Powdery, golden dust from the nearby parched fields mixed with sweat and streaked her face with muddy rivulets. Finley Blake knew she was making the matter worse by running the back of her hand over her face, but it kept the sweat beads out of her eyes so she could get a clear shot. She imagined what her mother would say if she saw her. Something about ladies never sweating, only glistening. Bull hockey. This was sweat, plain and simple.
“Can you catch them in this light? I fear the subtle color might wash out.” Dr. Sanat Rao pointed to the dark-gray patches of paint that animated the white stucco face of the house with stylized beasts amid intricate swirls and patterns. He was a slight, Indian man in his early thirties with delicate features and a balding pate.
“I think we have just enough sun to catch the contrast.” Finley adjusted the aperture on her camera just in case the light faded in the last few minutes.
She had been working with Dr. Rao for the past three months, trying to understand and record the historical and artistic significance of the wall paintings of the Adivasi tribe. What had started as a short spread for a travel magazine had grown into a multiregional series as Finley started to understand the artistic ties that linked India together, especially in Bihar, Jharkhand, and Odisha.
The paintings she was focusing on for this segment of the series were mud art forms that were most prevalent in Jharkhand, especially around Hazaribagh and Jamshedpur. Uncovered for modern audiences in the early 1990s by cultural activist, Bulu Imam, they had been part of the decorative arts in India for centuries. With tribal populations dispersing and their art forms practiced less, there was concern that the Khovar designs, which were related to weddings, and Sohrai art forms, more associated with the harvest, would be lost.
“That should do it for today.” Finley removed the filters and placed them in her case as she spoke. “We can get the other Sohrai paintings tomorrow. They favor brighter light.”
“I cannot begin to thank you for your interest in preserving these tribal mural styles. They are becoming a dying art.”
Finley pulled a handkerchief out of her bag and wiped her face, applying considerable pressure to roll off the layers of dirt that had become encrusted on her skin.
“As long as daughters get married, I suspect mothers will be painting on the walls. The tradition has survived this many millennia.” She closed up her camera bag and rose from her crouched position. “It will take a while for it to die out completely.”
“I hope,” Dr. Rao said softly.
Despite his youth, he was a leading scholar in the field and had been studying tribal murals for several years. Part of his willingness to be Finley’s advisor and guide for this effort was his desire to raise to the Indian and global community the need for structured preservation programs across the country as tribal populations decreased.
“When must you return to Delhi?” Dr. Rao looked up from packing away the rest of the equipment.
He realized he enjoyed having a companion in the field with him. Someone who understood the esoteric intricacies of his area of study. Someone who didn’t laugh at him when his voice grew treble and his face reddened as he talked with great stridency about the loss to humanity if tribal women stopped painting and their men stopped drumming.
“Not for another week or so. We have to finish here and then head to Jamshedpur to see the murals.” Finley smiled. “I’m looking forward to those.”
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