Traditional Indian Art – Revisited


With over four million people the Santhal tribe is among the third largest in India. They largely inhabit West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Assam, Madhya Pradesh and the newly formed state of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. They are also to be found in the neighbouring regions of Bangladesh and Nepal.The Santhals have been identified as belonging to pre- Dravidian ancestry even as history recorded their existence only in late 18th century.

The story of their origin and the legends of the Santhals define an entire history of migration. Their mythology traces their origin from the mythical lands of Hihiri Pipiri, Khoj Kaman, Harata Mountain to Champa and ultimately into modern history at Chota Nagpur from where they were again forced to leave as a result of the pressures of feudal forces in the colonial era.

According to traditional Santhal belief, a hierarchy exists as to the importance of
certain Bongas. Thakur Jiu their supreme deity is credited with the actual creation of
the Santhal people. Three other Bonga deities often referred to as a trinity are Maran
Buru (the great mountain), Jaher Era (the lady of the grove) and Moreko Turuiko (an
incarnation of several Bongas). The trinity of the three Bongas are the functional
deities in the devotional lives of the Santhals.JADUPATUAS & SANTHAL CONNECTIONAn itinerant class of folk painters, known as Jadupatuas, developed uncanny
insights into the life and culture of the Santhals due to a long passage of interaction
between the two communities. The inter relationship of the Jadupatua -folk artists
with Santhal tribal communities in Eastern India has produced an entire art genre
assimilating elements from the cultures of both the folk artists and their tribal
With these limited colours and materials, jadupatua scrolls in the Santhal Parganas
show, on one hand, great varieties of idiom and treatment, but on the other, a
consistent adherence to certain basic assumptions.TRADITIONAL PAINTINGS DESCRIPTION

The figures are depicted on a single flat plane and show a bland indifference to
naturalism. The stories are told in a series of simple clear-cut images in panels divided
by horizontal bands. Trees, flowers or rocks are depicted by simple diagrammatic
forms. Figures are usually shown in profile with a standard corrugated line linking
sloping forehead, nose, lips and chin. Eyes are vastly enlarged. Santhal women who
in real life are amply curvaceous are shown with straight vertical figures which posses
monumental dignity and echo the graceful movements of Santhal dancing.
The willing portions are purposely executed or drawn for purposes of expression; and
colour is used unrealistically for dramatic or poetic effect.

All pigments are traditionally derived from natural sources and some patuas still
adhere to this practice, although, store-bought paints have also become popular due
to their accessibility in the local markets.

The painting, the song and the very act of the patua unraveling the scroll both visually
and lyrically are in their entirety the traditional art of the patuas.


When speaking of patuas in the context of the Santhals they are commonly referred to as Jadupatuas, or the magic painters. The primary reason for this title is for the Chakshudana genre paintings they produce for the Santhal families of the recently deceased. The Chakshudana painting would depict a deceased Santhal without eye balls, thus signifying that the spirit of the deceased would wander around blind in the after- life unless the painter paints the eye- balls after being paid for. On hearing of a death in a Santhal community the jadupatua would approach the mourning family with a painting depicting either a man or women, young or old according to the age and sex of the deceased. The artist would then offer to restore sight to the dead in exchange for objects often depicted in the paintings themselves. By executing the transformative act of painting the eye of the spirit of the dead, the patua also rose from painter to magic painter, but was never considered an extortionist.

The art historian, Mildred Archer, identified seven distinct themes of jadupatua painting other than the Chakshudana pata.Death’s kingdom” or Jom Raj is a common theme of the jadupatuas to this day.The lord of Death, Jom, is commonly depicted as obese and dark in complexion,dealing out his punishments to wicked souls. His minions, usually smaller dark figures, are also depicted in these scrolls ravaging and torturing those who have been punished by Jom. This type of scroll, in part, functions as a didactic, reinforcing the Santhals’ own moral code.

Another type of scroll depicts the Santhal flower festival of Baha Porob, which occurs between February and March marking the beginning of the new farming year. This scroll would depict the various activities involved with this festival including the dance, and the ritual sacrificing of fowls by the Naeke, (the Santhal priest). The festival occurs in the sacred grove of the Santhal village called the Jahher Than, or the place of the Bonga, Jaher Era. As the Baha Borob is considered to be the holiest of Santhal festivals, homage is paid to the trinity of Maran Buru, Moreko Turuiko and Jaher Era. During the festival, sacred stones represent each of these bongas. And like “found art” they are recontextualised,
each stone having been placed under a corresponding Sal tree.

Even now, among the most popular of the scroll painting is the depiction of the Santhal story of creation. There are many subtle variations to the narrative for which there are two possible explanations.

Firstly, the creation story has been told and retold from an ‘outsider’ point of view, from missionaries transcribing the narrative into English in the late nineteenth century. Also, the jadupatuas themselves have been depicting the story in their scrolls as ‘outsiders’ to the Santhal People. Secondly, the Santhals themselves must have accepted foreign elements, specifically mainstream Hinduism that suited the structure of their own beliefs.

The acceptance of Hindu elements, or at least some of its iconography, is noticeable in most jadupatua scroll painting, including the scrolls portraying the Santhal creation life cycle.The Santhal creation story as the English speaking world knows it is derived from the translations provided by two European missionaries in the late nineteenth century. They were Rev. L. O. Skrefsrud, who produced his translation in 1870, and Rev. ACampbell who wrote his in 1892.Supreme God of the Santhals “Thakur Jiu’ created water creatures from thegreat mass of water covering the whole earth. Then he commanded the water creatures to create earth on water and created two birds Hans and Hasil. From the birds came the two human forms the ancestors of the Santhals namely PilcuHaram and Pilcu Budhi Western equivalents of Adam and Eve. From them sprung the Santhal clan. During this process three more Gods came into being-Maran Baru, Moreko Turuiko & Jaher Era. They came into their folk-loresignifying possibly the Hindu concept of trinity. Interwoven in the creation story are the tales of creation, destruction and recreation of the Santhal tribes.
Since the “creation narrative” could never be elaborately depicted in one scroll entirely, specific elements were often depicted in some single panels whereas other large portions were dealt with in a cursory fashion.
One point of curiosity is that the first panel of many creation story scrolls and also of the Baha festival scrolls, often depicts the bona trinity of Maran Buru, Moreko Turuiko and Jaher Era in the form of the Hindu Vaishnav trinity of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra from the Puri temple. The local mythology contains a legend where the eighteen sons of an old Santhal king were beheaded and their streams of blood were transformed by a Bonga into waterways that traveled from the Santhal Parganas to the Jagannath temple in Puri.

The tiger-scrolls are especially interesting, as it is religiously significant to the Hindus, Muslims and Santhals alike. Both local Muslims and Hindus worship Barekhan Gazi, the God responsible for controlling the tiger, in much of rural
Bengal. By proper invocation, Gazi is believed to protect the villagers from tigers, or leopards attacking them and their live stock.

Among the Hindus and Muslims who live near the Santhal parganas Gazi is also known as Satya Pir and is
depicted by the jadupatuas as a Muslim holy man mounted on a fierce tiger.
Possibly, due to the dwindling of the tiger population, many Satya Pir, or Gazi scrolls depict the spotted leopard instead of the tiger, reflecting more accurately current ecological reality. Performing artists also take the roles of Satya Pir and perform story based jatras from village to village.

Satya Pir scrolls are particularly popular during the Muslim festival of Muharram. Often direct references to the festival itself are included in the imagery of these paintings, such as swordplay and the tombs of Hassan and Husain.

Moreover, paintings depicting the Hindu lion-headed God, Narayana are sometimes locally viewed as being synonymous with Satya Pir, especially among the Muslim jadupatuas themselves.

The socio-religious ambiguity imbibed in the Satya Pir genre scrolls are almost metaphorical of the same ambivalence experienced by the jadupatuas themselves.

Without any obvious reference to the Santhal culture, Archer also refers to scrolls celebrating the stories of Krishna as among the important jadupatua paintings.The stories revolving around Krishna’s exploits and merriment with milkmaids are especially popular. Archer argues that the reason for these scrolls being so popular among the Santhals is that the dance and playfulness of the narratives reflect the Santhals’ own ethos which maybe witnessed in their own dance traditions and festivals.

Jadupatuas also paint scrolls depicting the mythological heroes of the twelve Santhal clans furthering these paintings’ role as an insight into the cultural heritage of the Santhals.
Jatra scrolls have also been commonly identified as among the important jadupatua themes. Traditionally these scrolls were popular around the time of the Bengali puja festivals. During a festival, such as Kali puja, the Santhals
congregate around the temple area and partake in the general festivities, dancing and drumming. Though this is still a popular activity for the Santhals, the scroll genre is not as popular as it once used to be.