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The Fascinating Process of Cheriyal Mask and Doll-Making

The Unique Tradition of Cheriyal Mask and Doll-Making

Cheriyal, a quaint village in Telangana, is not just known for its historical significance but also for a unique artistic tradition: Cheriyal Mask and Doll-Making.

This art form was once popular all over Andhra Pradesh, but due to the declining status of performing artists, it is now almost exclusive to the Cheriyal village. Thanks to the ardent efforts of folk artists, this art form has been gaining popularity.

Traditionally a storytelling tradition, Cheriyal art is quite similar to Phad painting. It has its roots in the Nakashi art that the Mughal emperors brought with them to the south.

Some art historians speculate that certain artisans from Rajasthan migrated to Telangana many years ago and brought some versions of Phad art with them.

Craftsmanship and Creativity Through Cheriyal Mask and Doll-Making

A complete Cheriyal story-telling scroll. Image credit: D.Vaikuntum Nakash via Blogspot

Cheriyal painters were traditionally bound to their occupation. The artists were called Nakashis, whereas the storytellers were called Mandhets.

The storytelling-bard would buy Cheriyal paintings from the painters and give them a small gift as payment. Then they would travel to other places with a group of bards and musicians to put on performances for the village folk.

Meanwhile, the Nakashi painter would stay in the same place and work on their next painting. They would also create dolls, masks, and small scrolls for educational and decorative purposes.

The Fascinating Process of Cheriyal Mask-Making

Cheriyal Mask and Doll-Making
The different stages of creating a Cheriyal mask. Image credit: Dsource

Cheriyal masks are based on ancient mythological characters as well as those from local folklore. Some typical Cheriyal masks include male and female human figures, along with animals like cows, tigers, etc.

Cheriyal Mask and Doll-Making
Male and female Cheriyal masks. Image credit: D.Vaikuntum Nakash via Blogspot

These masks were used for entertainment and during performances, and smaller masks were also sold as toys for kids.

Cheriyal artists use dried coconut shells to make the base for Cheriyal masks. They first clean the shell and sand its surface to make it smooth and even.

They then prepare tamarind seed paste by first boiling the seeds and then crushing them into a pulp.

Image source: Dsource

After that, they add some sawdust to the paste until it forms a dough-like consistency.

The tamarind-sawdust paste feels a lot like clay and is easily malleable. It dries hard and is quite durable.

Image credit: Dsource

What makes this process sustainable is the fact that both tamarind seeds and sawdust are readily available, as they are waste products of the food and construction industries. Cheriyal artists use this mixture to create three-dimensional shapes on the coconut bases.

Once the artist has added features like a nose, eyes, hair, jewellery, etc., they cover it with a khadi cloth. They then use a mixture of rice starch, tree gum, and white mud to attach the mask to the base.

Image credit: Dsource

Nowadays, they can also use chalk powder for this step. It basically provides a smooth painting surface.

Finally, the artist paints the masks and adds different colours and details to the eyes, lips, jewellery, etc.

The Fascinating Process of Cheriyal Doll-Making

Cheriyal Mask and Doll-Making
Image credit: D.Vaikuntum Nakash via Blogspot

Cheriyal dolls are created from the wood of the Tella Poniki tree. Tella Poniki is a white, soft wood tree found in Telangana. Its wood is easy to carve and sturdy enough to maintain its shape.

Nirmal artists also use Tella Poniki wood to make toys. Cheriyal dolls are somewhat similar to the Kinnal dolls of Karnataka.

Image credit: Pavan Kumar via Facebook

Cheriyal artists carve these dolls and use tamarind sawdust paste to add features to them. They then give the doll’s surface a coat of liquid white lime. After this step, they begin painting the dolls with vibrant colours.

Much like Cheriyal masks, all the materials used in the doll-making process are locally sourced. Cheriyal artists derive their own paints from natural pigments and make paint brushes from squirrel hair.

Cheriyal Mask and Doll-Making: Giving Cheriyal Art Greater Visibility

Cheriyal Mask and Doll-Making
Rooftop’s Cheriyal workshop at the India Art, Architecture and Design Biennale

Cheriyal dolls and masks are used to garner attention and entertain the masses. Cheriyal artists have now adapted their designs for everyday utility objects as well as home decor. Miniature Cheriyal masks are very popular as decor items as they are colourful and have a striking appearance.

Cheriyal artists are taking steps to increase the visibility of their craft. Workshops, often conducted for both kids and adults, not only preserve the art form but also provide a source of livelihood for local artisans.

Cheriyal mask and doll-making workshops are great at introducing beginners to the stylistic idioms of Cheriyal art.

The art is simple, beginner-friendly, and hands-on, which makes it perfect for crafty adults and kids. The exposure gained through workshops and increased visibility ensures the survival of this centuries-old tradition.

Why is Visibility Important for Folk Art Forms?

Rooftop CEO and Founder Kartik Gaggar with Mugdha Sinha, IAS joint secretary of the Ministry of Culture, Government of India (right) and Cheriyal artist Sowmya Dhanalakota (far left)

India is home to many tribal and folk art forms. Unfortunately, many of them are on the verge of extinction.

When such art forms gain visibility, more people become aware of their existence. And more artists want to learn them. More buyers want to collect and display such art.

If people remain unaware, folk art does not progress, and folk artists suffer as a consequence. This negatively impacts the future generation’s understanding of India’s cultural history and heritage.

Sai Kiran Dhanalakota is one of the few Cheriyal artists who is reimagining the art form. Image credit: Herald Goa

There are only a few families in India that practice the traditional techniques of Cheriyal painting. Cheriyal Mask and Doll-Making represents a unique blend of tradition and contemporary adaptation that is giving the art form greater visibility than before.

Cheriyal doll heads function as pen stands and brush holders. Image credit: Nakash Cherial Scroll Paintings & Dolls via Facebook

Nowadays, it is not uncommon to see Cheriyal masks as keychains and dolls as home decor. The unconventional approach of contemporary artists has given Cheriyal art a place in countless homes and workshops and will continue to do so in the future.

Want to learn more about the traditional dolls and puppets of India? Download the Rooftop app from Google Play or the App Store to learn more! Stay tuned to Rooftop blogs and follow us on Instagram @rooftop_app.

By Melissa D’Mello

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