A society without the knowledge of its history and culture is like a tree without roots, goes the famous saying. No wonder, then, that India’s varied art forms are making their way slowly into the mainstream art fold, says Poonam Goel
Indigenous art is the “art of the land”, which families have been creating over centuries, without any institutional training, says art historian and curator Dr Alka Pande. “These artists are self-taught, who then pass on the talent to the next generation. It’s part of their living culture,” she adds. With the definition of art becoming all-inclusive in modern times, indigenous forms have come to occupy an important space in India’s contemporary visual culture.
Recently, an exhibition titled Many Indias, hosted by Delhi’s Must Art Gallery, showcased 12 genres of indigenous art. “Many Indias is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the rich treasure trove of indigenous art. Each of the 29 states and seven union territories of India have at least a couple of indigenous art forms,” says Tulika Kedia, director, Must Art Gallery. Many of these have seen a resurgence over the years, thanks to the efforts of patrons such as Kedia, and Anubhav Nath of Ojas Art. While Kedia recently set up the Kanha Museum of Life and Art, curated by Dr Pande, which houses a stunning collection of indigenous art, Nath constituted the annual Ojas Art Award, which honours indigenous artists with a monetary award and an exhibition.
Inspired by nature
One of the most visible art forms is the Gond tribal art of central India. The hills, the streams and the forests become the basic motifs in the art, traditionally drawn on the walls of Gond homes. Usually made on festive occasions and depicting social customs, Gond paintings use natural colours derived from charcoal, coloured soil, plant sap, leaves and cow dung. The striking feature of this art is the use of dots and dashes that impart a sense of movement to it. While this art form was created as an intimate connection to Nature, it was also thought to ward off evil and usher in luck. Today, most Gond artists paint with acrylic on canvas and paper, with exhibitions held in India and abroad.
Creations on cloth
Created like scroll paintings on cloth, Patachitra dates back to the 5th century BC and was developed by the locals of Raghurajpur, Puri and Sonepur in Odisha. In Sanskrit, pata means vastra or clothing, and chitra means painting. The motifs used are mainly from the Hindu epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and of Lord Jagannath, the local deity. While Patachitras are traditional in their visual language, dealing with myths and legends, the Bengal pat, on the other hand, encompasses narratives of social and political commentary, and also satire. This art form of Bengal developed hundreds of years back, when roaming minstrels used to sing about incidents of the past to villagers. One of the most famous is the Kalighat pat created by artists called patuas, or painters on cloth.
Madhubani goes Mainstream
One of the most enduring indigenous art forms is the Mithila-Madhubani art, which originated in the Mithila region bordering India and Nepal and later flourished in the Madhubani district of Bihar. Madhubani has been an intrinsic part of the Mithila culture and community – also called likhiya or writing – and was traditionally regarded as the language of women, who were thought to create mainly mythology-inspired paintings in their homes and on occasions such as marriages and childbirth. The art relies heavily on the icons of Hindu mythology and motifs from Nature. The acceptance of the art into the mainstream has also been because of newer artists being able to adapt the style in modern ways. Artists such as Neelkanth Chowdhury and Manisha Jha have been very successful in the contemporary stylisation of the art, using newer narratives and subtle colour palettes that appeal to a much larger art base.
In fact, time and again these art forms have influenced modern-day artists. “Artists such as A Ramachandran have been deeply influenced by Kerala murals; Arpana Caur has done collaborative work with Warli and Gond artists; and Manjit Bawa has taken inspiration from Indian miniatures,” Kedia says. Like the art forms mentioned above, Warli from coastal regions of Maharashtra and Gujarat, Kalamkari from Andhra Pradesh and Sanjhi art from the Madhura region of Uttar Pradesh have found a firm place in the mainstream art market. “With markets collapsing and the contemporary art bubble bursting, indigenous and rational art, which has so far been heavily underpriced, is finally on its way to getting the recognition it deserves,” sums up Dr Pande.