Humans have been painting for tens of thousands of years before there were scripts or languages, driven by the urge to communicate and express themselves. Tribal wall painting is an age-old tradition.The traditional art forms of the Chotanagpur plateau have fought a long battle for survival. The traditions are strongest in the plateau’s upper reaches, Hazaribagh, and in the lower Manbhum area, mostly covering Purulia
district in West Bengal.

Tribal wall paintings have been carried across generations. The forms and types have evolved over time with changes in lifestyles, economic structures, and geographical areas. It also differs among communities, and is shaped by the occasions during which the paintings are done.

But the ideas behind the art are almost the same in every region. Fertility is the core theme but birth, marriage, farming and harvest also are
dominant. Paintings are generally done to appease the gods and ancestors. They are a treasure trove of traditional wisdom, knowledge, and folklore.

The wall paintings done during agriculture and harvest festivals are known as Sohrai in Hazaribagh, and Bandna in Purulia. The autumn festivals worship  the cattle god Pashupati. Tribal women decorate their huts using natural pigments mixed in mud. Artists use cloth swabs or chewed twigs of the local sal

Khovar paintings are done during marriages  in Hazaribagh, where the people mostly live in forested hill villages, found throughout the plateau. The painting is done by women, and is considered to be lucky for newly-married couples. They maintain a vibrant tradition of murals practised as a ritual art form.

The walls of houses, particularly those of the bridal chamber, are also painted. A layer of wet, cream-coloured earth (dudhi mitti) is pasted over an undercoat of black earth and designs are cut with bits of comb or fingers, exposing black patterns against white. These paintings also have fertility symbols celebrating union and breeding.

Though these art forms show enormous skill—conveying socioeconomic status, faith and rituals in the daily life of tribal communities—the artists struggle to survive. 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.

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These painted huts are mostly found in forested hill villages throughout the Chotanagpur plateau.

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Women decorate the walls using natural pigments mixed in mud.
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Bandna wall art by Santhal tribe at a village in Purulia.

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Sohrai paintings by the Prajapati tribe in Hazaribagh.

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Sohrai paintings by the Oraon tribe in Hazaribagh. As most of the tribal societies in the upper region of the Chotanagpur plateau are still hunt, animal characters play a major part in their paintings.

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Bandna paintings by the Santhal tribe in Purulia. Farming is the main livelihood here, so simplified forms of plants, flowers and cattle play major roles in the paintings.

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A different form of Bandna paintings by the Santhal tribe, where the flowers represent breeding.
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Khovar paintings, which are done during weddings by many tribal communities in Hazaribagh.
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Flowers are used in Bandna paintings as a symbol of fertility in the Manbhum region of Chotanagpur plateau.
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The  courtyard of a tribal home in Purulia, locally known as chaitpura. A semi-liquid made by a particular kind of white mud is mixed with natural glues and  used as a medium. The medium is then skillfully spread using four fingers.

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Some Santal villages decorate their houses with relief wall art during the Bandna festival in Purulia.

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The reluctance of the younger generation to engage in this traditional form is held as one of the reasons for its decline.