Revamping Sohrai

The traditional paintings of the Santhali’s

7 min readSep 18, 2019

About the project

Every art form has a story to tell of the age it has lived. One of the oldest art forms of wall painting, Sohrai art has continued since 10,000–4,000 BC. It is said to be following upon the similar patterns and styles once used to create ‘Isko’ and the other rock arts in the region like Satpahar in Hazaribagh, Jharkhand. This array is highly appreciated for its creative interpretation of the scene and the use of natural colours to put additional entice and is believed to bring good luck.

Given a modern touch through my self initiated project with the view to motivate the community to move forward towards modernity without abandoning one’s Santhal mentality, these paintings shall manage to pass off an aura of beauty and display the sheer invaluable talent of the Sohrai artists. With distinguished styles, soothing colours, impeccable finish, and exclusive designs, these artworks will create an aura of resplendence and aestheticism to completely transform itself as per modern day demands.

About the project in Santhali: Translated by Supal Majhi and Dev Naran Hembram


Sohrai paintings are age-old tribal traditional paintings based on nature themes like forest, people, and animals. The paintings are done by tribal women using natural ingredients such as different shades of clay and charcoal. Earlier, tribal women used ‘miswak (datuns)’ to paint the walls of their house with this traditional art.

Original Sohrai paintings

In Hazaribagh district of Jharkhand an indigenous art form is practiced by the women. Ritualistic art is done on mud walls to welcome the harvest and to celebrate the cattle. The women clean their houses and decorate their walls with murals of Sohrai arts. This art form has continued since 10,000–4,000 BC. This art form was prevalent mostly in caves but now has been primarily shifted to houses with mud walls. But with the extinction of its natural canvas, the biggest challenge for the art form is to retain its original spirit. It doesn’t matter whether the canvas is mud or glass or a computer screen. in the end, art is greater than the pen and ink it is written with.


According to the Santhal mythology, Marang Buru (god of the mountains), Jaher ayo (goddess of the forest) and the elder sister of the Santhals, would descend on earth from heaven to pay a visit to their brothers and to commemorate this event. The harvest festival is celebrated at this time and women decorate their walls with murals of Sohrai arts. These paintings are believed to bring good luck. It’s from here that this art originated, adding to the culture and traditions of India.

The name

The name ‘Sohrai’ is said to have derived from a paleolithic age word - ‘soro’, meaning ‘to drive with a stick’.

The festival

Sohrai is a five day festival of the Santhal, Munda, Prajapati, Khurmi and Oraon tribes in the Indian states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, and West Bengal. In some areas it is shortened to three. It is held at the start of the winter harvest season.

It is celebrated during Amavasya in Kartik (October — November) month as per the Hindu calendar. In some regions, it is celebrated in mid-January. The festival is similar to Diwali. People clean and re-paint the house. In the night, they light earthen lamps in the cattle-sheds and offered sacrifice to the deity of animals Pasupati. The festival is accompanied by variety of rituals, consumption of handia (rice beer) in copious quantities, dancing, singing and merry making.

Deciding the date

The date of the festival is usually decided by the Manjhi, the village headman in consultation with the elders of the village. There is no fixed date marked off, thus celebrations are often staggered across villages, within the traditional time frame. The purpose is to enable the villagers to celebrate Sohrai in their own villages as well as in their relatives, especially married sisters and daughters.

Day 1

Rituals and sacrifice hens are conducted by the village priest in an open space as an invocation for their gods. It is only attended by men. The same hen is then cooked and served as a feast with boiled rice. With this, the manjhi announces start of the festival.

Day 2

The second day is devoted to invoking blessings from the god for individual homes. The cattle are sent to the fields in the morning to graze. In their absence, the womenfolks of the house decorate the huts by painting them. Meanwhile, food is prepared which would serve as prasad after the puja. Upon returning, the cattle are warmly welcomed. Their horns are anointed with oil and vermilion. Garlands made by strewing paddy strands are tied across their foreheads. When the puja gets over, the prasad is distributed among the villagers.

Day 3

Amid the loud sound of drums, the cattle are taken to an open field where they are let loose for games and recreational purposes. The women also join the menfolk this day.

Raw materials

The distinctive Sohrai art painted on the mud walls is a matriarchal tradition handed down from mother to daughter. These colourful paintings are done totally by using natural pigments mixed in mud — Kali matti, Charak matti, Dudhi matti, Lal matti (Geru), and Pila matti. Artists use datoon or cloth swabs daubed in different earth colours to paint on the walls — bulls, horses with riders, wild animals, trees, lotuses, peacocks, and horned deities. Sohrai paintings are considered to be good luck paintings.

The process

The wall is first coated with a layer of white mud. While the layer is still wet, they draw with their fingertips on it. The cow dung that was earlier used to cake the walls of the house is used to add colour. The dark outline is visible due to the previously applied contrasting white mud coat. The canvases range up to 12 x 18 feet. The designs are usually drawn from the artist’s memory. The personal experience of the artist, and their interaction with nature are the biggest influence.

The significance of colours

The Sohrai art painted on the mud wall is a matriarchal tradition handed down from mother to daughter. It is a symbolic-sacred artform of signs that carry multiple meanings. The house it covered with black earth representing the womb; the black earth is covered with the white earth called Dudhi (milk) representing the god and the symbols of sperm and light. When the white is covered entirely over the black earth and cut with a comb, the result is seen as a transformation of inert earth into an expression of the mother goddess.

  • The red line is drawn first as it represents the ‘blood of the ancestors’, procreation and fertility.
  • The next line is black which signifies eternal dead stone and mark of the God, Shiva.
  • The next all-encompassing outer lines stand in their traditional values of protection, fidelity, and chastity.
  • The white is painted with the last year’s rice, grounded with milk into gruel. This represents food.

Giving Sohrai a new identity

#01 The parade
#02 Cycle of life
#03 The peacock and the snake
#04 Dancing glory
#05 Eclectic beat
#06 The serpant’s dance
#07 Spring dance
#08 A maiden’s voyage
#09 The hunters’ bounty
#10 The quiet ones
#11 The forest feast
#12 Poise and grace