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Traditional art forms and its role in storytelling

Cheriyal painting has been used for storytelling for centuries

Imagine a time when there were no cinemas, books or social media. Storytelling in the form of traditional art has been the human civilisation’s primary tool for learning and teaching lore and legends. It truly is an art that brings order to a world that’s often chaotic and confusing. Storytelling isn’t just a pastime, it’s a way of life that’s incorporated even today, even if it might just be to pass along memories, insights, data or just common sense advice. 

Stories help distinguish right and wrong, especially in every person’s formative years and it has been a traditional art form which dates back to the time humans had the ability to speak. Thanks to our late ancestors, we have discovered proof of visual representations of stories that date as far back as 36,000 years ago. The Chauvet cave in France is the oldest representation of storytelling in which the paintings in the cave tell the story of a volcanic eruption.

Ancient cave paintings
An image from Chauvet Cave, dating back 36,000 years (Image source: World History Encyclopedia)

Using Traditional Art for Storytelling in Ancient Egypt

Storytelling can also be found in Egyptian hieroglyphics dating back to 3,000 BCE which uses mixed pictographic symbols and sounds to tell a story. These stories were not just religious documentation but also gave messages to current and future generations. This form of storytelling was so prevalent in ancient Egypt that it has allowed modern historians and Egyptologists to have an accurate understanding of the lifestyle, habits, beliefs, customs and culture of ancient Egyptians. 

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs were used for storytelling
Egyptian hieroglyphs can date back to 3,000 B.C (Image source: Unsplash)

Also read: Exploring the Deep Meanings of Madhubani Border Design

Using Traditional Indian Art in Storytelling

Traditional art and artists have played a vital role in communicating important announcements, spreading social awareness and entertaining people through stories and songs. Due to India’s rich diversity, different tribes from across the country developed their own traditional art forms which were used to tell stories through scroll paintings, puppetry, and miniatures combined with music and dance. 

One of the traditional art forms in India used for storytelling was scroll paintings. The artist/narrator would paint the entire story on a single scroll and accompany it with songs to make it engaging. Pattachitra from Bengal is one of the most famous scroll painting art forms and other similar forms include Cheriyal scroll painting from Telangana and Chitrakathi from Maharashtra. These scroll paintings resembled modern-day comic strip style and are kept alive even today.

Cheriyal scrolls were used for storytelling
Cheriyal scroll (Image source: India art & design)

“Telling a story visually seems poignant and resonates strongly with me. There is something about communicating visually that is incredibly powerful, but sometimes the words seem overwhelming. I often start with images, building the story from the images I create. That way, the viewer can have their own personal interpretation.”

– Laura Peyton, artist, bookmaker and illustrator

One of the most classic ways of storytelling through art is Dastangoi, which is derived from the Persian word ‘Dastan’ which means story and ‘goi’ which means to narrate a story. In the 18th century, the tradition of Dastangoi made its way from Delhi to Lucknow at the time of Mughal Emperor Akbar. Despite originating in Persian, Urdu Dastangoi took centre stage and gained popularity, combining popular fantasies and literary tropes to produce entertaining stories.

Mughal miniature paintings were also used for storytelling
Painting – ‘Hamzanama’ by Mughal Emperor Akbar narrating the story of Arghan Dev bringing the armour chest – 1562-1577 Image source: Brooklyn Museum Collection

After the death of Lucknow’s last Dastangoi Sheikh Tassaduq Hussain in 1918, the distinctive art of Dastangoi got lost in oblivion. Fast forward to today and the art form has finally re-emerged thanks to the Late Ankit Chadda (now deceased) and Himanshu Bajpai (who is considered a modern Dastangoi Maestro). This has led to old forms of entertainment making a comeback to revive an art form that is on the verge of extinction. Modern Dastangoi dwells on contemporary issues such as communalism, corruption and women empowerment, telling stories through art which are relevant to the world we live in.

Storytelling can take on many forms and traditional art has always aspired to communicate and connect with the viewer. For any artist, working on a blank canvas can be an intimidating process but with the help of a story, a painting can transform into an entire world, which can be a liberating experience. Moreover, when art is done correctly to convey a story, it can be an escape for people in a world styled and created by the artist. 

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