The Story of Traditional Indian Painting: Saura Art


With simple forms, shapes, and figures that come together to compose intricate narratives with a limited palette of colours, the captivating traditional art of the Sauras has recited the story of the tribe for hundreds of years preserving their spiritual importance. Also, known as italons or ikons, Saura art has its roots in the eastern Indian state of Odisha (formerly Orissa). What started out with its ritualistic and traditional paintings on the mudwalls of village homes, has become an intrinsic part of India’s rich heritage.

Language of an Ancient Tribe

The Sauras are one of the oldest tribes in India and have been cited in the Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Inhabiting the southern part of Odisha, this Munda ethnic tribe is known for its distinct tribal culture, traditions, and art.

Deeply connected to mother nature, the creations of the Sauras seem to be a simplistic depiction of their everyday village life on the surface. But their eye-catching traditional paintings are rich with symbolism and meaning. It is through these creative formations and their interpretation that this tribe holds on to their customs, beliefs, and culture. In fact, this art is a record of their history, literature, philosophy, spiritual, and religious practices.

The Meaning and Symbolism

Traditionally made on the clay walls of the homes of the villagers primarily by the priests during special occasions and festivals like harvest, child-birth, marriage, religious ceremonies, Saura paintings are usually dedicated to the principal deity ‘Idital’ of the tribe.

These traditional paintings are made using natural dyes derived from rice, white stones, and extracts of flowers and leaves, and a home-made tender bamboo paintbrush. Primarily derived from structural styles, these artworks usually have symmetrical geometric shapes like the triangle and circle often in wave-like patterns. Another distinctive feature of this art form is the arrangement of the motifs and characters in a net-like strategy.

These paintings are specifically popular for their abundant diversity— scared and formal themes.

Common subjects of this art comprise of tribal humans, trees, the sun and moon, horses, and elephants, which all hold their own meaning and symbolism. An alluring recurring image of this artwork is ‘The Tree of existence’—  featuring the arms of the trees extended and providing shelter the animals of the forest, small clay huts and tribal people engaged in their regular household chores like women carrying pots and infants playing around, and men raising livestock or hunting.

Every mold and sketch of Saura art describes their social, cultural, and religious ideals.

It’s Not the Warli Art

Made of similar geometrical shapes and forms, and use of similar earthen shades, Saura paintings have a striking visual semblance to the famous tribal art of Maharashtra — Warli.

Both these traditional paintings use clear geometric frames for their construction but the are subtle differences between the two — style, the composition, the pattern, and treatment of subjects differ significantly. Saura painting usually has a fish-net approach that is the artwork begins with a carefully drawn border and then worked inwards, the patterns close in on the center to form the intricate compositions, while this not the case with Warli art.

Also, though both are tribal pictographs that employ stick figures, Warli paintings use conjoint triangles to depict the human body while the figures of the Saura paintings are not as sharply depicted.

Another major difference between these two tribal art forms is that male and female icons are clearly distinguishable in Warli, unlike Saura art, where there is no such physical differentiation and figures are larger and elongated.

The Transformation

The traditional paintings of Saura have undergone significant transformation in the 21st century!

Experimenting with newer mediums, Saura artists now use acrylics, pen, and ink, and prefer painting on more mobile materials such as canvas and paper. Another interesting development in this tribal art is the subtle entry of modern elements in the imagery, themes, and subjects depicted. The present Saura paintings often feature timber and pictures of dancers engaged in amazing maneuvers.

However, there are still few artists of the Lanjia Sauras tribe who have preserved the ancient articulation of Saura in its original form.

An art that began as ritualistic wall murals, is now everywhere, from sarees to notebook covers and other utility items, and witnessing elevated business attention. It has also acquired a decorative value in recent times, with many people buying stunning pieces of Saura art for their homes.

Wrap Up

With eye-catching descriptive imagery and cultural significance, the traditional Saura art is not just mesmerizing, it is also enchanting, narrating the story of the ancient tribe in a way that is honest and unique. Undoubtedly, one of India’s most intriguing tribal artforms, Saura is a priceless treasure that adds so much richness to India’s cultural diversity.