Sohrai: The Traditional Harvest art of Jharkhand
Immediately after the twinkling lights of Diwali, the walls of the tribal houses of Jharkhand start scintillating with the layers of indigenous white mud. To welcome their winter harvest, to worship their cattle as the Goddess of wealth and to offer a thanksgiving to the forces of nature, the tribal communities (Santhal, Munda, Oraon, Prajapati, Khurmi etc.) of Jharkhand and West Bengal celebrate a festival called ‘Sohrai’ in the month of October-November. The tribal women decorate their mud houses, repairing it after the rains, with designs of flowers, fruits, sparrows, peacocks, squirrels, cows, and various other nature-inspired designs. These wall paintings of Jharkhand are traditionally known as Sohrai, named after the namesake harvest festival.
The name ‘Sohrai’ is said to have derived from a paleolithic age word—‘soro’, meaning to drive with a stick. One of the oldest art forms of wall painting, this tribal art has continued since 10,000-4,000 BC. It is said to be following upon the similar patterns and styles once used to create ‘Isko’ and other rock arts in the region like Satpahar in Hazaribagh district. This art form was prevalent mostly in caves but now has been primarily shifted to the houses with mud walls.
The art has two major stylistic divisions based on the marriage and harvest seasons. Traditionally, Sohrai paintings are linked to the winter harvest of crops in Jharkhand, and Khovar art is done during weddings. The bridal chamber is usually decorated with Khovar.
The Sohrai art painted on the mud wall is a matriarchal tradition handed down from mother to daughter. Usually either monochromatic or colorful, these paintings are done totally by using natural pigments mixed in mud—Kali matti (maganese black), Duddhi matti/ Charak matti (white mud), Lal matti/Geru (red oxide) and Pila matti (yellow ochre). The people coat the wall with a layer of white mud, and while the white layer is still wet, they draw with their fingertips or with broken pieces of combs or with chewed saal wood tooth-sticks (datwan). The designs are also painted using cloth swabs daubed in different earth colors.
In Sohrai art, the red line is drawn first as it represents the ‘blood of the ancestors’, procreation and fertility. The next line is black which signifies eternal dead stone and mark of the God, Shiva. The next all-encompassing outer lines stand in their traditional values of protection, fidelity, and chastity. The white is painted with the last year’s rice, grounded with milk into gruel, this represents food.
These wall paintings are considered auspicious and intimately related to fertility and fecundity. The Sohrai art celebrates fertility in the harvest where the walls are painted with animal motifs. Popular Sohrai motifs are animals, birds, lizards, elephants and Pashupati (the creator of all animals), who is usually riding on the back of an animal. The elephant is also a symbol of paddy clan and an auspicious symbol connected with the harvest.
The environment activist Bulu Imam first discovered the rock art near Hazaribagh in 1991. He speaks about similar Sohrai art in the houses of the tribals of Oraons and Ganju. He had been instrumental in showcasing the art of Sohrai and Khovar to the world.
In 2009, the art form made its presence felt when an over-bridge at Katru was painted by Reshma Dutta, a renowned terracotta artisan from Bundu in Ranchi. The terracotta tiles painted with Sohrai motifs and techniques were installed on both sides of the bridge, in collaboration with Jharcraft. Also, the same year around 20 tribal women artists from Hazaribagh had painted the outer walls of Birsa Munda Zoological Garden with the murals inspired by Khovar (marriage art) and Sohrai art forms. The murals are native to Hazaribagh, Chatra, Koderma and Dumka areas. It took around a month to paint the walls with 174 panels. It was a brilliant piece of Khovar and Sohrai artwork.
With the rise in the tribal art form’s popularity, the state art and culture department plans to paint the walls of government buildings, railway stations, and airports with colorful murals of Khovar and Sohrai paintings. Sohrai art is now known as the state art of Jharkhand. Railway stations in the towns like Hazaribagh and Jamshedpur now greet travellers with Khovar and Sohrai murals that only adorned village homes until recently.