ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY visit a rural tourism venture near Jamshedpur to interact with a community of Chitrakars (artists) practising the rare centuries-old art of Pyatkar painting
In the artist village of Amadubi in the East Singhbhum district of Jharkhand, painter Vijay Chitrakar sat in a little hut under the shadow of a palash (Flame of the Forest) tree. His eyes were closed in a meditative trance and as he cleared his throat to sing an ode to Durga, he slowly unfurled a scroll of the goddess painted by him. The performance was short but intense and when he finished, he opened his eyes as if waking from a reverie. We had just witnessed a mesmerizing live rendition of the rare pyatkar scroll painting.
Once upon a time, Manbhum district at the tri-junction of undivided Bihar, Bengal and Odisha was home to a community of nomadic artist/performers called Chitrakars (literally, ‘picture makers’). It’s theorized that their art was called Pyatkar as they painted on paat or scrolls of cloth/tree bark, or perhaps from paad or verse, which accompanied their art. Long before the advent of moving pictures, these storytellers have preserved their unique folk form for centuries, fusing art and song.
In the old days, artists concentrated on a mythological story before composing an ode. After imagining a storyline, they painted it with mineral and vegetable hues extracted from nature – specific rocks, soil and leaves collected deep in the forest or by the river. During the performance, the scroll was slowly unfurled as they sang.
Like wandering minstrels, they roamed the countryside and villages, singing songs of devotion, life and death, often interpreting bad dreams. If a person died in a Santhal household, the Pyatkars would carry a painting of a person sans eyes to their home. The Santhals believe that it is only after the Pyatkars painted the iris (for a fee), that the wandering soul of the deceased would regain sight to seek the path to heaven and eternal peace.
Over time, the artists translated these ballads into a series of paintings and sketches, incorporating elements of rural socio-economic life, agrarian practices and festivals. Sometimes a performance could last the whole night with the scroll stretching to a couple of meters. Today, nearly 50 Chitrakar families stay among Santhals at Amadubi. As Vijay Chitrakar humbly spread his artworks on the floor, we couldn’t resist buying a few pieces of this rare art.
We walked back from the village, meeting tribal hunters with bows and arrows along the way. Some were readying bonfires for a barbecue of hare and wild fowl. The rustic comfort of our ethnic huts at Rusiko Sangeko (literally Artisans’ Hamlet), a village tourism initiative at the Amadubi-Panijiya Rural Tourism Centre nearby, was welcoming.
The vernacular cottages were made of mud, bamboo and wood and named after local trees Sal and Piyal (Chironji). The walls and ceilings bore hand-painted motifs, while the doors and windows had sculpted dokra handles; echoing the rich tradition of metalsmithy using the ancient lost wax technique.
At the Gurukul or workshop, ladies learnt block printing and adapted pyatkar motifs into Kantha embroidery. A small museum in the landscaped compound held a small collection of utensils and traditional musical instruments. The Akhara or open stage served as the venue for traditional dances during colourful festivals like the Sarpha, linked to agricultural practices.
After a performance in the yellow glow of lanterns, arranged on request, we dined on rare regional delicacies at the thatched dining hut. An assortment of ud pitha (steamed rice dumpling with lentils), gud pitha (sweet rice dumplings with jaggery) and zil pitha or fried rice dumpling stuffed with chicken was served on kansa (bronze) platters.
While many visit Amabudi as a day trip from Jamshedpur, an overnight stay is ideal for a taste of rural India and how things were before the country’s first ‘Steel City’ came up in the tribal heartland. We woke up to the call of peacocks and set out after breakfast on an excursion to nearby settlements of the Santhal and Oraon tribes.
Men worked in the fields, women winnowed, little boys made decorations with flowers and strips of bamboo while Santhali girls touched up their homes for the spring festival Sarhul. The walls of their immaculate homes displayed geometric designs in bold contrasting colours, often decorated with mirrors, broken bangles and discarded CDs that sparkled in the sun!
The area was rich in history with WWII era airfields at Dhalbhumgarh and Chakulia, the old Trivineshwar and Dasbhuja temples at Rajbari, a small fiefdom of the erstwhile Rajas of Dhalbhumgarh, the much-revered Rankini Mandir of Jadugoda and the scenic hills of Ghatshila, the birthplace of famous Bengali writer Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhaya. At an animist shrine in the forest, men prepared handiya (rice beer), country chicken and other offerings for their ancestors and tribal deities. With unusual straw figurines of animals suspended from the trees, the mood was set for revelry.
We returned to Jamshedpur and bought more Pyatkar art, besides dokra craft, Mithila paintings and masks from Biponi Handicrafts in Bistupur. Helmed by Amitabha Ghosh of Kalamandir, they organize trips to Amadubi besides local festivals like the Adivasi Mela in Janumdih and Mohona Utsav in Jamshedpur that showcase the vibrant masked dance chhau.
At the Russi Modi Centre of Excellence and the Tribal Culture Centre, we got more insights into Jamshedpur’s early history and the lifestyle of local Santhal, Ho, Oraon, Munda and Bhumij tribes. En route to Ranchi airport, we halted for tea by the wayside and the hypnotic primal sounds of tribal drumbeats resonated through the forests.
During World War II, the British constructed many airfields around India’s eastern frontier. With strategic access to Calcutta port, the bases were used to conduct raids against the Japanese army advancing in Burma. Built in the early 1940s, the airstrips of Dhalbhumgarh, Chakulia, Midnapore and Kharagpur are an important legacy of war history. Shells of abandoned air terminals lie half hidden by sal forests while tarmacs that once roared with fighter planes, have been reclaimed by wild scrub and errant cattle. The Japanese control of the South China Sea cut off seaborne supplies and it was from this forgotten nook that pilots flew 500 km over the treacherous ‘Hump’ or the Himalayas for the first overland bombings of Japan.
How to reach
Amadubi is 65 km/1½ hrs from Jamshedpur, the closest major town. Drive down NH-33 or the Ranchi-Kolkata Highway via Ghatshila, from where Amadubi is 12 km. The nearest railway station Dhalbhumgarh is 9 km away while Birsa Munda Airport in Ranchi is 170 km and Kolkata Airport 236 km.
Offbeat travelers and those interested in art, tribal culture, rural tourism and war history.
Best time to visit
The region is at its best through winter and spring with colourful tribal festivals like Dasai (Oct-Nov), Sohrai (Nov-Dec), Tusu Parab (Jan-Feb) and Sarhul/Baha (March).
Amadubi has simple but limited accommodation; for greater comfort, stay in the many city hotels at the commercial precinct of Bistupur in Jamshedpur.
Fortune Park Centre Point
Contractors Area, Bistupur, Jamshedpur
The Boulevard Hotel
D’Costa Mansion, Bistupur, Jamshedpur
Ph 0657- 2425321/2, 9431302486
The Alcor Hotel
Ram Das Bhatta, Bistupur, Jamshedpur
Ramada by Wyndham Jamshedpur
Holding No.3, Ram Das Bhatta, Bistupur, Jamshedpur
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the Sep-Oct 2019 issue of Discover India magazine.