Steve Jobs, the late founder of Apple, once famously remarked, “we work with the best painters, poets, and artists who also happen to be the world’s best computer scientists.” Not far from Jobs’ words in spirit is Sravan, an engineer turned Cheriyal artist. He and his brother, Sai Kiran, are among the only four Nakashi families that specialise in Cheriyal school of art. Unique to Telangana, Cheriyal art showcases mythology and folklore narratives, on scrolls rich in motifs. Celebrating the craftsmanship, Rajeshwari Mavvuri, a handloom and handicraft enthuiast from Vizag, takes us through the journey of these artisan brothers.
A thick mixture of tamarind seeds paste, starch, tree gum, sudda matti (white powder) is coated thrice on the fabric. Once the fabric is completely dry, the thick and smooth canvas for the Cheriyal artists is ready. Traditionally, scroll painting was done on a cloth. Slowly but surely, paper became a popular substitute. The artist first draws the outlines and later fills it with natural paints using custom-made brushes made out of squirrel’s hair.
About 400 years ago, the Dhanalakota family — the duo’s forefathers came to a temple town by the name Vemulavada, in present day Telangana. They belonged to the ‘Nakashi’ community. In the good olden days, Nakashis were known to paint for the ballad that was often performed by artists belonging to the Kaki Badagallu caste.
The paintings, more often than not, have been depicting the Hindu mythological stories and contemporary life in the countryside. The original art of Cheriyal has been influenced by Andhra and Telangana culture. The artwork lasted so long that it was bequeathed by the next generation of ballad artists. The artwork seldom needed repairs even when the new owner used it. Only when the families split, they would revisit the Nakashi artisans. However, the longevity of the artwork, fewer consumers and lack of awareness among the public left the artisans with almost no work. Over the years, it appeared as though the art was destined for oblivion.
Consequently, several artisans left the profession. They even took up blue-collar jobs to make their ends meet. Due to lack of work, Dhanalakota Venkata Ramaiah, the great-grandfather of Sravan and Sai Kiran too migrated to Cheriyal. Swimming against the tide, he did not give up on this wonderful art.
Despite suffering from a paralytic stroke, Dhanalakota Venkata Ramaiah would still not budge. He encouraged his children to take up this art form. Years later, his grand son, D Chandraya, lived up to his legacy. Chandraya reached out to a few influencers who could give him a platform to exhibit the art. He successfully conducted workshops across India. Rightly deserving, the Government of India, recognised his hard work and awarded him the National Award in 1983.
The youngest of the Nakashis, Sai Kiran and Sravan, sons of D Chandraya, have learned the art since their childhood. They would come back from school and paint on most days. Sai Kiran has a Master’s degree in Fine Arts while Sravan is an engineer. When asked about what made him choose painting, Sravan quotes, “My grandfather risked almost everything in his life for the sake of art. What reason do I have to forsake it? And, why on earth should anyone do that? Being technically qualified and working in the art space has perks. It is mutually rewarding and enriching.” Just like their father, the brothers do not miss an opportunity to teach and spread the art. They find joy in conducting workshops across the country. Thanks to their medium of education, the English-speaking brothers are now in demand for their workshops.
Staying true to the spirit of Cheriyal artform, the duo experimented and innovated on several fronts. Today, one can find Cheriyal art with a range of props such as masks, handbags, key chains and even mobile covers. The family, as I know, is a happy one in an artsy way. The demand for their work has only gone up in the recent past.
About the Author: Rajeshwari Mavvuri is an active member of Crafts Council of Andhra Pradesh. She endeavours to make a difference to the Indian art and artisans alike. She is just a message away on Instagram: @rajeswarimavuri