On the fissured walls of the magnificent Tera fort in Gujarat's Kutch district the story of the Ramayana springs to life in vivid colour: there is Sita on a pyre, Ram raining arrows on Ravana.
Kamangari bhint chitro or wall paintings was once a thriving art form in Kutch, used to embellish the palaces and homes of the affluent. The themes were as diverse as the patron's tastes, but were predominantly mythological, with scenes from the Ramayana or Krishna Leela. Royal processions was another favourite. The landscape was another rich source of material, and date palms and peacocks and scenes from everyday life were common.
Today, only bits and pieces of this rich art are preserved in a few homes, temples, and on Tera fort. But if you were to string these together chronologically, history would come alive in a lyrical manner.
Back to its origin
Kamangari art originated in the 18th century.It was a relatively peaceful time there were no battles, and it was a conducive environment for travel and trade,says Pradip Zaveri, a Vadodara-based businessman, known for documenting Kamangari. During this time, the Kamangars, a Muslim community from northern Kutch who traditionally made bows and arrows (kaman means bow) and painted shields, travelled to the rest of the region.
Soon the affluent Bhatia and Jain communities commissioned the Kamangars to paint their homes, giving birth to the art form. Such artistic embellishment on walls was traditionally seen as auspicious in Kutch.
A folk art
One of the finest examples of Kamangari art is in Aina Mahal, an 18th century palace in Bhuj. Here, the corridor is painted with a 47 feet scroll titled Nagpanchami Ashwari, by Kamangar artist Juma Ebrahim. The scroll begins with a royal procession with a mounted Arab cavalier, Arab soldiers, a cannon drawn by a pair of bullocks, a chariot of the family deity, and a group of camel riders. In the middle of the scroll is Maharao Shri Pragmalji II on a caparisoned elephant. The ethnicity of every individual is represented by their costume.
The paintbrushes were made from the bark of the local date palm, and the colours sourced from tree bark, flowers and stones. The artists would paint on wet plaster to ensure permanence.
For all its beauty, says Zaveri, Kamangari does not appear to have a consistent style.If you look at two paintings, you will see the difference in the treatment and rendering. For example, the lines on wall paintings are thicker than those in the scrolls. In some places, flowers are used to fill gaps like in a temple in Anjar but in other places this is missing.
Artists essentially followed their patron's instructions. As the rich traders who commissioned this art travelled abroad, the art saw changes too.The artists were given postcards from these places, and they would then draw characters inspired from the West but wearing a Kutchi pagdi, or the women would have long skirts,Zaveri says.
In a Jain temple in the Abdasa taluka of Kutch, a man is shown wearing a hat but in a dhoti and long coat. Some later paintings depict British soldiers in uniform. Others have aeroplanes, rail engines, and even a game of cricket.
At the bungalow of James MacMurdo in Anjar, the first political resident of the East Indian Company in Kutch, you can see Krishna and the Gopis dressed in the traditional attire of the Rabari community, complete with the nath (nose-ring). Much of the work also showed influences of the Mughal and Rajasthani styles.
According to Zaveri, Kamangari was popular until the early 20th century. Then, around the time of the Great Depression, its patrons began to migrate out of Kutch, and homes were locked up or abandoned. The murals degenerated and new occupants painted over them. The Kamangari artists turned to other livelihoods.
The 2001 Kutch earthquake dealt another severe blow; many houses that had the last few paintings came down,says Zaveri. Now there are only three places in Kutch with well-preserved Kamangari the fort in Tera, MacMurdo's bungalow in Anjar, and an ancestral home in Mundra, belonging to Kalubhai Vaghela.
There have been some feeble attempts by the government to revive the art, but more promising is a new project. Dalpat Danidharia, a librarian at Bhuj's Prag Mahal, a 19th century palace, says.Some of us who are passionate about saving Kamangari from disappearing from public memory are working on commissioning artists to create replicas.The aim, he says, is to let everyone experience this vibrant Kutchi heritage before it’s lost forever.
When not researching new stories, the Gujarat-based freelance journalist likes spinning tales for her toddler.