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The Magic of Babo Pithoro: Traditional Painting in Contemporary Times

Very few people, even within India, are aware that the indigenous or tribal communities that are spread across India are concentrated in the east-west belt and form almost 9% of the Indian population, with about 104 million people according to the 2011 Census of India. While some tribal communities may be quite large, others are on the verge of becoming extinct. These communities are self-contained units with their own language, religion, rituals, dress code, food habits, architecture and socio-economic-cultural systems. Since I am a trustee with a non-profit organization working for tribal rights and languages for the last 20 years, in our work with them, we have often found that tribal communities are not really backward as they are generally believed to be, but actually highly evolved, with great pride in their tribal identity, equal rights for women, complex social structures, marriage and divorce norms that are protective of the women. They have their own art and craft traditions that they have managed to protect because their production is closely linked to the beliefs and rituals practised regularly in the community, and it helps the craftsperson within the community to earn a living.

 

What I am going to write about is the ancient tradition of monumental wall painting practised by the Rathva, Nayak, Dhanak and Bhil tribals of south-eastern Gujarat and western Madhya Pradesh to commemorate their deity, Babo Pithoro. These are very large communities. Several tribal homes in this area would have a Pithoro painted on their walls. It is important to remember that just as different indigenous communities all over the world appear to have an inclusive life-view, the act of creating a painting and installing it in a home is also a part of this inclusiveness. The making of a Pithora is at once a mix of religion and the myths associated with it, and the actual cultural traditions of painting, music, poetry, dance, story-telling, all of it evoking a sense of mystery, the fear of the unknown, the blessings of a supernatural power who must be kept happy so as to ensure comfort on earth as you live your life out. It is also not an individual act of materialistic collection and expenditure of money by the person or family who decides to commission a Pithora painting on the home wall, but of community participation, and the belief that just as the generous Pithoradev rid the troubled family of their woes, some amount of that benevolence may come the way of those eagerly helping out in the Pithora painting ritual.

 

The story of Babo Pithoro, or Pithorodev as he is referred to, is as complex as any in the vast Indian though not necessarily Hindu pantheon. He is born illegitimate, unknown to his father Kanduraja, abandoned by his unmarried mother Kaali Koyal, found and raised by his mother’s sister Rani Kajal. His birth itself is quite magical, actually a story of creation wherein those in the entire natural world are born before the baby Pithoro appears. As a baby, he crawls out of his cradle and hides behind a wall, which becomes his dwelling place. Rani Kajal looks around desperately for the baby but when she can’t find him, she calls in the astrologers. They make a podi with the leaves of the khakhra tree, put some udad dal grains in it, wave it around the house and place it carefully in a corner. They worship it and then open it to read what it has to reveal. They tell her that the baby is godly and has made his home in the wall. Make him comfortable there, they tell her, look after him. In the meanwhile, the baby Pithoro wants his rightful position in the family. All the elements involved in Pithoro’s efforts—the spider, the rooster, the horses, and so on—therefore get place of pride in the painting. Ultimately the baby Pithoro gets his rightful position and share in the family, but during this process the family also realizes several good things happening around the house—there is enough rain, the fields are lush with grain, and buckets full of milk from the cattle—there is general prosperity. So that’s the reason why Pithora painting is done on the wall.

 

The Pithora painters are called Lakhara and they work in teams of eight to ten painters. They belong to the same family: often the father is the senior painter and his sons and/or nephews if any, are apprentices. Women are active participants in the related rituals but they do not participate in the process of painting. While the older men do the actual drawing and filling in of colours, their apprentices help them prepare and mix paints, clean the brushes and other implements, and run errands. This way they also learn the trade. The making of the Pithora is a long process and in a large house, it can go on for three days or even a week. It is also an expensive process requiring the family to spend quite a lot of money to host a Pithora painting in their home. The cost includes the fees of the chief painter and the priest which is paid in cash as well as in kind, as bags of grains, new clothes, a couple of hens, a small goat and so on. Other expenses include ritual-related materials, wining and dining of the neighbourhood, friends and the extended family. So the family has to have a really strong reason to get a Pithora painted in their home.

 

So why are the Pithoras created? To understand this, one needs to first understand the socio-economic condition of tribal communities and, more importantly, their strong spiritual beliefs and faith. By and large, tribal communities in India have always lived in areas where there are forests and mountains. They are extremely conscious of their natural environment and have evolved lifestyle practices that protect and sustain it. By temperament, they do not hoard material wealth and therefore, by urban, non-tribal standards, we would consider them financially poor. In a world that is moving on far too fast for them, one has to acknowledge the tenacity with which these tribal communities resist the temptation to accept the diktat of homogeneity from the mainstream. So when they are faced with really troublesome situations like prolonged illness in the family, even of their cattle, failed crops over successive seasons, lack of a child, business losses, unresolvable family problems and feuds, they turn to the power of their gods for support, and their complete faith in their gods’ ability to deliver is unshakeable. The Pithora has emerged as a tool of appeasement, a ‘thank you’ note to the gods for having heard them and relieved them of their misery. Once the problem is resolved, the family or the person in the family who has made the vow is bound to fulfill it at the earliest. If the vow was for a child and a child is born, then the child cannot be married until the vow is fulfilled. The vow can be for a full Pithoro or a half Pithoro. The Pithoro can also be painted in anticipation of good fortune or to make sure that blessings are always showered on the family, as a kind of an insurance. In this situation a vow is not necessary.

 

The name, Pithora, itself comes from Babo Pithoro or Pithorodev, the god who is thus supplicated and worshipped. The painting is not considered just an instrument of visual delight but a ‘live’ representation of gods and goddesses in the home. In addition to ritual images, the painting is crowded with varied aspects of the Rathva life. The painters, or the Lakhara, are always male and must belong to the families in which this skill has been handed down from one generation to the next. None of them have any formal training in painting, though these days a few have made it to an art school. But they often go back to the traditional, with little or no impact of the training in an art school. No other person can draw or paint the Pithoro. These families stay in particular villages and slight change in styles of different Pithoras that have developed over the decades are attributed to the villages they come from. So, for example, there is the Malaaja style (made well-known by the elderly, highly talented, Pithora painter, Mansinghbhai Rathva, whose paintings adorn homes of art connoisseurs in Delhi and who has travelled to places like London for state-sponsored exhibitions). Other villages are Ode, Sursi, Gabadiya, Ganthiya and so on. The change in styles is also a marketing need—to present a change from the usual, and paint in a style that is attractive to those who are likely to invite the painter to execute a Pithora in their homes.

 

The painters are professionally farmers with small land holdings. Their farms are watered by the monsoon rains, so from June till after Diwali (generally in October or November), they are busy in their farms, harvesting. After this they are free from farm work until the next May-June when the soil is readied for sowing. It is during this time they get the commissions for painting the Pithora. The popular Pithora painters usually get five or six commissions in a year which is an important source of income for them. Once a family decides to get the Pithora established in their home, they have to contact the community priest. The process of the Pithora painting is initiated by this priest, called Badva. Badva have a very strong presence and stature in the Rathva community. They are problem-solvers and are consulted before any major decision taken by the family that is socio-financial in nature, especially related to buying or selling property, arranging marriages and rituals related to birth and death. They are also traditional healers (like witch doctors) and most of them have detailed knowledge of the plants and herbs that grow in that environment which are effective against common ailments, as well as more serious ones such as snake and scorpion bites. Each family has its own designated Badvo who has often been chosen by their immediate ancestors. Like the Lakhara, the Badva also have skills and knowledge passed down from father to son. When a family decides on having the Pithorodev painting done, the Badvo is the first to be contacted. He will recommend the Lakhara, advise on the extent of rituals, depending on the seriousness of the vow, and decide the auspicious day for the actual start of the painting.

 

Rathva homes are built simply—outer walls are made of brick and mortar, the inner ones of bamboo with mud casing walls. The roof is sloping, thatched with wood and bamboo, dried long grass and then covered with baked terracotta tiles. The house is rectangular, divided in half. The main door of the house opens onto one rectangular half, a kind of general living room, while the kitchen and one or two rooms are on the other side of the dividing wall, with two doors opening onto them. The Pithora is painted on the long rectangular wall that overlooks the living room. The two outer walls at right angles to this wall on both sides are also used for the painting. Once the family decides to get a Pithoro painted, the wall is cleaned and whitewashed if it happens to be of brick; if it is of mud and bamboo, a fresh coat of the wet mud and cow dung mixture called lipan is applied. The dung has to be from a young cow that has never calved, and this lipan is done for seven days and allowed to dry. Lipan is supposed to be applied on the wall by the unmarried girls in the family. If the family can afford it, the rest of the house is repaired and readied as well. During this process of repair, whitewashing and lipan applying, the women in the family are joined by neighbours, singing songs in praise of Pithorodev. On the eighth day, which should be a Tuesday, the wall is sanctified and readied for the painting.

 

Meanwhile, the Lakhara team gets its act together, preparing the paint brushes from young bamboo shoots or bawal tree twigs, making cones from dry but tough khakhra leaves, to hold colours that are ground into powder from different dried vegetables and mineral sources. The most frequent colours used in the Pithora are red, green, light blue, saffron, parrot green, cobalt blue, dark orange, white, black and silver. The dry colour powder is mixed in cow's or goat's milk and then with distilled strain of mahudo, the local brew made from the fruit of the mahuda tree, especially for this occasion. According to the Lakhara the liquor acts like a binder and makes certain that colours remain bright and new and last for many years. These days the Lakhara have taken to mixing commercially available silver tinsel in the colours that imparts a sparkle to the painting.

 

The Pithoro covers at least one-third of the total inner wall space in the house. This is generally 11 feet long and 9 feet high. At the centre of the wall a large rectangle is drawn called chowk, it is the border. The Rathva believe that the four corners of this rectangle are the four corners of the world. This wall has a gate that is protected by two big cats (I am never sure whether they are leopards or lions), holding a goat/deer prey in their forepaws. Symbolically, this rectangle represents the tribal world and everything they believe in—real, imaginary, spiritual. The top part of the rectangle is dedicated to the imagery related to different gods and the vow in whose fulfillment the Pithora is being made. It somehow relates to the idea of swarg or heaven being above. The rest of the imagery, which is earth-bound, goes in the lower part of the work. The Lakhara then draw iconic horses diagonally in one or two rows, from lower right to upper left. Pithoro Babo is drawn seated on one horse, preceded and followed by the lesser gods and goddesses. The rest of the space is filled with images of everyday life in a tribal village—a farmer ploughing his field, a toddy tapper climbing a palm tree, homes and fields with ripening corn, women drawing water from a river—which has changed over time into a well, and now a handpump (reflecting what the painter actually sees around him)—a suckling calf with the mother cow, trees with bee-hives, a group of men and women dancing, men playing the drum, shops and shopkeepers, people going about their business, domesticated animals such as goats, dogs, cows, buffaloes, hens and roosters wandering about, in addition to monkeys, peacocks, spiders, chameleons, scorpions, snakes, parrots, owls, and so on. There are also mythical images such as Baar Matha no Dhani (a man with 12 heads holding a serpent in each hand), a two-headed deer as well as images of ‘real’ things but which one is not likely to see in a tribal village—a horse carriage, an elephant with a howdah, a man hunting deer/hare with a bow and arrow. All these images have specific reasons for being a part of the painting. In recent times, Pithoras have also displayed trains, cars, bicycles, aeroplanes, a police van, armed policemen, as well as images of rifles.

 

Once the painting is done, the Badva starts with his rituals aimed at ‘bringing the Pithora to life’. This includes chanting, singing and narrating mythological stories related to Babo Pithoro and his achievements. Sometimes a Badva may also fall into a trance, and behave as one possessed. Lakhara need to know the story of Pithora Babo very well and reflect it adequately in their painting. They also need to know about the vow so that those particular gods/goddesses are given their proper position in the upper part of the painting. If Lakhara have made any mistake in the painting, left an important image out, the Badva points it out and the Lakhara immediately correct it.

 

Once the Badva is finished with his rituals, family members pay their respects and offer Babo Pithora gifts. Post rituals, the family treats Babo Pithoro as a living entity in their home. For every major or minor festival, family celebrations such as engagement, wedding, childbirth, and other occasions of joy such as a good harvest or a family member recovering after a long illness, the family will always offer a special meal to Babo Pithoro. Having a Pithoro in the home is a matter of pride and prestige for a tribal family. Once painted or ‘installed’, the Pithoro has to be cared for as per the advice of Badvo. If a family experiences any major difficulty even after Babo Pithoro is installed, then it is thought that the family is neglectful towards the installation. In such a situation the Badvo advises them about precautions. The Pithoro cannot be painted twice in the same house. If the home in which a Pithoro is painted has been damaged in any natural calamity or needs to be demolished, the Badvo will advise on how the walls with the Pithoro painted on it need to be brought down and disposed of.

 

Pithoro has been part of the Rathva tribal imagination for centuries. In Khoraj hill, the tribal heartland of Gujarat state, there are ancient caves in which there are remnants of paintings with a close resemblance to the Pithora as we know it today. When one speaks to the Lakhara today, they tell stories of paintings created on rock walls, mud walls, dried leaf walls drawn with twigs of bamboo or the khakhra trees, from colours based on mineral or root vegetation. These paintings tell the story of creation as imagined by the tribal mind, and the life cycle that every person traverses over his or her time on earth. The Rathva believes in Babo Pithoro with unshakeable sincerity and faith.

 

 

Sources

Rathva Narayan and Rathva Vikesh. Bharatiya Adim Chitrakala: Rathva Samaj ma Babo Pithora. Vadodara: Bhasha Research and Publication Centre.

Interviews of Lakhara Haribhai Rathva with Naginbhai Rathva.