Chithrakathi Paintings on Bharatha-K-Koothu

An ancient heritage of Maharashtra, origin traced back to the seventeenth century or even before, ”Chitrakatha” is today traced as reminiscences in the pockets of Pinguli – a small village near Kudal in the Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra. A nomadic clan termed as Thakars claim this tradition as their heirloom.

“Chitra” means picture (visual support) and “katha” means story and Chitrakathi is the person who tells the story with the aid of some visual support. The tradition of telling the mythical and historical stories was in existence in Maharashtra/Karnataka border and in parts of Andhra Pradesh.

Broadly speaking, Chitrakatha is identified in three forms, viz., leather shadow puppets, stringed wooden puppets and picture stories. The former two are identified distinctly by their own names while the latter is only, now,
Identified as “CHITRAKATHI’.In this tradition sequential painted pictures serve as visual illustrations as support for oral lyrics and dialects through which the story is conveyed.
“The name is derived from, chitra, a picture, and katha, a story and the professional occupation of the caste is to travel about exhibiting pictures of heroes and gods and telling stories about them ……..” pp 438-40 – R.V.Russel in “tribes and castes of central provinces of India”.


The forgotten art was identified a few decades back when the Thakar community got settled in various occupations. The paintings used by the Chitrakathis for their performance for visual illustration started becoming collectables. Two types of paintings were identified – one with the influence of leather shadow puppets and the other influenced by the Vijayanagar and Deccani style. The former identified as the Paithani paintings are today seen as collectables and museum pieces only. The chitrakathis of Pinguli use the second style of paintings for their performance.

“Varnakai saha ye vakthi sa chitra katho vara: l
Gayaka yetra gayanthi vina thala manoharam ll”

A person who with the aid of colourful visual illustration tells the puranic stories is a good Chitrakathi when with vina and percussion sings the lyrics melodiously.
-Someshwar in Manasollasa (Abhilashitartha Chinthamani)
The above cited sutra gives a picture that this method of storytelling was prevalent during the earlier centuries. However the dates of the existing paintings are only after the introduction of mill made paper in India. The antiquity of paintings are identified as 60 to 400 years back. For the sixty years the Chitrakathis have not added to the collection.


The Chitrakathis mainly narrate the two great epics – Ramayana and Mahabharatha. The Ramayana is divided into smaller segments as Bala Kand, Hanumana Prathapa(Lanka Dahana), Rama Ravana yudha, Lava Kusha (uththara Ramayana), etc; while in Maharashtra the important incidents which forms different stories are the Rukmini swayamvara, Kichak Vadha, Babruvahana”s Ashvamedha Yagna, Abhimanyu Vatsala Swayamvara, Jaimini Ashwamedha Yagna and also the story of Harishchandra and Chandramathi.

The entire story is divided into forty to sixty scenes and every scene is composed as a visual aid for the narration. The characters in the story and the scene form the subject of the painting.


Mill made papers were easily available and that formed the canvas for these style of paintings. A sheet of 12 inch X 15 inch approximate is the dimension of the sheet used for the painting. No special preparation is made before painting but after the pictures are ready two consecutive pictures are stuck front and back to make the bond stiff and for easy handling. In some cases a third sheet is also found inserted between the two paintings to make the picture stiffer.


Earth colors or colours obtained from natural rocks were used for painting the pictures. Also vegetable extracts from tree barks and leaves were used for green blue and some more colours.
- A red colored stone (probably cinnabar) from the river bed of Panas is used for red.
– A dull Indian red was also obtained by grinding burnt bricks
and tiles
– Gairika or a reddish brown stone was used for brown colour.
– Haritala or yellow orpiment was used for yellow colour.
– Ghod ka pattha ( ) for green.

A special gum extracted from the shells of cashew kernels is used for binding the colour extracts. This practice seems to be unique and doesn’t seem to exist elsewhere.
Kerosene lamp soot or the soot deposits in the kitchens are used for the black lining and black colours.
Brushes were obtained from preparing the shrubs named chitari.


According to the previous researches the same person paints and performs. Though illiterates the painters have acquired subjective knowledge concerned to the art of classical styles.
“the men sometimes paint their own pictures, and in Bombay they have
a caste rule that every Chitrakathi must have in his house a complete set
of sacred pictures………..”
(Vol.II, pp 438-40, R.V.Russell in his Tribes and castes of the
Central provinces of India)


After the subject is decided the board of 12” x 15” is bordered on top and bottom to represent the stage of puppet show. The characters and other ingots are sketched out roughly and the prepared colours are applied in thin coat as a diluted wash. The entire painting is relined through-out in black and the colours are repeated in places where darker effect is required. Finally it is decorated and beautified with red and white spots and lines.
The overall iconography of the paintings and the application of the colours and the sophistication of the style explain that the folk artists were very much aware of the Shastriya Chitrakala.


Paithan the imperial capital of the Shatavahanas lost its fame after the 2nd century BCE and remains as a pilgrim centre and place of archeological centre till date. Mobility of people of various creeds along the banks of Godavari from Andhra and other neighboring states was the root cause of exposure of various external arts and practices to the residents of this belt.

Nashik and Paithan were pilgrim centers where people on their visits had a practice of taking some divine portraits as mementoes (A similar practice of Nathdwara and Puri).
The pictures were painted on paper in a peculiar folk style which was in practice in Paithan during the 17th century with a remarkable originality and bold brush work. The pictures were usually used to depict a visual story to the pilgrims. The style is the fusion of the painter with that of a temple muralist and sculptor and the angularities of the drawings have resemblance with the paintings of Ellora which is in its accessible neighborhood.
However the Pinguli set of Paintings differ in their style. The compositions have influences of the Vijayanagara and Deccani styles of Paintings.


As told earlier the top and bottom of the board is marked with borders representing the stage (as in puppet shows) and the ingots of the scene are arranged so that everything is distinctly visualized. The figures are well composed with regard to the classical style iconographies. Wide shoulders, long arms, powerful chest and narrow waist are the characteristic features of the masculine figures while majestic grace, magnificent garments and heavy jewellery are the feature of female figures.

The figures are robust and are painted flat in profile in the paintings from Paithan, whereas, two-third profile figures are also found in the paintings from Pinguli. Another characteristic difference is the unique eye. The eyes in the Paithani paintings are fully round with a spot in the centre and a little projection on either side to give it a look of Human eye. This resembles the eye in the Leather Puppets. In Pinguli paintings this feature is absent and the eye resembles that of Telengana and Orissa Paintings.

The dress codes of male figures have been changing from time to time ranging between the Mughal, Rajasthan, Maharashtra to European attires but the female figures wear saree in the Maharashtrian style even though the elaboration may vary. The headgears and turbans ranges in various forms in the Paithani styles while the Pinguli collections can explicitly be matched with the sculptorial iconography of their local temples.
The paintings are devoid of modulation but for some black lines at the elbows to serve the purpose.
Every character is significantly placed to highlight their activity in the scene. The usage and application of colours are the same as in the classical styles.

The flora fauna and architectural backgrounds are also impregnated so as to enliven the total ambience dramatically. However the visual clarity is maintained so as to help the audience understand the subject clearly.


The pictures are kept in a set of 30 to 60 and the entire story is bundled in cloth. Such a collection is called a “pothy”. The pothys are treated with utmost care so that the pictures can have a better life. However today, since no new additions are made, the pictures are almost in damaged condition. Some performers have now tried to laminate the paintings with polythene sheets but this disturbs the clarity of the paintings.


For the performance a minimum of two or maximum four persons are required. The person who is going to elaborate the main story becomes centre person and is called the “Nayak”. Rest of the people are the accompanists and are called “Vajapee” (instrument players). A blanket or any old cloth is spread on the ground to mark the place of performance. The team makes the place comfortable and settles down for story telling. A wooden plank, a little larger than the paintings, is made to stand erect with the help of the spread cloth and the knee of the Nayak. This forms the screen for displaying the visual support. The performer places the paintings one after the other and elaborates the story according to the sequence.

The performance starts with the invocation of Ganapathi and Saraswathi in the form of a dialect between the Nayak and the Gods. The instruments accompanying are the Tambur, Janjh and huduk. At some places the thambur and Janjh are replaced by Ektar (Tuntuna) and Chipalya (Taal). The performance starts with lyrics and proceeds with dialogues. Every scene is introduced with a musical verse and elaborated with dialogues between the performers who play orally the role of the characters in the picture.

Humor in the Malwani and dialects are inserted between narrations to make the programme more entertaining.
Urbanization and penetration of medias have pushed aside the magnificent heritage of Malvani area. Not finding any source of livelihood in story-telling, the Thakars have started keeping pace with the urbanization setting aside the traditions. Sample and exhibition performances and a forsake ritual performances only exist today.


Chitrakathi Tradition of Pinguli – Baburao Sadwelkar,Marg
Treasures of the Dinakar Kelkar Museum, Marg
Chitrakathi, Raja Dinakar Kelkar Museum
“Paithan” Paintings : The epic world of Chithrakathis” – Dallapiccola
Anna L
Chithrakathi, NFSC Folk Festival 2002