Khovar: An ancient tribal wall art

khovar wall painting An adivasi hut with khovar wall painting

I was traveling to Delhi from Birsa Munda airport in Ranchi. As I entered the check-in area at the arrival terminal, I saw a bright replica of an Adivasi hut with sohrai and khovar wall painting.

An adivasi hut with sohrai and khovar wall painting
A bright replica of an adivasi hut with sohrai and khovar wall painting | Birsa Munda Airport | Ranchi.

In the tribal villages of Hazaribagh and its adjoining districts in the Indian state of Jharkhand, mud homes of Adivasis, are adorned with bold, figurative murals. There are two major art forms — Sohrai and Khovar, based on the harvest and marriage seasons. A dozen major Mesolithic rock-art sites in this area suggest a lengthy continuity of mural art there. These paintings are considered to bring good luck.

Tribal wall painting is an age-old tradition. The personal experiences of the artists and their interactions with nature are the biggest influence in these art forms. Forest-dwelling tribes shave forest forms into their artworks, sketching the tiger, deer, elephant, peacock, and snake. River-valley and plains-dwelling agricultural tribes shave domestic animal forms like the cow, bull, goat, fowl, pigeon, peacock and lotus.

khovar wall painting
An Adivasi hut with khovar wall painting

Khovar art was traditionally for decorating the marriage chamber of the bride and groom, and it usually depicts the animals and plants of neighbouring forests and valleys. The name Khovar is derived from two words: kho or koh (meaning: a cave) and var (meaning: husband). Symbolizing fertility, the mural-making takes place each spring during the marriage season.

The marriage season runs from January until the onset of the monsoons in June. It is in these months that Khovar designs are painted by the mother of the bride and other women of the villages as part of their traditional matrimonial ritual, where the marriage rites are performed and the newly-wed couple will sleep. This special area of the house is painted and decorated. Mothers pass on to daughters down countless generations the skills and motifs to create murals.

An Adivasi hut with khovar wall painting

The base coat is usually black, the top layer white and its symbolism is sexual. The bride’s house represents the “mother”. A layer of kali mitti (dark charcoal earth) is first applied to the exterior of the mud homes and left to dry, representing the darkness of the mother’s womb. The walls are then covered with Dudhi mitti (white kaolin clay), representing the sperm of the “father”. Before this coat of light-coloured earth dries, the women use broken combs or their fingers to brush and scrape away the lighter earth, creating lyrical, black and white silhouettes with exaggerated brushstrokes. Thus symbolising fertility and breeding.

khovar art
Khovar wall paintings

This technique of comb cutting is similar to the “Sgraffito” technique of Greece and the incised pottery technique found in Iran and the Indus valley. 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.