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Sohrai Paintings of Jharkhand

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Sohrai Painting on a mud house in Bhelwara village of Hazaribagh


Sohrai Painting is a folk/tribal painting tradition that is mostly practised in the villages of Jharkhand’s Hazaribagh area. Traditionally, women of the household paint on the mud walls of their homes during the holiday of Sohrai, which falls just a day after the Hindu celebration of Diwali.

The paintings depict a matriarchal tradition in which the art form is passed down as a legacy to daughters by their mothers; likewise, one of the key topics of these paintings is the mother-child bond.

The colours used in this picture (red, black, yellow, and white) are natural earth colours foraged from the wild or purchased from local merchants. Chewing twigs are used as paint brushes, while cloth rags are used to apply the base coat.

Relationship between ISCO rock arts and Sohrai Paintings

Shri Bulu Imam discovered a rock art site in ISCO village of Barkagaon block of Hazaribagh district in 1991 and brought it to light. The rock arts, according to ASI, date from 3000-7000 BC and are from the Paleolithic age. A large number of stone tools have been discovered in close proximity to the rock art site.

Following the discovery of Isco rock arts, a strange resemblance was discovered between the motifs of rock arts and the paintings painted on the walls of local people’s dwellings. They created the paintings on two occasions: one after the rainy season and before the harvest season, and the other during weddings.

Sohrai Painting motifs compared to Isko rock arts motifs
Sohrai Painting motifs compared to Isko rock arts motifs

Paintings created following the rainy season, specifically around the Hindu festival of Diwali, were known as Sohrai, while those created around nuptials were known as Kohbar.

This suggests that the rock arts of ISCO inspired the paintings of Sohrai and Kohbar, or that the rock arts of ISCO were passed down as a cultural inheritance from ISCO’s occupants to the locals, and then spread throughout Hazaribagh.

Decoding the word, 'Sohrai'

Sohrai Painting in Oreya village of Hazaribagh

Returning to the present, Sohrai is derived from the Mundari term Soroi, which means “to lash with a stick.” Who do the villagers use a stick to whip? – Yes, domestic animals or live stocks!

The economy of the community relies heavily on domestic animals. They assist in agriculture as well as supplying milk and meat. Previously, a villager’s wealth was determined by the number of live animals he had.

Cattle are the most essential domestic animals since they supply milk and are used in agriculture for ploughing fields, as well as their dung being used as manure and plastering dwellings. This is why cows are held in such high regard among Hindu families that their manure is used in religious rites.

Creation of Sohrai Paintings

Sohrai Painting on being made on Canvas cloth

After the rainy season is done and paddy harvest season is about to begin, the celebration of Sohrai is held to thank the livestock. The celebration is observed not just in Jharkhand, but also in neighbouring states, primarily by tribal people.

Sohrai Day occurs just one day after the Hindu celebration of Diwali. It’s also worth noting that on the same day, Hindus celebrate the festival of Govardhan Puja, which honours cattle as well.

The importance of this celebration is such that the mud dwellings are only rebuilt and painted with what is now known as Sohrai Painting for this festival. For some tribes, they are merely used for decoration, but for others, they are a way to honour the Gods of Animals.

Celebration of Sohrai festival

Sohrai preparations begin a month in advance with the repair of mud dwellings. Roof tiles are usually replaced or repositioned, and walls are replastered. Then the Sohrai paintings began to be hung on the walls. Traditionally, the paintings are created by the ladies of the household.

The most spectacular Sohrai festival celebrations are most likely observed in Bhelwara village in Jharkhand’s Hazaribagh district. Sohrai Paintings with motifs akin to ISCO rock artworks and consequently Indus Valley civilization adorn the mud homes. On the back of his bull, or Sohrai Ghoda as it is known in the local language, the God of Cattles or Pashu Pati, who is said to be a version of Hindu God Shiva, is depicted.

Pashupati motif in Sohrai Painting at Bhelwara village of Hazaribagh

The cattle are taken to fields early in the morning and cleaned in a village pond. They are adorned with garlands, vermilion on their heads, and ceremonial circles all over their bodies as they return. They are shown Aarti and are led into the house, where they step on a succession of hand-drawn circles composed of rice flour and water.

The Khuta Bandhan rite takes place the next day. Cattle is tied to a pole, and his strength is tested by evading them with a dry leather sheet in a humorous manner. It is considered that the more forcefully the cattle react, the more potent it is. This ceremony can take the shape of a competition in some locations. The festival lasts approximately 2-3 days.

Cattle worship during Sohrai Festival

The Process

Sohrai paintings’ colour palette is as intriguing as their history. Natural earth ochres are used in the paintings, which are readily available in the area. Chewing twigs from the Sal tree are used as paint brushes. Cotton rag is used to create the background. Red ochre or Gerua mitti, Yellow ochre or Pila mitti, manganese or powdered coal or Kali Mitti, and White Clay or Dudhi/Charak mitti are the four colours that can be employed.

Earth colours for Sohrai Painting
Earth colours for Sohrai Painting
Earth colours for Sohrai Painting

Ochres, both red and yellow, can be acquired locally or foraged in the hills and Hill Rivers. Digging in proper locations yields yellow ochre, while Hill Rivers yield red ochre in the form of haematite. Around coal mines, black earth is found as manganese, or if that isn’t available, coal is powdered for the purpose. White clay is to be extracted from limestone mines, and the procedure is fraught with danger.

Forms in Sohrai painting

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of Sohrai paintings is that they differ from village to village and community to community. Isco village Sohrai paintings differ from Bhelwara village Sohrai paintings, while Saheda village Sohrai paintings differ from the other two. This is also true in other communities around the state.

Different geographical locations of villages and intermingling of painting traditions between villages are the reasons for this. Artists usually paint what they see around them, so we see more flowers and birds motifs on plains. More wild creatures are likely to be found in steep terrain.

Because these paintings are passed down from mothers to daughters, when a girl marries in another village, she brings her art form with her, and we occasionally witness a variety of paintings even within a single community.

Pashupati motif in Sohrai Painting at Bhelwara village of Hazaribagh
Sohrai Painting in Oreya village of Hazaribagh
Sohrai Painting in Saheda village of Hazaribagh

The depiction of nature, matriarchy, Indus Valley symbols, and abstracts with no specific significance are the most common topics in Sohrai paintings. Bhelwara village is known for its Indus Valley motifs, Saheda village is known for its animal paintings, and Isco village is known for its lotuses and plant figures, among other things.

Matriarchy is a key part in Sohrai painting tradition. These paintings, as previously indicated, are passed down from moms to daughters, and they also depict matriarchy. Pregnant animals and birds are frequently shown in paintings. Chicks and hens are frequently painted together, while peachicks are frequently drawn with peahens. Sohrai’s paintings are full of matriarchal symbols.

Village women take tremendous satisfaction in their art, which is both a regular element of their home repair and decoration and an inspirational employment and sacred ceremonial tradition that city women lack.

Current scenario of Sohrai art and artisans

Even though these artworks are so important, few people are aware of their existence. These paintings gained international acclaim as a result of Shri Bulu Imam’s international exhibitions, yet they remained unknown in their own country.

Mr. Munna Singh, a CRPF personnel stationed in Hazaribagh, began the paint my city initiative, which helped them gain local popularity. Later, the district government adopted this approach, and these art forms began to be painted on city walls.

Sohrai women artisans painting on boundary walls

When Our Hon’ble Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi visited Hazaribagh to inaugurate the newly built railway station, they gained much-needed national attention. He noticed these murals on the city walls and in the train station. In his weekly radio show, Mann Ki Baat, he discussed these paintings. Since then, these works have gained national notice, with a few practising artists being invited to participate in several art camps.

With this, the paint my city campaign expanded to other cities across the state, and every district was so eager to get Sohrai on their walls that its individuality was lost. Non-traditional Sohrai artists twisted the patterns and colour combinations in most of the areas, according to their understanding, space, time, and most crucially, the money they had.

Sohrai Painting in Hazaribagh railway station
Sohrai Painting in Hazaribagh railway station
Sohrai Painting in Hazaribagh railway station

Such artworks can still be found around the state today. You must visit the villages of Hazaribagh if you want to see the authentic Sohrai paintings in their entirety. To see the Sohrai festival, the best time to attend is after Diwali or the day following Diwali. You must act quickly because what was formerly painted by nearly every community in Hazaribagh is now limited to only a handful.

There are two major obstacles in the way of this art form’s survival in its natural habitat. The first is “development,” in which mud huts are replaced by modern concrete houses, and the second is village displacement due to coal mining. Unfortunately, neither will ever come to an end.

There is a pressing desire to comprehend their meaning and appreciate their beauty, which is found in basic motifs rather than sophisticated narrative. Many artists have ceased to practise, and many more are on their way to doing so. Mothers are abandoning the custom of teaching these paintings to their daughters because they find no value in them.

The only way to ensure the survival of this beautiful and vital cultural tradition is to stimulate demand. Individuals, corporations, institutions, and the government all need to lend a hand.

Sohrai Painting artisan Parvati Devi in Bhelwara village of Hazaribagh

Individuals carry the greatest amount of power. We have seen people’s lives change because of the power of individuals in these days of the internet and social media. Paintings by Sohrai, too, should be given the attention they deserve. These paintings, which are being pushed out of their natural habitats, require new homes to survive, and those homes are ours.

These paintings recently received Geographical Indication, which gives them hope, but hope alone does not sustain traditions; actions do and we must act immediately!

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