Painted shrines: A 300-year-old art form celebrates female deities

  • Meenakshi Iyer, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Jul 28, 2016 15:32 IST
Visath Mata seated on a buffalo (Photos courtesy: Artisans’)

In Indian mythology, goddesses like Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswati are worshipped for their infinite powers. But there are a few goddesses that remain unheard of. And just like them, their believers too, are shrouded in anonymity. One such group is the Chitaras, belonging to the Vaghri community (now known as Devi Pujaks) of Gujarat. The Vaghris worship goddesses such as Meladi Mata (the protector of farmlands, seated on goat) and Hadkai Mata (who provides protection against rabies and is seated on a dog).

The community carries a 300-year-old tradition of worship through an art form known as Mata ni Pachedi, which in Gujarati means: ‘That which enshrines the goddess mother’. These hand-painted drawings of goddesses on clothes will be on display as part of an upcoming exhibition, The Painted Goddess: Contemporary Shrine Cloths at Artisans’, Kala Ghoda.

A painting of Jogini Mata. (Photo courtesy: Artisans’, Kala Ghoda )

Finding a way

“The Vagharis were from the underprivileged section of society. They were not allowed to enter temples or perform pujas. So, they created their own goddesses and worshipped them,” says Radhi Parekh, curator, Artisans’. Since the community was barred from entering religious places, they would create temporary shrines by painting artistic drawings of the goddesses on cloth.

Ahmedabad-based Sanjay Chitara (38) is one of the few remaining artists who practices this art form. “Only two or three families remain that have devoted themselves to this art. I learnt to draw from my father, and I will make sure my sons learn too,” says Chitara.

Chitara uses a pen fashioned out of bamboo sticks, and works on each Pachedi for two months. The goddess is always the central subject of the art, and around her are motifs like leaves, trees and mountains. Traditionally, only three colours were used — black, red and white.

The Tree of Life with Jogini Mata. (Photo courtesy: Artisans’, Kala Ghoda )

Adding colours

In a bid to contemporise the art form, Chitara started using colours like indigo, pink, and yellow. “I use only natural colours. I use turmeric to create yellow, magenta (sticks) to create pink; red comes from alum,” says Chitara.

But it’s not just the addition of colours that has helped bring the art form from the community into galleries. Chitara draws influences from other forms of art like Machilipatnam Kalamkari. “The traditional form of Mata ni Pachedi has a narrative grid. Sanjay’s work departs from that. He seldom uses block-printing (commonly seen in traditional form), and uses only the kalam, which makes his art more intricate,” says Parekh.

Chitara’s work has been displayed at several galleries in Mumbai, Bengaluru, Delhi and Hyderabad. Some of his paintings have been part of permanent collections at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and the international airport in Mumbai.

Mata ni Pachedi, which began as a low caste form of Goddess worship, is finding acceptance in the mainstream. Meet Sanjay Chitara, one of its handful practitioners

Does this mean that the community has finally managed to break out of obscurity, poverty, and illiteracy through this art form? “Yes,” Parekh insists. However the adulation is recent. “Only in the last two to three years have people started recognising tribal art forms as significant,” she adds. While some of Chitara’s larger canvases sell for Rs 2 lakh, most of his other paintings range from Rs 20,000 to Rs 50,000. “He finally has a stable income and a pucca house,” says Parekh.

Even decades after Independence, economic reforms and technological development, caste uprisings still make headlines. Even as thousands of Dalit protest against the unfair treatment meted out to the members of the community, there are many that remain unknown and their sufferings unidentified. In such a scenario, it is through art that people like Chitara are finding a voice and reclaiming their rightful place in the society.

Where: ARTISANS’, 52-56 Dr V B Gandhi Marg, Rhythm House Lane, Kala Ghoda; Call: 98201 45397

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