Tales of Origin: Scroll Paintings from the Deccan

By Sushmit Sharma 

Across the country, there are several scroll painting traditions which are accompanied by performances, music, songs and story-telling. Legends or gaathas of heroes slaying evil and eradicating darkness, episodes of great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, or even local legends such as the one of Behula, a devoted wife who brings back her husband to life with her pure devotion to Manasa, Goddess of serpents, are all examples of the myriad of popular themes, these scrolls were painted with. 

In the past, such traditions were very common throughout the country, which formed not only a mode of entertainment for the people residing in different areas but also a medium of education, bringing to life various legends served in a more delightful manner. The list of scroll painting tradition comprises of phad tradition of Rajasthan telling the stories of local heroes, Dev Narayan and Pabuji, and the pata paintings of Bengal, being the well known ones. There are also lesser known traditions in Bihar, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. In this genre of scroll paintings, the ones from Telangana are slightly unique not only in the style but also their function.

As mentioned, the scroll paintings elsewhere depicted the popular religious themes or local stories. In this aspect the scroll paintings from Telangana are different as they are specifically made for a particular caste which commissions them. They depict the story of origin of that particular caste juxtaposed with a parallel legend of a hero or deity, popular among that group. The whole process starts with the picture showmen who also belong to a sub-caste of the patron caste, getting a request for a performance. Thereafter, they will approach the professional artists who would execute the painting of these scrolls following a strict format and guideline chalked out by the picture showmen. In most cases, an old scroll is given to the artist to follow and replicate more or less the same.¹ Few changes in the sequences or appearances of certain characters and their costumes may be sometimes suggested by the picture showmen. Therefore, with not much scope of individualistic creative expression of the artist or in the theme, these scrolls remained the same year after year with very little variation. This has been well pointed out by Jagdish Mittal, comparing them with the Bengal scrolls, where the showmen were the artists themselves and had ample liberty in choosing the themes according to the demographic they were performing for and also in the style of execution.


 Specific Puranas formed the base of the scrolls for a specific caste and the story of origin and local legends will be incorporated or inserted in between the ongoing depiction. The main character of the Purana or the favorite deity of the community will be painted either in the beginning or in between, in a more prominent register in a larger proportion to the rest of the characters. For example, Lord Ganesh or Saint Markandeya will be painted in the beginning in a larger size compared to the rest, which also helps in visually labeling the scroll in a single glance. To name a few, the Markandeya Purana or the Bhavana Rishi Purana is performed for the Padmasalis (Weaver caste), Mahabharata or the Pandavula Katha is performed for the Mudiraj/Mutrasi (fruit gatherer caste) and so on. The only exception is the cowherd and shepherd groups who commission a narration of the story with performance comprising wooden dolls, 53 (fifty three) in number.²

The scrolls are larger in size compared to scrolls from other traditions, both in length and width. They are painted over a prepared fine hand-woven cotton fabric. Divided into registers over a vertical cloth, the episodes of the story continue as per sequence desired by the picture showmen or as dictated by the old scroll used as reference. All scrolls are in vertical format with only one exception that illustrates the Jambavata Purana is in horizontal format.³ Since the older scrolls played an important role in the painting process, the style as mentioned before, remained more or less unaltered, which results in the continuance of the Nayaka style of painting prevalent in the Deccani Kingdoms. There were also influences from the Sultanates which ruled the region and can be seen in the manner of costumes, arms and textiles that were depicted.

Today, most of these scrolls have lost their original function and the tradition is kept alive only by a handful of artists who are descendants of the older artists known as Naqqash. With these artists now concentrated only in the small village of Cheriyal, over the recent years these scrolls are being referred to as Cheriyal paintings. They are also painted in small formats for urban home to be used as decors and the product range have been extended to papier mache masks known as drishti bommala⁴ and doll sets depicting deities.

¹ Jagdish Mittal, Deccani Scroll Paintings, in the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art. (Hyderabad: Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Art, 2014), 9.
² Ibid, 11-12.
³ Ibid, 14.
⁴ Aditi Ranjan and M P Ranjan, eds., Crafts of India: Handmade in India. (New Delhi: Council of Handicraft Development Corporation, COHANDS, 2007), 276.




About the Author:


Sushmit Sharma is an Art historian, and associated in various capacities with museums in New Delhi, working on the documentation of their decorative arts, textiles/costumes, arms/armour and folk/tribal art collections. He has also co-authored the catalogue, titled, "Divyambara: Masterpieces of Costumes from the National Museum Collection" together with eminent historian, Late Dr. Lotika Varadarajan. He is also trained as a Fashion Designer in National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, creating collections for various high end brands.


To read more about Indian Arts and Crafts, visit Sushmit’s blog: www.livingwithart.blog