India’s ancient tribal art adapts to a modern market

New Delhi, Feb 17 (Calcutta Tube) Ethnic art from the tribal heartland of India is trying to strike a balance between modernism and tradition and experimenting with contemporary issues to adapt to a growing market and changing patron bases.

‘The process is slow, but artists are allowing contemporary issues like feminism, eco-awareness, cultural invasion and urbanism to creep into their work because of the growing demand and new socio-economic dynamics,’ Vimal Thorat, reader, Comparative Literature, Women’s Writing, Medieval Hindi and Marathi literature at Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), told IANS.


Thorat was the convener of a workshop-cum-exhibition, ‘Art of the Marginalised Communities: Bhils and Gonds’, the first of its kind, Feb 15-17, on the IGNOU campus here.


Artist Bhuri Bai identifies herself with Titki Mata, a tribal forest deity, who protects the forests of Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh.


The petite Bhil artist from Pitol-Motabawri village in Jhabua is known for her drawings of the flora and fauna of the region.


‘I associate myself with the deity because women are the protectors of nature. I draw nature, social mores and Bhil gods and goddesses in the centuries-old Bhil style which is steeped in ethnic animism and spirituality,’ the woman with blue tattoos adorning her face and arms told IANS at the exhibition.


The tribal artist, like many other ethnic fresco painters of her generation, is making new statements through her art within the ambit of traditions.


‘I was the first tribal artist to paint with a brush on canvas and paper with water, oil and acrylic colours. But I cannot let go of ethnic traditions,’ Bhuri Bai said.


She switched to paper from the mud walls of her tribal home 25 years ago at Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal under the tutelage of Jagdish Swaminathan, who set up the art centre Roopanker in Bharat Bhavan in 1981.


But the superstitious artist still leaves her ‘parampara pithora’ canvases – an art form depicting joyous life on heaven and earth woven around the wedding of deities Pithoro and Pithori – incomplete because ‘as a woman, I have no right to draw both heaven and earth. A complete pithora fresco is the sole right of man.’


Nandkusia Shyam, a Gond artist from Patangarh village along the Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh, also strikes a balance between traditional Gond art and contemporary issues.


‘I love to paint animals in the traditional Gond style, but my art often speaks of changing tribal life,’ Shyam, a resident artist at Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, told IANS.


The Gond community, which lives in close proximity to nature, paints its gods, goddesses, forests, animals and ways of life as a means of creative expression and documentation.


Shyam learnt her art from her husband, the late Jangadhsingh Shyam who committed suicide in Japan in 2001 while on a residency programme.


‘I once worked with my husband but now I have to use my art for a livelihood,’ the artist said.


Shyam, ‘who initially worried about the price of her art’, now sells each work for Rs.1,500 to Rs.50,000 in the international market.


Tribal art is emerging from years of insulation, felt the reticent artist. ‘It has a market abroad and fetches good prices. But the government must encourage tribal artists,’ said the artist, who likes to fuse market dynamics with traditional creativity.


(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *