25 Feb 2018  |   06:24am IST

Unmasking history – The revival of the Cherial mask

A 400-year-old traditional art form is alive today because one family in the world decided to keep it going for generations. Sai Kiran Nakashi ventured out of his village of Cheiryal to study English and Fine Arts to give this unique form of art new life. Café learns more about Cherial mask making
Unmasking history – The revival of the Cherial mask

Ever heard of a mask created using tamarind

seed paste and sawdust? It is a very rare, 400-year-old traditional art that is extant today because of one family in Telangana – the family of Dhanalokata Sai Kiran Varma Nakashi. Storytellers use painted scrolls to narrate animate stories and these masks are used to entertain the huge festival crowds. Drawing its name from the village of Cheriyal, which is about 100 kilometres away from Hyderabad in Telangana, this is the fourth generation of the single family that is finding new ways to showcase Cherial mask making and scroll painting.

Sai Kiran is a youngster who learnt this art form from his grandfather and father. “My great grandfather, Venkatramiah, moved from Rajasthan to Telangana, where he settled down with his family. Along with him, he brought the legacy of scroll painting and mask making. I watched my parents and my uncles work hard to preserve this art form and no one in the extended family was interested in continuing with it since it involves a lot of patience, hard work and a drop in business. My only hope was for this art form to reach a wider audience,” says Sai Kiran, who is in Goa, conducting workshops at five venues across the state. He will be conducting a Cherial Mask Making workshop at Dogears Bookshop, Margao today from 4pm to 7pm.

Sai Kiran first decided to learn to speak in English and Hindi as it would facilitate smoother communication. He started conducting workshops at the age of 17 years and that was when he was noticed by Surabhi Vani Devi, daughter of late P V Narasimha Rao, Former Prime Minister of India. She offered him a seat at the Osmani University in Hyderabad, in Fine Arts, which further improved his skills. “I learnt everything, from acrylic to oil colours, in the five years of college. On the first day, I didn’t even know what a line was and that there are different types of pencils and colours. The first two years was basics and third year onwards, specialisation. My specialisation was painting and murals. I graduated with 74 per cent,” says Sai Kiran.

Speaking about the art in his family, he says, “This work was taken more seriously in the family when my grandfather, Chandriah, and his brother, Vaikuntam, got recognition from the state government for their work with this art form, in 1976. Before that, only my great grandfather and my grandfather were into the art. When my great grandfather was working on two paintings, he suffered a paralytic attack; that’s when his son, my grandfather, started learning this art form to complete his paintings. He was 35 then. We gradually started getting more orders.”

The art was continued by Sai Kiran’s father, Nagueshwar, and his brothers, Venkatramaiah and Pavan Kumar. Sai Kiran and his brother Shravan Kumar are the fourth generation in this artistic family. Cherial paintings by Sai Kiran’s great grandfather and his brother, which are nearly 100 years old, are on display at museums in Paris, Russia and Hyderabad.

In Telangana, huge crowds gather for festivals like Bathukamma and Bonalu. They become the audience for the storytellers, who wear animal masks (tiger, elephant, cow, horse and rabbit) to entertain those gathered. The same people will also tell stories after entertaining the crowd.

There is a step-by-step process to create these masks. The small masks are created directly on coconut shells with tamarind seed paste and sawdust for the base. For bigger masks, cement moulds are made and a newspaper is placed to separate the mould from a half inch layer of tamarind seed paste and sawdust. This is allowed to dry for two days.

“After extracting from the mould, the mask is then made smooth using the same paste and kept for drying. Facial features like eyes, nose, cheeks are created with the same paste and evened out with sandpaper; a cotton cloth is then placed on it. On top of the cloth, we apply a coat of chalk powder and keep for drying. We apply paint using natural colours, after which, a layer of clear varnish is applied for a glossy effect and added protection as the natural colours are not waterproof,” explains Sai Kiran, who has also written a book as part of his college thesis on ‘Cherial Scroll Painting And Dolls’, which he plans to release soon.

It is not easy to source the raw material for this art form as it uses all natural things. For the natural colours itself, white is drawn from seashells while black comes from the kerosene lamps’ soot and blue from the indigo tree. Colours like yellow, red and bright yellow, which are used for painting jewellery, are taken from grinding different stones. “Every year, we use 100-150 kilograms of tamarind seeds, which are ground to powder form at a local flour mill and since it is hard, it requires nearly 5-6 rounds in the machine.”

To get a mass appeal for the art, Sai Kiran had to think out of the box. “I started doing utility items to attract the attention of people. I started with key chains, tissue boxes, pen holders, spectacle holders and small forms of the mask, which can be used as wall decorations, apart from the traditional art. The raw material is the same but the presentation is different in terms of colours. We are the only family in the world to create this 400-year-old art form and it will die with my father if I don’t carry it on and that should not happen,” concludes Sai Kiran.


Iddhar Udhar