In a small town, 90 kilometres away from Hyderabad, live the few remaining families protecting and propagating Cheriyal, an art form of painting scrolls for storytelling. Named after the town, the form was practised by these families and their ancestors since the 12th Century, according to the family’s youngest proponent, 27-year-old Sai Kiran Varma, who is coming to the city to hold a workshop on the craft.
“Earlier, storytellers would travel from village to village, entertaining audiences with folk tales from different communities and stories from The Mahabharata and The Ramayana,” says Sai Kiran, “My great-grandfather would make scrolls, depicting these stories, which the storytellers would carry with them.”
The scrolls were — and are still — made on khadi cloth, coated with tamarind seed paste, rice starch, chalk powder and tirumani (tree) gum. “The mixture is boiled together, filtered with a cotton cloth, and then applied to the canvas, which can be cut into different sizes after drying,” he says.
The colours used too, are completely natural: “The white colour is from seashell powder or zinc oxide; black from kerosene and lamp soot; red and yellow from stones. We get the skin colour from turmeric and blues from indigo,” he says.
The colours, powdered using a mortar and pestle, are stored as a paste in terracotta pots for upto two months. “In my grandfather’s time, they’d make these colours themselves, but we buy the natural colours from shops in Delhi every time we go there.”
For many years, the Cheriyal art form lived in close symbiosis with the art of storytelling. “Different communities have their own storytellers: the toddy tapping Goud community have Gouda Shetty, for example,” he explains. “When these storytellers narrate tales, they would use our scrolls as visual aid.”
The Cheriyal artists also make wooden masks and dolls for the stories, using tamarind paste and sawdust. “The Katamaraju Katha has 53 characters, all made into doll forms,” he says, referring to the epic Telugu ballad about a war between a chieftain and the king of Nellore.
“The storytellers would sing and dance with these life-sized dolls and masks, or use them as puppets,” he says.
However, as the tradition of storytelling died out, the necessity for this art form also waned. “Today, storytellers go to villages in Warangal district, and Khammam district, where there still aren’t many cinema theatres,” he says.
When Sai Kiran started getting into the art form, his parents discouraged him. “They thought there was no future in it,” he says. But he was adamant. “Somebody has to keep doing it, or else how will the art stay alive?”
“My parents don’t have the communication and marketing skills that I do. I can make sure that people are more aware of this art form,” he says.
Once the craft was recognised by the Government, and his grandfather received a National Award in 1983, it became easier for them to be invited to heritage fairs and exhibitions. “We even started telling our own stories about farms and rural life,” he says. The paintings now also feature on keychains and cell phone covers.
He began speaking to different organisations about conducting workshops. In Chennai, it was Mudakaram, run by Arti Lal, that got in touch with him. “Sharing our skills with others is the only way we can get the art form to survive,” he says.
The two-day workshop organised by Mudakaram will be on April 20 and 21, from 10 am to 1.30 pm, and 2.30 pm to 6 pm. Call 9840994263 for more details.