“If you were alive in the 17th century and wanted to leave a message for future generations, but you couldn’t write, how would you do it?,” quizzed my Hyderabadi host and friend Kalyani. Before I could answer, she quickly added, “Through Nakashi art!” And with that, I was sold on a trip to the Cheriyal village where this intriguing art form originated.
The village sits on the edge of the lush Warangal district. A three-hour drive from the city of Hyderabad, it is a far cry from the hustle-and-bustle of urban life as you are greeted by fields of green with hints of colour from flowers in bloom; villagers peeking out of huts, and children playing amidst the greens. Once in the village, we simply ask for a Nakashi artist and we’re directed down a meandering path with low mud structures. We stop at one such non-descript house with a board that reads, ‘National Merit Award Winner.’ This is the home and workshop of artist D. Vaikuntam Nakash.
The artist himself greets us at the door and leads us into his work space, a cluttered tiny space, that comes packed with brushes, colours, and scrolls. Vaikuntam points to a scroll where I see figures that appear to be painting on cloth, and with that he elaborates on the history of Nakashi art: The art form dates back to 1625. It emerged as a way to preserve a family’s history, in a time when the written language was only the privilege of a few. Here the cliché stands true: these pictures spoke a thousand words. And the scrolls, if well-preserved, remained intact for over 300 years. This ability to tell a story on a scroll was mastered by the Nakashi caste, after whom this unique art was named. Later, when the Nakashis moved to the Cheriyal village, the name of the village became synonymous with the art form. Hence Nakashi and Cheriyal art are interchangeable terms.
As I look around Vaikuntam’s home, I spot paintings that depict scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Vaikuntam explains, “With family portraits doing our job, today most of our work is around mythology.” He admits that demand for Nakashi art is low, and he is among just a handful of villagers that still practice the trade. “For generations, know-how has been passed down to us. In years gone by, our entire village was one of expert artisans. But now it’s hard to make a living off it.” Little wonder that when we enquired of a Nakashi artist, we were directed, without a hitch, to Vaikuntam’s abode.
But despite the fact that modern time and technology have reduced it to a dying art, Vaikuntam refuses to give up, adhering closely even to the cumbersome, age-old techniques. A khadi or cotton cloth serves as the canvas. A concoction of tamarind seed paste, white clay, starch and gum from timber trees is prepared. Three coats of this mixture are applied to the cloth and it is allowed to dry. This process of treating the cloth takes a day.
The paints are prepared from nature – white colour from seashells; black from soot; yellow from sulphur-based rocks, etc. Vaikuntam makes his brushes from bamboo shoots and squirrels tails. His palette is a coconut shell.
With rustic instruments, and an expert hand, Vaikuntam gives us a demonstration. He grabs a treated piece of cloth and in a few strokes, without a stencil, he expertly creates a figure of an erstwhile Maharaja on horse-back. Sketching away at a frenetic speed, other figures follow. Then he paints the background, which he explains is always in the colour red. Next he fills the figures with colours and details. And finally black brush strokes outline each figure and demarcate them from the red backdrop.
Vaikuntam, with over 40 years of practice, makes the process appear easy. But as I try my hand, I am barely able to create a stick figure. Vaikuntam elaborates, “We train in this art even before we go to school.” I spot a price tag on an intricately painted scroll that tells the love story of Shiva and Parvati and costs a mere Rs. 250.
The art has been extended to other mediums such as dolls that tell tales, and even as detailing on saris. “My sister-in-law, Padma, won an award for painting tales of Krishna on a sari border.” It took her one-and-a-half month to decorate the edges of the sari which sold for Rs. 3000.
Today Vaikuntam’s son, Rakesh, who has earned a Bachelor of Technology degree, uses his professional knowledge to promote the art through the Internet. “In the past we got enquiries for large orders over the net, but they always came with extremely tight deadlines. With scarcity of artisans, we are unable to take on such bulk orders.”
Despite their efforts, I fear that Cheriyal will be lost to the world. And I invest in the Nakashi scroll that relays its own story.
You can find Cheriyal paintings by Nakash artists on Craftsvilla.com. Stocks limited.