Photographs by Subrata Biswas
Photographs by Subrata Biswas

Photo Essay: The writing on the wall

A Kolkata-based photographer is documenting the tribal wall art of two districts of Jharkhand and West Bengal

Five years ago, Kolkata-based photographer Subrata Biswas travelled on assignment to the forested villages in the Chota Nagpur plateau region of Jharkhand and West Bengal. It turned out to be a transformational moment for the photojournalist and painter.

When Biswas, now 35, saw the tribal paintings in the districts of Hazaribagh (Jharkhand) and Purulia (West Bengal), he was fascinated. “I was in awe of the bold lines and forms of the paintings. There was rawness in the entire art," he recalls.

For four years now, he has been going back regularly to document these paintings and the life of the Prajapati, Oraon and Kurmi tribes of Hazaribagh and the Santhals of Purulia. Women, mainly housewives aged 30 and above, paint the walls of their homes using mud and natural pigments like rice and flour. Sometimes, they use cloth swabs or chewed twigs from the local sal tree as brushes.

“Generally, it is the older women and the housewives who decorate the walls with these paintings. They take around three-four days to paint the entire wall," says Biswas.

Most of the works centre around the ideas of fertility, agriculture and marriage, though the styles and forms may differ. Those painted at the time of harvest are referred to as sohrai in Hazaribagh and bandna in Purulia. “The paintings in Hazaribagh have more animal forms, those in Purulia have more flowers and plants," says Biswas. The reason is simple: People living in Hazaribagh’s remote villages are primarily hunters, while those in Purulia are farmers.

Weddings are a major theme in Hazaribagh’s khovar paintings, which consist largely of flower and palm-leaf motifs. Unlike the sohrai and bandna paintings, which are done on the outer walls of homes, these are done inside, especially in the bride’s room. “These murals are considered to bring good luck," says Biswas. “The palm refers to the male form, whereas the flower stands for feminine beauty and fertility," he adds.

Biswas has taken more than 1,000 black and white images as part of his project, When Art Meets Life. These document women painting walls, children playing hide and seek, animals strolling over the paintings on hut floors and a woman combing her hair against a wall covered with paintings of flowers and leaves.

Why black and white images? The photographer says the lines and forms make for a sharp contrast, and help highlight the fact that these paintings are a part of everyday life.

But Biswas says much has changed in the region in the last four years. When he first began visiting, he would find at least 15-20 huts decorated with wall paintings in each village. The numbers have reduced drastically. The younger generation, he says, is moving away from this tradition; mobile phones and the Internet are changing the face of the region. Now there are two-three huts in every cluster of five villages with these paintings, he says. “The younger generation is disinterested in taking the art forward and now there are only a few women left who know this art."

He is planning another visit later this year. “I am hoping for the best but am prepared for the worst. The hope is that I will find at least five tribal paintings in every (cluster of) 10 villages of the upper (Hazaribagh) and lower (Purulia) parts," he adds.

Animals are a dominant motif in sohrai paintings
Animals are a dominant motif in sohrai paintings
A sohrai painting by Hazaribagh’s Oraon tribe. The forms reflect day-to-day life.
A sohrai painting by Hazaribagh’s Oraon tribe. The forms reflect day-to-day life.
A bandna painting in Purulia
A bandna painting in Purulia
An Oraon woman painting a wall. Animal figures and birds dominate the theme.
An Oraon woman painting a wall. Animal figures and birds dominate the theme.
The interior of a tribal hut painted in the khovar style, practised mainly during weddings
The interior of a tribal hut painted in the khovar style, practised mainly during weddings
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