Reviving folklore with modern art, Mario Pathaw is connecting people to their roots


By Andre Kongri | SHILLONG | JUNE 21, 2020:

~ "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up," ~ Pablo Picasso.

There is no universal definition of art as it can be many things. From drawings to movies, art is an expression that can portray beauty and rage; suffering, sorrow and many other emotions.

In a society where many of us have lost touch with our 'Khasi' roots, freelance architect and artist, Mario Pathaw has taken it upon himself to remind us—the people of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills – where we came from, who we are and the beauty of 'our' culture.

By combining visual arts and traditional Khasi-Jaintia folktales, Mario's dream of reintroducing the people to long-forgotten stories, passed down from generation to generation, has become a reality.

An illustration depicting the spirit of a tiger entering the body of a sleeping man while his sisters and nieces stare in awe.

Like many artists, Mario discovered his talent at an early age and worked on it with conviction and dedication. His unique art style has also caught the attention of people outside the North East, who were otherwise oblivious to Khasi-Jaintia culture.

Talking about his inspiring work, Mario told TNT-The Northeast Today, "Folktales are old stories that have been told again and again for generations. Folktales are an oral tradition and cover a variety of subjects. The stories are handed down between generations and are an important way of passing along knowledge, information, and history. They were honed for listening, so they were easy to remember and share. However, many of these stories are lost to the ravages of time."

On being asked what made him take up such an initiative, Mario responded by saying, "I was studying in Lovely Professional University, Punjab, and it surprised me when I discovered that many people outside the North East knew nothing about us. So, after I found out they had appointed me as the Meghalaya venue coordinator for the One India Exhibition back in 2014, I came up with a few sketches based on traditional Khasi-Jaintia folktales and put them on display at the exhibition."

Test prints and mock-ups of the upcoming graphic novel based on the Living Root Bridges by Mario Pathaw.

"I did not expect such a positive response from the people there and it inclined many of them to find out more about Khasi culture. I started coming up with a few illustrations along with the details so that people would know what I based the illustrations on," he said.

"However, one of the primary reasons that kept me moving forward was because I also wanted to re-introduce these folktales to younger generations. Most of the younger people in Meghalaya nowadays know nothing about our culture, tradition and customs. It's very sad. We should be proud of our rich heritage and should try to preserve and promote it," he said.

Recalling some of his earlier memories, Mario said, "My childhood was filled with endless wonders of inspiration. My family and the teachers of St. Edmund's School are perpetual encouragers to this very day. I still remember the day when my teacher, Miss Ellerine Diengdoh asked me to help her out with a sketch back in first grade. From that day onwards, people in school knew me as 'The Artist'. It was a name that had stuck with me right up to the 10th grade back in 2008, as I recall helping Bro. E.S. D'Souza as an art teacher in Providence School."

"Christianity is a major influence on my work. Being born into a staunch Catholic family, I had the privilege of visiting many beautiful cathedrals and basilicas around the country. The beauty and dynamism of the Baroque and late Renaissance paintings led me to fall in love with the concept of visual orders. The notion of visual narrative of these Biblical theme paintings at the Cathedral of Mary Help of Christians, Shillong and other churches are constant ancillary insights to my current projects at the Industrial Design Centre, IIT Bombay. I admired the sequence in which they could easily represent the story of Jesus through paintings and as the years went by, I applied this concept to my academics. Whenever I read a novel, a story or a school textbook, I illustrate instead of writing as it helps me understand things better," he said.

Left: A rendition of The Virgin Mary dressed in traditional Khasi attire.
Right: A mockup of the upcoming book 'Kyrwoh' by Mario Pathaw. .

On being asked about his current projects, Mario replied, "There are three major projects I am working on at the moment. They include a graphic novel folktale on the Living Root Bridges, an illustrated storybook centering on the Pathaw clan and an illustrated information book on the art of communication through bamboo ringlets (Kyrwoh) of the Khasis."

"My friend, Noel Jyothis introduced me to a world of graphic novels. My graphic novel based on the Living Root Bridges aims at achieving sustainability through visual anecdotes. It depicts the instruction and engineering behind the making of the bridges in the form of a folktale. This story also speaks about the art of living in harmony with nature. I have designed the characters as allegorical representations of mankind and nature. One might also notice the use of strong female characters in the plot. I do this to highlight the matrilineal society of the Khasi hills. There are many other factors in the book that show the beauty of the Khasi Hills in the form of illustrations, narrations and dialogue," he said.

"We need to remind ourselves that folktales were an important source of entertainment for people in the olden days and they also shape the cultural identity of a region. They share vital information of the political, social and cultural systems that governed a particular region. These folktales can captivate an audience even today. Animals play a vital role in our ecosystems and more to this, animals have also knitted their identity in the tales of the Khasis over the years. Some tales have animals only as characters, while some form a brotherhood between the animal kingdom and mankind," he added.

Talking about his upcoming book based on the Pathaw clan, Mario said, "The tales of my great grandmother are a narration of how we, as humans, identify ourselves as animals. The concept of transforming oneself into an animal. This illustrated storybook talks about the Pathaw clan who are known for transcending their sons' and their fathers' spirits into wild cats or tigers to protect themselves and their loved ones from their enemies."

"The information book 'Kyrwoh' will illustrate the art of communication of the Khasi people before the existence of writing through bamboo ringlets called kyrwoh. The book explains the purpose and the making of such ringlets," he said.

The 28-year-old artist concluded by saying, "Our land has always been blessed and it holds a magnificent gift. The gift of storytelling. The folktales talk about our environment, social well-being, indigenous practices and many more. Representing them through visual art will help preserve our identity and teach our younger generations to respect the beauty and integrity of our land."

It may be mentioned that Mario is also the son of well-known Khasi author (L) Dr. Pascal Malngiang.

Mario's books are scheduled for release later this year.

(The writer of this article can be reached at