The origins of Pithoro are obscure but as some scholars have suggested, it may have its roots in the early Aryan period.
Pithoro painting is not done for any decorative or ornamental purpose. Pithoro, or ‘Babo Pithoro’ as the tribals would call it, is an important deity in a region where several deities are worshipped. If someone, especially a young child or an unmarried girl is unwell or domestic animals are affected by an epidemic or if the land is not yielding enough- all believed to be signs of god’s anger or displeasure-the head of the family vows to provide a proper, respectable abode to Pithoro in his own home. He therefore gets Pithoro painted (or repainted, if there already is one) on the main wall, if and when he can afford the high cost involved. The main wall of the house is repaired or sometimes even reconstructed specially for Pithoro. Then, daily-for seven days-the wall surface is given a coating of plaster made from clay and dung. This is done by kumarikas or unmarried girls only The adjoining side walls are also replastered along with the main wall.
Pithoro is painted by a group of ‘professionals’ belonging to the tribal families of the Rathawa caste. Traditional painters, their work is highly specialised and they are scattered in different parts of the tribal area, each family catering to the needs of a particular zone. The actual Pithoro painting however is done later, on a suitable Wednesday depending upon the convenience of the host, the lakhara or painter and the guests. For obvious reasons, days during monsoon months and festivals are avoided.
The painting process involves a long ritual celebration, beginning a day earlier. Tuesday is called Pandudio or whitening day as it is on this day, preceding painting day when the walls are white-washed. White clay is dug out and brought in five new (unused) baskets covered with new (unwashed) pieces of cloth.
The whole atmosphere comes alive and the general mood is one of gaiety and festivity. Guests and lakharas start arriving in the afternoon and are welcomed, waited upon and offered hospitality by the host. The host’s local relatives and all his fellow-villagers help him in sharing the various responsibilities that include fetching wood for fuel and water, cooking for the gathering and preparing the prasad to be used as an offering to Pithoro during the final stage of the ceremony. The prasad for the offering is made by kumarikas only, preferably from the family. The execution of the Pithoro painting is a festive occasion for the whole village. In the cool shade under the roof of the host’s home women and girls sing songs praising Pithoro, a spirited village priest chants prayers, as though in a trance, to the strange rhythmic beat of jingling bells and daks (a type of drum, associated with Shiva). After dinner the lakhara begins whitewashing the walls. A piece of cloth, about a square metre in size is dipped in white liquid clay, prepared earlier and kept in earthen pots. The cloth is then put on the wall marking a white patch on it. This process is repeated until all three walls are completely white. Next morning (Wednesday), before sunrise, the lakhara takes a hot bath, a special treat provided by the host. After an early meal of rice served with buttermilk he begins painting. Bright and vivid hues of blue, green, red and orange are preferred. Yellow and black are also used occasionally. These paints are purchased from the nearest large town. Though there is no proof as no old Pithoros are found anywhere, it is possible that the earlier Pithoros were painted only in white, as it was the most common and popular mode of wall paintings in tribal and rural areas all over the country. However the use of some colours found locally-such as red and yellow ochre and lamp black-cannot be completely ruled out.
The dry pigments are dissolved in water in containers made out of coconut shells, or small clay bowls. Khakhara (Butea-monosperma) leaves and milk are added as a binder. A few drops of liquor are also added to each colour. Brushes are made from fresh bamboo twigs, one end beaten into a soft tuft by a stone or the back of a sickle. Twigs of different thickness are used for filling in the colours and for outlining the forms.
Lakharas start their work by drawing a rectangular border that encloses an area of about two metres high and three metres wide. Pithoro is painted inside these borders which represent the “limits of the earth in all four directions where the world ends.” These borders are drawn on the left side of the entrance leading to the kitchen and finished with simple geometric patterns in colours and lines.
Next to be drawn are the nine horses of Pithoro and other deities. For maintaining a uniform size, spacing and shape, the painter uses a simple wooden diba-templets in the shape of horses and other animals. Outlines are drawn around such templets with a knife or a sickle, but the other details such as the neck, head, legs and tail are added to the torso in free hand. A particular sequence is followed in drawing the figures according to the iconography followed traditionally. These are placed and coloured accordingly. The senior lakhara guides the others but when necessary, does the main drawings and details himself. Large wall surfaces on both sides of the main Pithoro area are painted by young men and male children who take the opportunity of learning the traditional art. They try to imitate the forms and figures painted but also fill the space with any other forms they feel like painting such as an automobile, a bus, a train, etc.
The story of Pithoro and the characters illustrated in the paintings do not seem to have any direct relation with Hindu mythology other than the similarity in the three names: Indra, Ravana and Vahi-lakhari-the last one being the local tribal name for Vidhatri-the goddess who writes the book of fate. It may be more valid to interpret the names of other deities painted in the Pithoro-Raja Bhoj, Valhum, Hadurja, Hodhal, Damor and Indra’s sisters-Koyal, Kajal and Mekhal-rather as a pictorial representation of an incident from a forgotten past of the tribals of the area. This could also be the reason why Pithoro is painted and worshipped in these regions only. But this is a matter for the researchers to decide.
The story of Pithoro as narrated by the tribals goes like this:
“King Indra had seven sisters. One of these sisters, Kali Koyal who was unmarried, gave birth to the illegitimate child of Kunja Rana. To avoid the wrath of Indra, Koyal left the new-born infant afloat on a river. The child was rescued and brought up by Rani Kajal, another of the sisters, who named him Pithoro. At the time of Pithoro’s marriage it was necessary to find out the identity of his real parents. So Pithoro was asked to point out his father from the deities whom Indra had invited to his court. Pithoro went straight to Kunja Rana. Thus, when his parents’ identity became known, Pithoro’s own status-as the nephew of Indra-went up, and he became Babo Pithoro. Indra then arranged his marriage with Pithori and invited all to participate in this spectacular celebration.”
The painting not only represents the barat, of Pithoro, the nephew of Indra, but it is also an embodiment and manifestation of many things related to tribal life.
Besides the main characters astride their horses, many figures and motifs are also painted in Pithoro. Among the commonly found are the multi-headed Ravana (perhaps the age-old tribal king from Madhya Pradesh!!) A farmer ploughing his land, a panihari,-woman with several water pots on her head, a bhatari, carrying lunch for her husband, Raja Bhoj smoking a hookah (the hubble pipe), a horse cart (to bring food-grains and clothes for the celebration), Damor Dev hunting a stag with a bow and arrow, a rooster and a hen, an umbrella, watchmen with their muzzle-loaders, the sun and the moon (these celestial guests are also the known symbols of eternity), a man climbing a palm tree, a woman milking a cow or a buffalo, etc.
Borders enclose the main areas of the barat scene, but for a small entrance at the bottom centre, guarded by two ferocious looking tigers who have caught a pig, a perennial nuisance to the tribal farmers, strange animals such as a deer with two heads are also shown among the guests for the wedding. Among them are the two foreigners, Ek-Tangya, a person with one leg only and Supad-Kanyo, one with ears as large as a winnowing basket. A spider, a bumble bee, a honeycomb and a snake are also shown in the painting. Images of deities of neighbouring villages or those associated with black magic and the underworld are also painted, (but on the side walls and away from the benevolent deities) as their blessings are also sought by the tribals. The painting is finished with outlines and patterns of dots and strokes of aluminium paint. This with its silvery glow of reflected light brightens up the Pithoro and gives it a heavenly touch. Musical accompaniment to the painting is provided by singing women and chanting priests till the evening when it is completed.
Late at night the pleasant atmosphere in the house turns into a bizarre one. The old priest performs the pooja rites and invites Pithoro to enter his body in the form of a spirit. The possessed priest then chants the sacred mantras in a tribal dialect and dances vigorously with his eyes closed, a bare sword in his hand. He points out the motifs and images following the order in which they were painted, each time asking “Is it not so?” If any motif or detail is found missing or left incomplete, the priest asks both the lakhara and the host to promise that every defect will be rectified within three days. Still in a stupor, the priest enacts and mimes a barber, a snake-charmer, a milkmaid, a monkey in the presence of a fully packed house. Everyone from infants to the aged enjoy the show-perhaps the only form of entertainment for the tribal audience. After this the priest formally accepts the Pithoro and declares the painting an abode of Babo Pithoro, the mighty and benevolent nephew of Indra.
At the auspicious hour suggested by the priest, oil lamps are lit and placed in a row near the Pithoro wall along with other ritual offerings such as prasad, rice, cereals and coconut. These are put in nine pots, one each for the nine deities. The pots are kept on top of nine small heaps of rice and arranged near the painted wall.
Incense sticks are also burnt throughout the ceremony. Three male goats and roosters are sacrificed by the host. The number of such offerings goes up in proportion to the social status and wealth of the host. Members of his family and chiefs of the neighbouring villages also offer goats or fowls to Babo Pithoro as their homage.
Young men and women sing and dance through the night. The next day the animals are skinned and cleaned by the people who had sacrificed them. Small pieces of cooked meat are distributed as prasad among the participants, during the big feast before they disperse.
Babo Pithoro is respected as a sacred altar and treated with great reverence and obeisance. Women do not pass with their heads uncovered and take care that their clothes never touch the celestial deities represented in the painting. Babo Pithoro is worshipped and his blessings invoked to placate or keep away other threatening forces and elements whenever the necessity is felt, and to thank him when the harvest is bountiful.