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Posted at: May 14, 2017, 2:23 AM; last updated: May 14, 2017, 2:23 AM (IST)

Wall art, the traditional way

The journey of Pithora art and artists has been a long one — from village huts to the wall of Vadodara’s Town Hall

Kavita Kanan Chandra

The vibrant figurative painting in bold colours attract your attention. It is the Pithora art of the Rathwa tribe, traditionally confined to the inner walls of tribals’ huts. The folk art has now stepped out of its seclusion to find prominence on the city’s urbanscape. The exterior walls of the Sayajirao Nagar Gruh (Town Hall) in Vadodara’s Akota locality have been artistically adorned with Pithora.

For the five indigenous Pithora painters, it is the first time that they have painted outside their houses, that too on a concrete building in a city. For them, Baba Pithora is the God of all things and the art is reverential. Pithora is meant to be a ritualistic painting done inside the houses of Rathwas. It is not easy for a traveller to spot Pithora painting while crossing the tribal belt of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. You have to invite yourself inside their houses to catch a glimpse of this indigenous folk art.

But things have changed gradually. Art curator Sachin Kaluskar of Vadodara and the five Pithora painters from the Malaja village of Chhota Udepur strive to make the ancient tribal art form relevant to the urban milieu. Malaja is hardly two hours and 100 km from Vadodara. Yet, few people get the opportunity to see Pithora art.

“I want to promote our tribal art, which is on its way of extinction. The beautiful art is dying due to its own limitations. Since it is only done on the walls of village homes, it remains unnoticed,” says Sachin. He further adds that tribal artists treat it as a ritual. Also, the number of artists who are dedicating their time to promote this art form is dwindling.  

The Rathwas live predominantly in the Chhota Udepur district of Eastern Gujarat and Alirajpur district in Madhya Pradesh. Not all Rathwas paint Pithora, but those who do are known as Lakhadas. They are finding it hard to make Pithora economically viable and forced to do hard labour to feed their families. Their children, nonetheless, imbibe this art from them. 

“Every tribal child already knows how to paint and I just help them understand colour, shape and tradition,” says artist Mansinhbhai Dhanrajbhai Rathwa, recipient of President’s award.

Father of two of the artists, he visualised the entire composition of the Pithora to be painted on the Town Hall wall. The other artists are Desingbhai Chiliyabhai Rathwa, Najrubhai Cheklabhai Rathwa, Haribhai Mansingh Bhai Rathwa and Fajlabhai Mansinghbhai Rathwa. Though three of the artists are illiterate and Fajlabhai is hearing impaired, when it comes to Pithora art, they are as accomplished as others. The artists are spirited and passionate. They don’t mind hopping on lifts and scaffoldings, but it is also something they have never done before. 

To make an ancient art relevant to city dwellers and popularise it for their benefit, it is necessary that Pithora ventures out from the village to cities. It was Vinod Rao, Commissioner, Vadodara Municipal Corporation (VMC), who suggested that painting on Town hall would draw attention of people. The VMC also supported the artists with all logistics.

Explaining the characteristics of Pithora art, artist Haribhai says that it is an auspicious tradition of the Rathwa community. If a person falls sick, he makes a wish from Baba Pithora. If he recovers, a Pithora painting is made on the wall of the village hut in consultation with village badhwa or priest. The painting has to be drawn and painted in a typical way and no member of the family is allowed to make it except the Lakhadas.

“Only unmarried girls are allowed to do the lipai (plaster) on the walls with cowdung, mud and water and this is to be repeated seven times. Bamboo brush is used to draw freehand and the paints are procured from Kolkata. The local kesura leaves are given the shape of bowls to hold paints,” says Haribhai.

 Birds, animals and trees are painted in vivid colours of red, blue, saffron and yellow. The scenes from daily lives of a tribal community are depicted through paintings of activities like hunting and farming. The trio of sun, moon and horses are considered sacred and is found in all Pithora paintings.  Also the Narmada river and two tigers, representing the mouths of the river, are a part of all paintings. 

The seven horses represent the seven hills that surround the Rathwas homeland. The painting is mostly enclosed within a rectangular boundary that marks geographical space of the Rathwas. 

Haribhai says that Pithora art has always been created by men and traditionally mahua ka daru (liquor) was mixed in yellow paint, which isn’t the case now. They instead mix cow milk in the paint. In villages, the painting of Pithora involves a certain set ritualistic pattern that sees the priest singing to the rhythm of drumbeats and goes into a trance. The painting takes three days to complete and its completion is commemorated by animal sacrifice and feasting, accompanied with dancing and singisng.   

In Vadodara, the Pithora artists incorporated many changes but the essence remained unaffected. It took them five days to paint. They shared the wall space with two contemporary mural painters from America, Robert Markey and Benjamin Swatez. 

The paintings are curated by Sachin and documented by Nidhi Tere. They call this GLO-CAL art wall, a blend of global and local art. The east and west blend seamlessly.  Colourful figures of men and animal are splashed across the wall. Mansingh said that their paintings narrate a story and the colours used are specific to each god, animal and plant.

Just as in any traditional Pithora, the painting is divided into three decks with the characteristic seven ornate horses. 

There are scenes from Rathwa community daily life and the flora and fauna associated with their lives. Even the American artists acknowledged their indigenous art and painted the talented Mansingh Dhanraj Rathwa riding a bull. The bull represents the city of Vadodara and its prosperity. The painted lion not only symbolises the courage and pride of the state of Gujarat, but those of the Pithora artists who remain true to their art even when struggling for a decent living. 

In a much playful collaboration, the painting of a giant crocodile is made interesting as Pithora artists painted a boy tickling its chin. While crocodiles infest the Vishwamitri river of Vadodara, the numerous banyan trees provide shade to the city and have been adequately painted by artists on walls. 


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