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Curator revives forgotten nomads’ art

Chitrakathi art of the nomads in Pinguli village in Konkan is almost forgotten by the mainstream.

Mamta Chitnis Sen  Mumbai | 8th Mar 2014

Chitrakathi art

umbai based curator Jyotika Karve's residence in Andheri is stuffed with artefacts she has collected from her trips all over Maharashtra. 50-year-old Karve, a former student of Sir J.J. Institute of Applied Arts, has been chronicling Maharashtra's art history, starting with Chitrakathi art practised by nomads residing in rural interiors. It is said that these nomads were later appointed by Shivaji Maharaj as the Maratha Empire's official spies. She claims that the art of these nomads is neglected and forgotten and barely survives in Pinguli village in the Konkan. "The idea of chronicling the art of Maharashtra first took shape a decade ago during an alumni meeting of the Maharashtra Artists Association while we were discussing the plight of commercial artists in Maharashtra. During one such session, we started talking of true Maharashtrian art. Someone pointed out Gangifa, the traditional art of painting on playing cards but these are circular in shape. Others were discussing Warli, the stick figure paintings that show the lifestyle of the Maharashtrian villages. I was listening to these hard-core Maharashtrians discuss the popular forms of folk art and wondered whether there is any other form that's not so well known. That's when someone said Chitrakathi," she recalls adding that her curiosity was aroused and she started probing it. "Warli art is not the only art of the state as is often presumed," she added.

Pinguli was an area designated by the rulers of Sawantwadi for the Thakkar tribe who were nomads by origin and believed that they were the "secret service agents" to the ruler of Sawantwadi almost 300 years ago as well to Shivaji Maharaj. This seems the only logical reason for the Thakkars to be allotted a permanent area to settle down in Pinguli.

"R.V. Russel in his book The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India mentions these nomads. The book was commissioned by the British in the year 1916," continues Karve explaining that research also shows that when Shivaji Maharaj and his entourage went on a hunting trip deep in the jungle, he heard some people singing. On further enquiry, it came to be known that a nomadic tribe was reciting stories of the Ramayana. On his return Shivaji ordered the chief of that tribe to be brought into court to enquire about these people. "The leader of this tribe informed the court that they were Thakkars, a nomadic tribe and painted pictures on leaves with lime and soot from oil lamps that tell tales of the Ramayana. This was a way to familiarise the tribe with the epic and also provide a source of entertainment, after a hectic day of travel. The pictures were accompanied by songs and music, from rustic instruments to keep a captive audience and impart stories with morals."

Shivaji Maharaj was enchanted with them and issued a public notice stating that during the time of Dussehra, the Thakkars will perform in the outer area of the Hindu temples. Not to cause any outrage among the learned Brahmins and priests of the community, he ordered that the performance be held after the temple closes, until it reopens the following day. The Thakkars held centre stage all night. They showed pictures that they painted and recited relevant stories, often breaking into song. Thus the format of combining "Chitra" — the picture and "Katha" — the story was born.

Since the Thakkars were also bards, she says they visited the nooks and corners of the villages. "They were officially appointed as official spies Shivaji and later by the Sawant Bhonsales of Sawantwadi who even allotted them some land in Pinguli near Kudal village — a reward for having supplied information for a major battle that the Bhonsales fought in that period. Later these very bards were shunned as beggars.

"Pinguli has an old tradition of Chitrakathi and Kathas being told and heard at the local temples. Chitrakathi performers were also called to the more affluent homes to grace the residential family temples. It has been observed that some of these patrons commissioned the artists to paint these stories on the walls of the community hall attached to the prayer room. I came upon one such work at Gawdewadi, 10 kilometres from Pinguli. The exact date of the paintings however has not been established," she says informing that the paintings are nearly extinct and the place is almost in ruins.

Apart from the above, Karve who runs her own art agency and has studied management from KC college has extensively researched and documented paintings done by yesteryears actor Ashok Kumar and former Dean of Sir JJ School of Arts T.A. Dhond. The latter's works mostly in watercolours and crayons are more expensive and rare than V.S. Gaintonde.

"Ashok Kumar's paintings are a treat for the eyes. He learnt watercolour medium from a Paul Raj in Chennai," says Karve who thanks her maternal aunt Bharati Jaffery, the eldest daughter of Kumar for opening up his collection for her.

"I grew up with these paintings around me and we all knew Dadamoni was an actor but only the select few in the family knew that he painted nudes," says Karve whose parents are a mixture of Gujarati and Bengali background. She married her Maharashtrian sweetheart soon after college.

"He had a strict schedule of painting his works. He painted over 300 works and gave away most of them to his friends that included the late actor Iftikar Khan and a Junaid Ali. In fact most of his works have signatures that read "To Junaid from Ashok Kumar" written on them," she says, adding that there is a family legend that the late actor painted in his huge bathroom only after stripping off his clothes.

"He was not to be disturbed from 7 am to 10 am in the mornings. Apart from landscapes, seascapes, horses and figures he drew nudes. He drew them from imagination. The only nudes he used to put up in his home were that of his wife and when the kids used to ask who this woman was, he used to reply that it was their mother."

The works of the later Dean of Sir J J School of Art T A Dhond too are lying forgotten she claims. "Dhond was an artist who survived both pre-Independence and post-Independent India. He passed away in 2001 at the ripe age of 96. His works are currently in the possession of his 90 year old son-in-law Kishen Kamath at their Kalanagar home."

Over 3,000 works of Dhond, she says are being kept in safekeeping by the family and Karve confesses she wants to do a retrospect on them in the near future. "Apart from Bhau Dhaji Lad Museum which has three of his works in their museum, the rest are with the family. Their valuation runs into crores. I hope the public gets to see them soon."

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