Khovar art was traditionally for decorating the marriage chamber of the bride and groom, and it usually depicts the animals and plants of neighbouring forests and valleys. The name Khovar is derived from two words: kho or koh (meaning: a cave) and var (meaning: husband). Symbolizing fertility, the mural-making takes place each spring during the marriage season.
The marriage season runs from January until the onset of the monsoons in June. It is in these months that Khovar designs are painted by the mother of the bride and other women of the villages as part of their traditional matrimonial ritual, where the marriage rites are performed and the newly-wed couple will sleep. This special area of the house is painted and decorated. Mothers pass on to daughters down countless generations the skills and motifs to create murals.
The base coat is usually black, the top layer white and its symbolism is sexual. The bride’s house represents the “mother”. A layer of kali mitti (dark charcoal earth) is first applied to the exterior of the mud homes and left to dry, representing the darkness of the mother’s womb. The walls are then covered with Dudhi mitti (white kaolin clay), representing the sperm of the “father”. Before this coat of light-coloured earth dries, the women use broken combs or their fingers to brush and scrape away the lighter earth, creating lyrical, black and white silhouettes with exaggerated brushstrokes. Thus symbolising fertility and breeding.
This technique of comb cutting is similar to the “Sgraffito” technique of Greece and the incised pottery technique found in Iran and the Indus valley. With the increasing effects of urbanisation, and the reluctance of the younger generation to continue with their traditions, there are only a handful of villages left where people still paint their houses.
Jharkhand’s Sohrai Khovar painting was given the Geographical Indication (GI) tag on by the Geographical Indications Registry headquartered in Chennai.