Cheriyal Rural Tourism

Cheriyal (or Cherial) is a town and a municipality in Siddipet district in the state of Telangana in India  an hour’s drive from Hyderabad and about 85 kms from Warangal city is known for its unique scroll paintings and masks created by artists called Nakashis. This art form is unique to the state of Telangana. 

The name that the art form is known by today, i.e., Cheriyal, is derived from the town it is currently practised in.The practice of the art form is much more limited than it was previously. Initially, these paintings were known as nakash or naqash, which translates to a drawing or a sketch.

Art and tourism often go hand in hand, with art being a popular tourist attraction. The people involved in the creation of these traditional nakash or Cheriyal paintings, are a community known as the Nakashis. Other than this community, there is another important group of individuals associated with this tradition. It is important to note that the actual purpose of these scrolls was to serve as visual aids when a storyteller narrated a particular folklore or mythological story in the form of a song. This community of balladeers is referred to as kaki padagollu. They travel from village to village narrating these stories.

Cheriyal paintings are long narrative scroll paintings that serve as visual aids to a musical storytelling tradition. A conventional Cheriyal scroll is vertical and is divided into different frames, with each frame depicting a scene from the tale that is being presented. Since these scrolls are meant to be rolled when not in use, they are made with fabric. Traditionally, a khadi cloth is used as the base for these paintings.

The paintings, made on khadi cloth treated with tamarind seeds paste, chalk powder, gum and starch, are mostly based only on epic themes (of Ramayana, Mahabharata, Sri Krishna Bhagavatam, Shiva Puranam etc), village life or festivals.

Like all traditional folk art forms, Cheriyal paintings too use only naturally sourced colours. Most of the pigments used in these paintings are mineral based, i.e., they are obtained from coloured stones. These stones are crushed into a fine powder and mixed with a natural binder and water. The natural binder used is gum arabic, locally called tirumani gond. This mixture is prepared with extreme attentiveness to make paint that is of the right saturation and has the ability to stick to the cloth base.

Paintbrushes are the only tools which are used by Cheriyal artists to draw, paint, and add details to their artworks. Traditionally, these paintbrushes were made using squirrel hair because of how fine the artists could paint with them. However, today this practice has been replaced by market-available synthetic brushes.

The main narrative involves scenes from the common rural life such as women performing kitchen chores, men working in fields or experiencing merry, festival settings, etc. The costumes and settings reflect the culture of Telangana. It offers a glimpse into the rich heritage of Telangana and India through art tourism. The colors and details depict mythological stories and daily life events.

In Badampet village of Telangana’s Sangareddy district, NGO Kudali Centre uses a 3ft by 10ft scroll painting in vivid colours to educate farmers about the perils of mono-cropping. Moving away from organic cultivation of food crops to just cotton, the farmers have seen chemical pesticide costs rising through the roof every year. Farmer suicides are common in the area. Kudali uses a Cheriyal (or Cherial) painting made by national award winner artist D Vaikuntam Nakash to educate the illiterate farmers regarding organic farming.

In another part of the state, a microfinance company has put up six Cheriyal scroll paintings in its office to explain loan, digital marketing and other concepts to semi-literate people wanting to better understand microcredit and its uses.

Cheriyal Painting is widely popular due to the unique rural element which renders an aura of exclusivity and charm for the art items. It represents the pride of Telangana, especially the region’s tryst with such rare and unique art forms. 

For Cheriyal paintings, the background colour is mostly red though green or white may be used some times. The colours are derived from natural sources like white from seashells and black from soot. The most used colours are golden yellow, brown, white, green, orange, black and blue.

Vinay says it takes a month to finish a 3ft by 5ft scroll painting where the whole family is involved in painting. It sells for about Rs35,000 while bigger pieces can take about 6 months for completion.

Some Nakashi artisans have started relocating to Hyderabad in search of a better market. The demand is higher in bigger cities of Chennai, Bengaluru and Mumbai. The artisans also have tie-ups with e-tailers like Amazon besides local websites -- Craftiee, Tvami and Kala Chaupaal Trust, which directly purchase products from them.

The artists also participate in exhibitions and sell their products through various handicraft shops in government museums. “During the pandemic the handicraft stores were not functioning, we received most of our orders through social media. On an average, we got ten orders per month which generated around Rs8000,” says Sai Kiran.

The state government has supported these artists by issuing IDs to acknowledged artisans, giving them employment, buying their handicrafts, and offering them projects.

Geographical Indication (GI) tag
Cheriyal scroll painting also received Intellectual Property Rights Protection, commonly called the Geographical Indication (GI) tag in the year 2008. It is a matter of academic interest for painters all over India and the world, who study the art work with attention to detail and efforts are on to preserve this rich tradition for posterity by actively promoting the tradition of Cheriyal Painting.

A slice of Cheriyal is in Rashtrapati Nilayam,” says artist Dhanalakota Saikiran as he walks us through the 163-foot kitchen tunnel at Rashatrapati Nilayam in Hyderabad. Ever since the President’s official winter retreat was thrown open to the public after a makeover, people have been making a beeline to peek into the estate that serves as the Southern sojourn. A covered corridor connecting the kitchen and dining hall, is now resplendent with murals, masks, and animal heads in the Telangana folk art form of Cheriyal.

With changing times, the popularity of Cheriyal scrolls and the accompanying musical narrative tradition faced a decline. To sustain themselves, these artists have adapted themselves to the changing needs and tastes. Today, the size of these scrolls has been minimised and the number of frames per painting has been decreased too. This is because these paintings are now used more as decorative pieces in households, rather than as storytelling aids.

Cheriyal masks are made of sawdust and fine powder of tamarind seeds. Ganesh, another Cheriyal artist, says it takes six days to prepare these masks which travel hundreds of miles to beautify the corridors of huge mansions. His wife is also actively involved in the craft much like other women of the Nakashi community.

Creating these masks requires patience and attention to detail. Various clay or cement molds are prepared in advance to hasten the molding process.

A fine powder of tamarind seeds, river shells, or coconut shells is boiled in hot water. After an hour, the mixture is collected in a dish, mixed with sawdust, and neatly kneaded into dough.

This dough is then spread evenly onto the desired mold before other facial features are added to the light brown base structure. Sculpting the nose, eyes, and lips requires close attention.

The structure is dried until it becomes rock hard. Upon drying the base structure is smoothened using sandpaper and a thin cotton fabric is spread out on the entire surface of the mask.

A fine paste of rice starch, white clay, and tree lack is evenly applied over the cotton fabric. The paste leaves the surface bright white on drying thereby readying it for color application.

Bright colors like red, yellow, green, blue, white, are used for the base coat. Further detailing of eyes, lips, and ornaments are done using a brush made from squirrel hair. Lastly, varnish is applied to enhance durability.

The seven Nakashi families of Cheriyal create around 250 masks a month.

The process is quicker during summers while it takes these longer to dry during winter and monsoons. If not dried properly fungus can surface due to the presence of tamarind paste.

"We have 20-25 different molds which are used to make faces of mythological characters like kings, queens, village women, Ardhnareshwara, Ganesha, Rama, Sita, Hanuman," says Ganesh.

Among these, the masks for Rama, Sita, and Hanuman are high in demand and cost Rs500. The masks are about 3 inches to 12 inches long. 

The smaller masks cost around Rs300 while the bigger ones range between Rs2000 and Rs3000. The price can even go up to Rs6000, depending on the complexity of the piece.

Ganesh and others have also collaborated with government training centers, imparting the knowledge of mask-making to the younger generation. He has been actively training young students for two years with the help of the state government in an attempt to promote this art form.

Cheriyal masks were used by villagers of the region during festivals to honor the local Goddesses. Dancers wore these masks as a mark of respect for the deities. Gradually, they became popular and people started using them for home decor.

"Cheriyal masks have a national as well as an international appeal but there are only a handful of people who have mastered this art. It will empower women, and they can easily make around Rs20,000 by making the masks from the comfort of their homes," says Ganesh. He gives a daily wage of Rs300 to workers who work at his workshop.

The stories of ancestors beyond what granny knew or could remember, stories of heroes that made them proud, stories that they would sleep with and dream about. Today, the Kunapulis were coming to perform Markandeya Puranam for the Padmasalis and the show will go on anywhere from 3 nights to 20 nights. Later, the Dakkalis will come to perform Jamba Puranam for the Madigas and this cycle of performances will continue till genealogies of 7 local castes (the barber, toddy tapper, washerman, fisherman, leather worker, weaver and farmer) have been recited by bards from their sub-caste.

A non-descript village like any other in rural India and crowded with houses that has pretty wooden doors, Cheriyal is easy to find but not the Nakaashs. It took a lot of asking around and negotiating through narrow streets where one led to the other like a never ending maze to finally reach the humble house of an artist. Once inside his living room cum showroom cum godown, Mallesham carefully unwrapped the colourful frames of Cheriyal paintings depicting both the deities and the everyday life of people in the region.

Environmentally Friendly 
The stunning attraction of Cheriyal scrolls is due to their wholly environmentally friendly and sustainable components. The narrative is typically depicted in a sequence of horizontal panels. The flower border in the middle and resembles modern comic strips divide them. The scrolls are typically created in a vertical arrangement. The scrolls were frequently shown by hanging them from a tree and revealing them panel by panel as the events were narrated. Such type was most common during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The process of creating ancient Cheriyal paintings was entirely natural in antiquity. Everything from the brush to the canvas or linen to the paints was manufactured from natural materials. The distinctive Cheriyal masks are fashioned from tamarind and sawdust, which are then dried into clay. Without using any moulds, craftsmen meticulously hand-cast the features, such as eyes, lips, and nose.

The processes still remain the same wherein the canvas is prepared after coating and drying a handwoven cloth (mostly khadi cotton) with boiled rice starch, white clay, gum and boiled tamarind seed paste in layers. Every coating is allowed to dry thoroughly before the next is applied. When the canvas is dry and hard, an outline of the painting is made using indigo on an essentially red background and later colours are filled in. The colours used are natural derived mostly from seeds, flowers and stones like black from lamp soot mixed with gum from the thirumany tree, white from sea shells, red from tamarind seeds, brown from geru. The frame is marked by a floral border indicating the end of a scene on a scroll. Now, it is merely ornamentation as the scrolls have miniaturized into frames meant for hanging on a wall. Yet the scenes retain a strong local flavor as it follows the tradition of oral story telling.

The origin of Cheriyal Paintings can be traced back to 5,000 years. This style of artwork uses these paintings as a visual aid to recite tales from 'Ramayana' and 'Mahabharata'. Also Read - Drivers of all VIP vehicles must undergo driving tests, says Ponnam Employing traditional techniques, Cheriyal paintings are created on cloth that might run to metres in length. In the present day, Cheriyal paintings are done in a variety of goods such as masks, marriage gifts, jewellery boxes, brass paintings and greeting cards. 

The story tellers would go to the ‘Nakaashs’ and recite their story that would be painted scene by scene, character by character onto a scroll. 

Employing traditional techniques, Cheriyal paintings are created on cloth that might run to metres in length. In the present day, Cheriyal paintings are done in a variety of goods such as masks, marriage gifts, jewellery boxes, brass paintings and greeting cards.

The traditions surrounding Cheriyal scroll paintings have contributed massively to our cultural memory. Hence, it is an art form that has garnered much fame, and rightfully so. People have been making these paintings for a very long time, creating both art and tourism. 

Some think they began in the 5th century. The earliest reference to this tradition dates back to the 12th century; the Kakatiya times where Ekamranatha in his literary text Pratapa Charitram indicates the presence of 1500 painter families living in and around Warangal. 

Even today the Nakaashs live in Cheriyal, a small village with winding alleys about 85 kms from Warangal city.