In Amadubi in the rural outskirts of Jamshedpur in Jharkhand, a community of artist-performers practice the rare, centuries-old folk-art form of Pyatkar. As scrolls of paintings unfurl, songs emanate, telling the stories of myths, nature, wars, and festivals. Text & Photographs by Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy
In the artist village of Amadubi in the East Singhbhm district of Jharkhand, painter Vijay Chitrakar sat in a little hut that stood in the shade of a palash tree. His eyes were closed in meditation, and as he cleared his throat to sing an ode to Durga, he slowly unfurled a scroll of a painting of the goddess. The performance was short but intense, and when he finished, he opened his eyes as if waking from a reverie. We had just witnessed a live rendition of the rare Pyatkar scroll painting, and it was mesmerising to say the least!
Once upon a time, Manbhum district—at the tri-junction of undivided Bihar, Bengal, and Odisha—was home to a community of nomadic artists and performers called chitrakars. It’s theorised that their art was called Pyatkar as they painted on paat—scrolls of cloth/tree bark, or perhaps, from paad—verse that accompanied their art. Long before the advent of moving pictures, these storytellers had been practising their unique folk-art form for centuries, fusing scroll painting and song. In the old days, artists concentrated on a mythological story before composing an ode. After imagining a storyline, they painted it with mineral and vegetable hues extracted from nature—rocks, soil, and leaves collected from deep inside the forest or by the river. During the performance, the scroll would slowly be unfurled even as the corresponding verses were sung.
Like wandering minstrels, the chitrakars roamed the countryside and villages, singing songs of devotion, life, and death—and often interpreting bad dreams, too. If someone died in a Santhal (a native tribal group) household, the Pyatkars would carry a painting of the person sans eyes, to their home. The Santhals believed that only after the Pyatkars painted the iris (for a fee), the lost soul of the deceased would regain sight to seek the path to heaven and eternal peace.
Over time, the artists translated these ballads into series of paintings and sketches, incorporating elements of rural socio-economic life, agrarian practices, and festivals. Sometimes, a performance could last the whole night, with the scrolls stretching a few metres. Today, nearly 50 chitrakar families stay among the Santhals at Amadubi. As Vijay Chitrakar humbly spread his artworks on the floor, we couldn’t resist buying a few pieces of this rare art.
We walked back from the village, meeting tribal hunters with bows and arrows along the way. Some were readying bonfires for a barbecue of hare and wild fowl. The rustic comfort of our ethnic huts at Rusiko Sangeko (literally Artisans’ Hamlet), a village tourism initiative of the Amadubi-Panijiya Rural Tourism Centre nearby, was welcoming. The vernacular cottages were made of mud, bamboo, and wood, and named after local trees such as ‘Sal’ and ‘Piyal’. The walls and ceilings bore hand-painted motifs, while the doors and windows had sculpted dokra handles, echoing the rich tradition of metal craft with an ancient wax technique.
At the Gurukul or workshop, ladies learnt block printing and adapted Pyatkar motifs into Kantha embroidery. A small museum in the landscaped compound held a tiny collection of utensils and traditional musical instruments. The Akhara or open stage served as the venue for traditional dances during colourful festivals like the Sarpha, linked to agricultural practices. After a performance in the yellow glow of lanterns, arranged on request, we dined on rare regional delicacies at the thatched dining hut. An assortment of ud pitha (steamed rice dumplings with lentils), gud pitha (sweet rice dumplings with jaggery) and zil pitha (fried rice dumplings stuffed with chicken) were served on kansa (bronze) platters.
While many visit Amadubi as a day trip from Jamshedpur, an overnight stay is recommended for a taste of rural India, and to experience how things were before the country’s first ‘Steel City’ came up in the tribal heartland. We woke up to the call of peacocks and after breakfast, set out on an excursion to nearby settlements of the Santhal and Oraon tribes. Men worked in the fields, women winnowed, little boys made trinkets with flowers and strips of bamboo, while Santhali girls touched up their homes for the spring festival of Sarhul. The walls of their modest but immaculate homes displayed geometric designs in bold contrasting colours, often decorated with mirrors, broken bangles and discarded CDs that sparkled in the sun.
The area is rich in history with WWII-era airfields at Dhalbhumgarh and Chakulia, the old Trivineshwar and Dasbhuja temples at Rajbari—a small fiefdom of the erstwhile rajas of Dhalbhumgarh, the much-revered Rankini Mandir of Jadugoda, and the scenic hills of Ghatshila—the birthplace of the famous Bengali writer, Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhaya. At an animistic shrine in the forest, men prepared handiya (rice beer) and other offerings for their ancestors and tribal deities. With unusual straw figurines of animals suspended from the trees, the mood for revelry was set.
We returned to Jamshedpur and bought more Pyatkar art, besides dokra craft, mithila paintings, and masks from Biponi Handicrafts in Bistupur. Helmed by Amitabha Ghosh of Kalamandir, the store also organises trips to Amadubi, besides local festivals such as the Adivasi Mela in Janumdih and Mohona Utsav in Jamshedpur that showcase the vibrant masked dance of Chhau. At the Russi Modi Centre of Excellence and the Tribal Culture Centre, we got more insights into Jamshedpur’s early history and the lifestyle of Santhal, Ho, Oraon, Munda, and Bhumij tribes. On the way to Ranchi airport, we halted for tea and listened to the hypnotic primal sounds of tribal drumbeats resonating through the forest.