Saora paintings, lately sought by art lovers for living rooms around the world, have their origin in the mud walls of aboriginal Lanjia Saora tribal homes in Odisha. Selling fast at tribal art fairs and handicraft outlets, painting lots are also exported regularly to Germany, France and the U.S. The paintings, which are pleasing to the eye and widely admired for their artistic excellence, now offer a sustainable source of livelihood.
It is a remarkable transformation for the sacred art of a little-known community. Also called the hill Saoras, the community inhabits the remote ranges flanking the great Bansadhara river in southern Odisha.
Talented artists from the community have clearly benefited from training and design interventions. “People waste no time in buying our paintings as soon as they are completed. Foreigners are showing special interest in our paintings,” says Sanjay Gamang, a 22-year-old Saora artist.
A Saora painting is called Idital and the person who creates it is known as the iditalmar. Interesting anecdotes are associated with their art practice. Iditals are sketched to appease Saora ancestors and deities that may have caused diseases faced by the iditalmars or the villagers at large. In Saora society, a shaman is believed to be an intermediary between the worlds of the living and the dead. The iditalmar draws to instructions from the shaman.
“An Iditalmar follows stringent sacred rituals by eating one meal a day for 10-15 days till the painting is completed. Before the painting is made, the wall is cleaned and smeared with locally available red soil, then rice paste is prepared as white colour for painting with bamboo sticks [instead of brushes],” says Purusottam Patnaik, researcher with the State-run Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Research and Training Institute (SCSTRTI), Bhubaneswar.
Each painting has a rectangular frame, and features icons of deities, or those drawn from nature. It’s said that there are 64 artistic motifs that are drawn by the iditalmars in a painting. Some frequently featured motifs include Labasum (the earth god), Jodisum (the village deity), Manduasum (the sun god) and Jananglosum (the wind deity). Distinct paintings are drawn with different occasions between birth and death in mind.
SCSRTI director A. B. Ota believes tribal cultures can be preserved if they are seen as livelihood options. He encouraged some changes that made Saora paintings easy to market.
“We sent Saora youth to professional institutes like the B. K. School of Arts, where they honed their skill further, and the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) where they received inputs for modernising. Little changes were introduced, such as painting in different sizes and using acrylic colours for longevity,” said Dr. Ota. Saora paintings have also been embossed on tea cups and document folders.
“While some changes were made to the paintings, we kept their essence intact and never interfered with their sacred beliefs,” he added.
The agrarian Saoras have lived a quiet life in the lap of nature for centuries. The tribe finds mention in the Hindu epic Ramayana with Savari, Lord Ram’s devotee.
Hardly any iditalmar remains unemployed. The artists are also hired by civic authorities to paint and beautify city walls. It takes a day to complete a 20×8 inch painting priced upwards of ₹700; the materials required to make it cost ₹100. Larger paintings are more expensive.