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Craft Stories from Chattisgarh- CLAY RELIEF

This is a story from the Sarguja district of Chhattisgarh, one of the largest states in the central part of the India. The Rajwars from this district are a farming community. The women of this community hold the key to a very special & traditional art form called Painted Clay Relief.

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Rajwars are a cultivating caste and are generally Hindu by religion. They worship Hindu Deities and their dead ancestors. Hindu Festivals such as Holi, Diwali & Dusshera are observed by them. But their most important festival is “Chherta”. This is celebrated by the populace on the full-moon day of the lunar month of “Pus” (December). On this post-harvest festival all women from the community paint the walls, doorways and wall skirting of their houses and items of daily use like shelves with “lipan” done in unfired clay and cow dung. These are painted white and illustrated in ochre, blue, green, red and yellow colours. Motifs of gods, animals, birds, trees, human and other three dimensional figures which are drawn, are the extensions of a tradition that are cofined within the spaces of imagination, and the personal life of the creator. These are articulated on jhinjira (screens), patani (shelving system) and dodki (storage bins) that are unique to every room of every house. In their core is a lattice structure made of thin bamboo strips, covered thinly with pooval (paddy hay), mixed with grog and sandy clay that has been smoothed. The geometric figures are made row upon row and the motifs are spontaneously created. The black colour is obtained from the soot of oil lamps while the base white is got from choohi, which is white clay. The process of creation includes repair and restoration of the walls and structures in a cyclic manner, every year ushering in a plethora of new motifs.


This is a traditional art form and is practiced by the women as a means to keep their immediate environment happy and beautiful. These women take pride in keeping their house and surroundings aesthetically superior with practice of this art and most certainly enjoy a tacit competition to have outdone ones neighbors in beautifying their own house. While all these kept the principles of the art form going, once in a while there comes a person to question the status quo. This is the very revolution that transforms a traditional indigenous art form into international phenomena. That’s where Sonabai & Sundaribai comes to make a difference and take the art form to whole new level. They are examples of how women have liberated themselves under unbelievable conditions and have transformed into icons of true power!

While we had traveled to Sarguja to witness their work in person (around 2005), we also had the good fortune to have worked with them briefly while we were trying to develop a  Puja Pandal in Kolkata. Co-creating with them is always a celebration and a reminder of supreme creativity which has been used to take the tradition from rural Sarguja to a global platform.

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Born around 1930, Sonabai belongs to the Puhphutara village in Sarguja District. While she started practicing the art out of tradition, her relentless artistic spirit took over at some point and gave vent to powerful imagination and thus creating some of the landmark work in this art form.  Sonabai’s personal life has a significant bearing on her towering artistic abilities. She started practicing the art initially with her mother like all Rajwar girls. They normally stay at home since formal education has historically been denied to them. But that is not to say that she learned the art from her mother. She was far removed from tradition as far as her art form is concerned. Married off at 14 to a rich landowner she found a new home at her in-laws. She bore a son 10 years later and around the same time her husband’s joint family, consisting of two brothers, split. The familial property of 15 acres got split and Sonabai found herself very lonely in her palatial new home. With a new born at tow she started creating clay sculptures at her own will and defying traditions in every way. Something used to take over her and she used to lose any sense of time and day when she was creating these. No routine work could make time in her schedule and she immersed herself in creating these clay figurines. She called them her “companions” and they filled a void within her core. Hence most of her work was inspired from the daily life and her life’s learning. Her figurines were admired by some, scoffed at by some others while some became very curious about them. Back at home her husband remained indifferent to her work. None of these responses however could shake her artistic convictions.

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When Bharat Bhawan, a modern multi art complex situated in Bhopal was getting set up, artists and researchers started traveling to interior Madhya Pradesh (Now Chhattisgarh) in search of Folk and Tribal arts and artists. It is then, that these people chanced upon Sonabai’s work! She left everyone stunned and wonder-struck. They took some of her work to the art complex for the world to view them. Rest is history! Sonabai won President’s National Award for Craft Persons in 1983 followed by Tulsi Samman of Madhya Pradesh Government in 1986.

When money and recognition started pouring in the entire village started taking up her style of work. They all wanted to ape her format. Though Sonabai-esque painted clay figures and relief work are found in large numbers in Rajwar Vilages of Sarguja today, none looks more than a lifeless imitation of her work.

Her avant-garde work beating all forms of tradition, her sense of creativity, a strong human spirit and faith in herself were primary reasons why she succeeded in carving a niche for herself and attain a status of true master who brought about an artistic revolution in Rural Sarguja without much media backing or institutionalized marketing.

Some of her noted works:

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While talking about artistic revolution and free thinking women one cannot miss Sundaribai. It is true that Puhphutara has been very lucky to have hosted two strong artists about two decades apart. The Rajwars of Sarjuga saw yet another artistic revolution in clay relief work with Sundaribai. While Sonabai’s success made everyone try out her style of work, here came Sundaribai giving a totally different dimension by breaking tradition and creating a new language.

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Sundaribai like all Rajwar Women started practicing the art at a very young age and continued with it till she was discovered for the finer aspects of her work. Ever since her exposure to formal exhibition spaces in a central Indian town in early 1980s, she has been commissioned many times by Government Art Departments., Museums, Art Galleries which eventually changed the imagery, aesthetics and techniques of her work.

Her major works include Ghasidas Museum in Raipur, a work at the residence of the Governor and an installation in State Assembly Building.  Having done several works at commercial scales, not only her style and ethos of work kept changing she even had to improvise on style and material techniques. For example, while making a gigantic arch on the roadside meant for welcoming dignitaries, she developed a complex armature of Bamboo and wood before covering it with clay and embellishing it with figures. She handled all artistic challenges with élan but never let anything mitigate or obstruct her artistic spirit or powerful imagination.

She had a free style of work which was inspired by real life. She gave a contemporary bent to all forms of tradition and presented it in her own way. It was only when she had to work under institutional patronage that she had to undergo the pedagogy of cultural biases.  She reproduced culture as she saw it with her mind’s eye. One of her landmark work includes her representation of Karama Festival, a cultural festival celebrated in her village. A lot of contemporary attributes are seen in her mythological work too. For example, Krishna is seen in a wrist watch while his beloved is seen in designer clothing. Women are shown fairer than men which reiterates a contemporary societal thought process.

Sundaribai has an evolved sense of pride and personal identity as an artist. She refuses any form of comparison with Sonabai. She clearly states that she comes with her own form of artistic sensibilities and has never even visited Sonabai’s work till date.

In Words of Jyotindra Jain (Ex Director- National Crafts Museum, New Delhi):  Sundaribai’s work marks a clear and self-conscious departure from repetitive tradition and embodies an attempt at fresh exploration of an inherited technique as well as recasting of myth and symbols in a contemporary context. From an inherited iconography she builds a new vocabulary for constructing a new narrative.

One of her notable works.

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  1. Excerpts : “Other Masters: Five Contemporary Folk and Tribal Artists of India” edited by Jyotindra Jain:  Sonabai – Jyotindra Jain
  2. Sundaribai – Jyotindra Jain