Art in the Everyday: The Re-Imagining of Folk and Tribal Art

“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”
– Aristotle

For the folk artist, carrying on the traditions of his tribe, community and region is a way of life, a reflection of the history he is part of, and a token of his commitment to keep it alive. His craft is born from his environment, but its sustainance often requires it to have a wider application and significance.

Mythology has been a recurring reference and motif for the folk artists of India, whether it is the Pattachitra, a form of miniature art that dates back to 12th century AD that pays homage to Lord Jagganath or the Sanjhi art of stenciling to make flower rangolis (decorative floor designs) from Mathura, the birthplace of Lord Krishna. The mediums may vary but these art works have been a means for the artist to make offerings to the divine form.

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Today, their relevance as emotive prayer pieces is fading and these are rarely installed in modern homes as elements of worship. Most artists have left their family’s calling as a result of the disinterest in their work among the masses. But there are some who have embraced the changing times and found a way to carry on their craft, exporing newer techniques and mediums. A leather puppetry maker (Tholu Bommalata) from Andhra Pradesh may now have started making lampshades, hangings and other home accents as a medium to keep the art alive and as a source of stable livelihood. The palm leaf scroll of the Pattachitra may sit ensconced in a wooden frame, to decorate a table top. The stenciled Sanjhi may lend itself to lighting up a colorful home.

A functional, contemporary interpretation of these works is not necessarily a flawed one.

In a 1998, exhibition Other Masters: Five Contemporary Folk and Tribal Artists of India at the National Crafts Museum, Jyotindra Jain wrote in his interview in the catalogue,

“Other Masters” has been conceived with a view to explore the sensibility of those contemporary folk and tribal artists of India who neither see themselves as belonging to an imaginary ‘traditional’ society nor as waiting outside the precincts of the world of ‘modern’ art to be absorbed and recognised on the latter’s terms at the first available opportunity.

In their 2010-11 exhibition Vernacular in the Contemporary at the Devi Art Foundation, the Jackfruit Research and Design, led by Annapurna Garimella, showcased works from the Lekha & Anupam Poddar collection alongside newly commissioned works by artists of folk, tribal, traditional art. The show focused on the diversity and relevance of vernacular artists’ personas, ideas and concerns through ambitious projects. It was a space to explore what J. Swainathan calls “contemporary expressions”.

We cannot by any device of mental gymnastics relegate our Adivasi communities to the past. Their artistic expressions cannot be treated as curio objects, things of interest, only because of their ‘primitive’ character. They are living expressions of living peoples and if at all we are to be enrapport with them, we cannot but treat them as contemporary expressions.

– J. Swaminathan, “The Adivasi”, The Perceiving Fingers

The relevance of the work of folk and tribal artists lies not only in a re-imagining of their identities (on their terms, without impositions from ‘outside’) but also through constant interactions with the dynamic milieu in which their art can come to occupy a pride of place.

by Manika Dhama

This article was first published in POOL Magazine.