Ode to Oraon
The several centuries’ old Oraon painting uses three shades of mud—black, red and yellow—available in the forests of the region.
As the setting sun paints the sky in swathes of orange on a rather hot day in Jamshedpur, Sumanti Devi Bhagat is busy giving final touches to a canvas. Her hands move deftly as she creates a festival scene using her fingers dipped in mud on paper. The end result is a stunning representation of her village Jashpur in Chhattisgarh, where the art—known as Oraon, as the tribe to which Bhagat belongs—decorates the walls of every home. The practice has been passed on from generation to generation. For example, Bhagat learnt from her mother, who learnt from hers.
The several centuries’ old Oraon painting uses three shades of mud—black, red and yellow—available in the forests of the region. Besides, charcoal and green leaves are used as natural pigments. The painting is done using the fingers dipped in mud, and a brush is used to define the outline. The themes are largely around tribal festivals—like the recently concluded Karma festival—wherein they worship the forest. “The Karma tree is a recurrent theme in the paintings,” says the 42-year-old.
There are artworks that show the local dance forms, lessons taught in the gurukul, panna flowers
(a local variant) that are used for worshipping the forest deities, besides the star and moon. “The Oraon tribe celebrates all festivals when the moon is in the waxing stage. Also most festivals involve dancing, hence these are depicted in the paintings,” she says.
Looking at her art, what is unmissable is the stories that are hidden in plain sight. “This is
a good luck painting,” she explains, pointing to a piece where an egg is held within a curved stick and has rice grains surrounding it. “This represents the Danda Kattna, a pooja that happens thrice a year for the new harvest, when it is ready to be cut. It represents abundance and good fortune,” says Bhagat, who is invited to exhibitions across the country. “Since our works revolve around the day-to-day tribal life, the newer generation—which is not rooted—does not value the connect. I want to spread awareness regarding the culture and history of the Oraon tribe,” says the torchbearer of the craft that would have otherwise slipped into oblivion.
She has taught Oraon to many women and youngsters in her village who are now exhibiting
at several forums. Bhagat is ensuring that they take pride in their tribal roots and culture through the paintings.
Last year at Samvaad 2022 by Tata Steel CSR, she released a book on Oraon folklore. “It is important to document the culture and traditions, especially for the next generation,” she says and hopes that a demand from the market would revive the fading art form.