House of The Spirits, IKons : The Saura Painting

When imagination and creativity fuse together, it gives birth to art. Through it, human beings express their emotions either in tangible or intangible ways. Art can be of different forms such as Dancing, Music, Painting, theatre, etc. Tribal art is one among them, which is mostly done by tribal people. India is often considered a land of diversity, with a mosaic of its unique culture, with different inhabitants of India having different cultures and different societal milieu such as urban, rural, and tribal. Tribal people live in distinct geographical regions having their unique socio-cultural patterns associated with nature. Talking about tribal populations, India is the second country to hold an elevated congregation of tribal people, following Africa. These tribal masses are ingrained with immense potential and diverse skills in themselves; they have a distinct way of doing art. Saura wall paintings are one of the Tribal Arts of India. The Saura tribe of Odisha makes these paintings. It shows the continuation of humankind from the Prehistoric period till modern times. This Blog will mainly highlight the significance of the Saura paintings of Odisha and will acquaint us with the tradition of art making of their own Saura wall painting, also called Italons or Ikons/Ekons.

Saura Tribe

Saura tribe is one of the scheduled tribes of India of population around 94,300, most of them habitating in Odisha, associating themselves with the Hindu religion(82.58%) followed by Christianity(16.77%). They are also called Savara, Saora, Sabara, Savasanokoliva, etc. Saura people are mostly found in Ganjam, Gajpati and Koraput Districts of Orissa and the states of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, etc. The word Saura comes from the Scythian word ‘Sagories’ meaning ‘axe’ and many believe that it comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Saba Raye’, which stands for ‘carrying a dead body’. Legend has it that it comes from two words: ‘So’ means ‘hidden’ and ‘Ara’ means ‘tree’. These signify that the Saura people were primarily hunters and gatherers and were forest dwellers. Saura people are racially associated with the proto australoid group belonging to the Austric Language family. They also have their own unique script, ‘Soura Sompen – Guru Mangei Gomango’.

Saura tribe has historical significance too and finds mention in different epics, puranas, Hindu mythologies and scriptures. According to folklore, Sabari belonged to ‘Ramayana’, who gave ‘Ber’ to Rama for eating while he was in exile for 14 years. It is believed that Sabari belonged to the Saura tribe. Similarly, in ‘Mahabharata’, Krishna was stabbed by the arrow of ‘Jara Savara’. It is believed that the body of Jara was converted into a wooden log and it flowed in the ‘Mahodadhi sea’ near Puri, which is now considered and worshipped as ‘Lord Jagannath’. Prior tradition believes that Viswavasu, chief of Saura, used to worship ‘Nilamadhava Vishnu’ on the blue hills of Nilachal. ‘Eklavya’ outstood Pandavas and Kauravas in the skill of archery as he learnt archery from observing the teachings of Guru Dronacharya. 1st cent BC Hathigumpha inscription of Kharavela also mentions about Savaras of Odisha which were Known as ‘Vidyadhardhivasas’. They comprised the ferocious army of the King, and also the Great Ashoka had no control over ‘Atavika Kingdom’, which was the Saura Territory.

Saura Man (Source : Virasat – E – Hind) ; Saura Woman (Source : INTACH)
Rubbing of rice in a winnowing pan by Shaman.(Source : Virasat – E – Hind)

Before drawing the icon, the painter seeks blessings from gods and spirits and places some wine on earth and on the wall too. He later takes some wine and before starting the drawing, he says a few lines as documented by Elwin “I am an ignorant fellow: I know nothing: but I have been told to make you a house. If I make any mistake, do not punish me, for it will not be my fault.” After this, the artist starts to make the icon according to the dream or demand of spirits and starts by making a house (rectangle or a square), humans, and animals using geometrical figures. He uses bamboo sticks or a twig of ‘khejur’ as a brush to paint the ikon. To make the human he makes two inverted triangles, a dot for the head and lines for the hands and legs. In a similar fashion, other objects are also made. After the completion of the painting, the shaman comes and invites the spirit to inspect the idittal and the shaman falls in a trance and utters what is needed in the Nikon, such as a comb, bicycle etc, and that is made by the ittalmaran at the same time and the picture becomes overcrowded. After that, a ritual of consecration is performed by the Shaman and a hen or goat is sacrificed and offered to the painting. Further, a pot full of rice, grains, bidi, garlic etc called ‘Sonumdung’ is offered. After the ritual is performed, a feast is organised and the Shaman and the Itttalmaran breaks their fast with the members of the family.

Geru & Ittalmaran making Ikon. (Source: Alamy)

Through acculturation Saura has started praying to the Hindu gods and also started to make Goddess Lakshmi their icon through symbolic representation of Lotus. Lord Jagannath is also depicted in their Ikons. Apart from wall painting, Saura People also do body decoration, tattooing. Motifs which they use are floral figures, human figures, lines, etc which keep them immune from external dangers. This tattoo-making tradition is prevalent in many tribal cultures.

Sonumdung (Source: Virasat – e – Hind) & Hindu Gods near Ikon (Source: Alamy)

Saura paintings look very similar to the prehistoric rock paintings of Bhimbetka, as these people also used the same geometric patterns and lines to make their figures. In contemporary times, there are a few paintings which look similar to the Saura Paintings, such as Muria painting of Chattisgarh done by Muria Tribe and Warli of Maharashtra done by Warli tribe. Although these paintings have similarities, they have differences to distinguish them with each other as they stand independently in their unique socio-religious context.

Bhimbetka rock art (Source : Shutterstock) & Muriya Painting (Source: Shahpedia)

Saura Painting shows continuity in their paintings, it is not constant but is evolving in nature as we see various images of planes, trains, weapons such as guns etc. Although these paintings were used to cure illness and ward off evil spirits, nowadays they are merely followed as most of them now depend upon medicines and hospitals and are now mostly affiliated with the Hindu religion and pray to gods and goddesses with the concept of higher and lesser gods. Also these motifs, which were earlier considered sacred, are now used as a decorative element in modern scenarios. With the changing times, Saura has moved from walls to canvas, fabrics, toys, decorating objects and many more.