Forty five kilometers south of the city of Bhopal lies a quaint, world heritage site, literally sheltered from the hustle and bustle of Indian cities and thronging tourists. Largely unexplored till about fifty years ago, the significance of the cave paintings of Bhimbetika in India’s folk art history cannot be ignored. In fact, this is the place where India’s tryst with the medium of art first began.
Bhimbetika, deriving its name thanks to its mythological association with Bhima (one of the Pandava brothers), contains rock paintings which are about nine thousand years old and among the oldest in the world. The paintings, spread over approximately five hundred rock shelters and caves, are descriptive of the lives and times of the people living in these caves. From depicting everyday events like communal dancing, religious rites and hunting to animal symbols such as tiger, lion, elephant etc., these paintings exhibit Man’s innate nature to communicate through the medium of folk art.
It was many years before the rich tradition of folk art in India actually came to be recognized and taken seriously as opposed to being seen as the random musings and scribbling of the uneducated rural mind. Almost every region in India has developed its distinct style of expression on canvas, varying in its theme, medium used, objective etc. However a few styles stand out owing to their uniqueness as well as universal appeal. These include the following five styles:
1. WARLI PAINTING:
One of the simplest yet most symbolic forms of tribal painting, Warli traces its roots to a tiny tribe in Maharashtra called the Warli tribe. People of this agrarian-based tribe paint Warli figures consisting of birds, men, women and trees on the mud-based walls of their houses, particularly to mark celebrations such as wedding, harvest season and birth. Using a relatively simple color scheme of bright white against an earthen background, the paintings center around a circle or a spiral, symbolizing the circle of life. An uncomplicated pattern consisting essentially of dots, crooked lines and triangles, forms the basis of this beautiful art, rapidly finding its way to every art lover’s collection. Unlike most other forms of folk art in India, Warli is characterized by the absence of mythological figures and religious icons. Instead it derives its inspiration from the social events and festivities of the tribe, with heavy concentration on themes such as marriage, men and women dancing in a circle, the flora and fauna etc.
2. PATA CHITRA:
A stark contrast to the relatively “secular” Warli paintings, are the Pata paintings of Orissa, which came into existence to popularize God and encourage His worship amongst the common people. It is believed that in 12th century A. D., the Ganga kings of Orissa commissioned the painters in Jagannath temple of Puri, to paint these in order to popularize the cult of Lord Jagannath. Heavily influenced by the Bhakti movement, these paintings largely center around two themes – Jagannath and Radha-Krishna. The name ‘Pata’ is derived from the material on which these paintings are made, a piece of cloth. The study of these paintings portrays the strong relationship that man shares since time immemorial with the Divine. Besides cloth, the Pata paintings are now being done on a variety of different media such as masks, toys etc.
3. MADHUBANI PAINTINGS:
By far the most well recognized and popular folk art forms in India, Madhubani originates from the region of Mithila in Bihar. Legend has it that at the time of his daughter Sita’s marriage to Lord Rama, King Janaka of Mithila commissioned the artists to do these paintings. Since then Madhubani has been painted mostly by the womenfolk on the walls and floors of their houses especially during festivals and important events such as birth and marriage. Traditionally the walls of the houses are first coated with cow dung and then mud, and the painting is made using rice paste and vegetable colors. Now days with its increasing popularity and demand, artists are resorting to mediums such as handmade paper, cloth and canvas to showcase their art to the world using poster and fabric colors.
Like its counterparts, Madhubani is painted mainly with the aim of pleasing God and thus the themes center around religion and pictures of Hindu deities such as Krishna, Rama, Shiva, Sita, Lakshmi etc. Natural elements and symbols such as fishes (symbolizing good luck), serpents (protectors) also occur frequently. Each painting is usually framed within geometric pattern or borders. Use of colors in Madhubani varies from style to style –for example the Kayastha style is characterized by the use of a monochrome color throughout the painting while the Brahmin style uses a rich variety of colors.
4. PHAD PAINTINGS:
These paintings belonging to Rajasthan (predominantly the Bhilwara district), are usually done on cloth in the form of a scroll and are world-renowned for their unique style and vibrancy. The Phads mostly depict the heroic deeds and exploits of the local rulers and warriors such as the gallant Rajput warrior Prithviraj Chauhan, Amar Singh Rathore in the form of stories painted on long scrolls (An average Phad scroll is about thirty feet long). Often these paintings are made and carried from village to village, accompanied by singers narrating the associated tales.
What sets the Phad apart from the rest of folk paintings in India is the specificity and non flexibility in the use of color. A specific color scheme is employed wherein only a particular color is used at a time and each color pertains to a specific part of the painting for example, orange for limb and torso, yellow for ornaments and design, red for dress, green for vegetation etc. Each painting is highlighted with the help of black as outline. Traditionally only vegetable dyes were employed while painting Phads, but artists nowadays have started using modified waterproof earthen colors as an alternative.
5. KALAMKARI PAINTINGS:
Literally translated, Kalamkari means “Art done with the help of a pen”. Originating about three thousand years ago, this form of folk painting has been kept alive in Andhra Pradesh through generations by essentially two schools of painting – Masulipatnam and Srikalahasti (deriving their names from the cities of their origin). The Masulipatnam school reflects the influence of Muslim rule in Golconda, as seen by the use of intricate Persian motifs and designs. The main painting is done with the help of hand-crafted wooden blocks, while the detailing is added later on with the help of a pen. In contrast the Kalahasti form takes inspiration from religion and temples, concentrating on Hindu mythology, God and epics.
Done solely with the help of vegetable dyes and added materials acting as mordents, the Kalamkari differs from art forms like Phad, Madhubani etc. due to the use of mellow, non bright and non contrasting color schemes. A bamboo or date palm stick pointed at one end with a bundle of fine hair attached to the pointed end is used as a pen.
Other than these, other forms of folk art in India include the Tanjore style from Southern India, Jain art from Gujarat, Pahari miniatures from the North, Pithora from western India etc.
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