from this TWAC (Tribal Women Artists Cooperative) established in 1993 aims to boost and empower all Adivasi women artists to continue painting and keep the art alive. The cooperative also helps to exhibit paintings by Adivasi women across the world as incentives.
Eventually, the enchanting and fascinating colours and designs of Sohrai-Khovar arts inspired the clothing industry as well. A brand ‘Khadiwala Designer’ explored the beauty of the art forms and introduced it in their ‘Sohrai Mitti Ghar Collection’. Similarly, an artist named Dr Anju Sahu infused the idea of Sohrai-Khovar paintings with fabric and created an awestruck collection of hand-painted Sohrai t-shirts available on the digital retail site ‘aayo harka’. Other local fashion brands based in Ranchi, the capital city of Jharkhand also unveil the hidden arts of Hazaribagh such as ‘Tribe Tree’ and ‘Gulachin’ in their works ‘Marwa Collection’ and ‘Scarf Collection with Sohrai Motif’ respectively.
It is encouraging to witness the uniqueness of Jharkhand’s Sohrai-Khovar arts being gradually identified at different levels of various fields.
About The Author: Pratiksha Sarika Bara holds a gold medal for Masters' Degree in Fashion Designing, from Ranchi University. She also has an educational background in Economics; hence her works are intersectional, cutting across fashion design, gender and economics.