Folk and Tribal Paintings: The Bengal School

Academy of Fine Arts and Literature

Folk Painting in India
A live tradition, vibrant and deep rooted into people’s blood, folk art reveals a massive variety of form and theme. Her ten-twelve thousand years old creative culture and a wide-spread art geography apart, India has hundreds of ethnic groups scattered from north to south and east to west, each with its own art form representing its taste, needs, aspirations, aims, joys, sorrows and struggles. Regional peculiarities, nature around and a different pattern of day-today life apart, their art reveals each group’s ethnic distinction and creative talent. Not in the ‘word’, these primitive peoples discovered in the ‘form’ their diction which gave expression to their joy, jubilation and intrinsic warmth and announced their rejection of violence, eroticism and the ugly.
In the form they discovered the ultimate means to discourse with each other and with the ‘divine’. Skill, education, or training hasn’t been their tool. Their legends, myths, or convictions weren’t born of texts or were the dictates of authority. They discovered all that their art sought to represent within them, in their blood that retained it across ages, almost as it was transfused into it, with its vigour and freshness which the murky narrow cells of authority often defiled, or at the most sought to gild. What imparts distinction to their art is their massive imagination, a passion to embellish, and an inborn ability to give to a routine form symbolic dimensions, and to things scattered around, status of art imagery – all that transformed into artists, not just individuals but communities in their entirety, generations after generations. In a world every minute seeking means to distort and destroy they have kept along their own tenor singing to their own tunes, dancing to their intrinsic rhythm and to the notes of their hearts, and discovering in the jumble of things, rough crude lines, raw colours and incoherent motifs, a world that breathed purity, harmony, respect and concern for life.

The painting alerts against indiscriminate sexual relations, something that is bound to drag into the danger of AIDS. The danger of the deadly disease has been symbolised by a horrible-looking demon figure with its wide-open mouth and blood-smeared tongue. The demon figure has already grabbed the copulating couple inside its mouth and its blood-thirsty tongue lies across it, though ignorant to the danger the two figures, the male and the female, are absorbed in sexual intercourse.

The demon figure has already grabbed the copulating couple inside its mouth.

As becomes obvious from another painting of Shambhu Acharya included in this book as Deity-pata, this image, though quite queer, is in all probabilities a local transform of Vishnu, or a deity sharing his character of sustaining the world. In one of his hands he is carrying a paddy stem, the symbol of life which he sustained, and in the other, a wheel-symbol, Vishnu’s principal attribute. Considering costume-styles of European rulers as superior to its, the folk mind, especially around Bengal, clad even its deities in European costumes.

Considering costume-styles of European rulers as superior to its, the folk mind, especially around Bengal, clad even its deities in European costumes.

The painting is divided into four vertical rectangles, each independent of the other representing the post-earth quake devastation. A tribal or elite, a tree or a hut, the fate of all is alike.

Osama Bin Laden, fanaticism incarnate, and activities of terror, mass massacre and destruction that he has been promoting and sponsoring, are the theme of this brilliantly rendered scroll. The uppermost cube represents two aircrafts destroying the twin World Trade Towers at New York. Below it are portrayed its victims, dead, half-dead or swooning. Next four panels portray various training programs, consultation camps and preparations for striking terror. In one of them, Osama is seen himself instructing his women cell for action. The next panel depicts how fanatic youths are persuaded to serve as human bombs and the devastation they cause. The next panel portrays Osama emerging as the new god of fanatics and his images enshrining the arches, a form so much venerated in Islam. Whether inside shrine-like arched pavilion or hiding underground, Osama has at his service the male soldiers and the female guards.

The uppermost cube represents two aircrafts destroying the twin World Trade Towers at New York.

Different from serializing a theme, a usual thing in miniature art, the painting renders here two independent themes in two well-defined spaces clubbed together. The upper rectangle portrays a panoramic view of Santhal folk life, its simplicity and as simple a geography, and the lower, a traditional dance with its unsurpassed elegance, symmetry of form and overall impact.

The upper rectangle portrays a panoramic view of Santhal folk life.

Broadly, the painting portrays the entire community engaged in one to one dialogue. The painting does not bifurcate its canvas into cosmic regions but with a roundel filled with water and teeming with fishes, crocodiles and crabs, suggestive of the ocean, and birds on wings, suggestive of the sky, it symbolically renders the world of names – the world as it reveals in words.

The painting does not bifurcate its canvas into cosmic regions but with a roundel filled with water and teeming with fishes, crocodiles and crabs, suggestive of the ocean, and birds on wings, suggestive of the sky.

This three-tiered painting represents the medieval tradition of itinerant professionals/ entertainers who used large size cloth paintings to visually support their narratives – folklores and lilas of gods. Some of the better known examples of this genre are Paithan painting of Maharashtra, Pabujukipar of Rajasthan and Patachitras of Orissa and Midanapur. This painting, rendered using narrative style of Midanapur Patachitras, represents some major events from the life of Rama. On extreme left in the top panel Rama and Lakshmana are with sage Vishvamitra. Rama kills Tadka, the demoness, for obstructing recluses from performing yajnas. The next event relates to redemption of Ahilya who cursed by her husband had turned into stone. In the next episode, Ravana, disguised as a recluse, is abducting Sita. In the fourth event Rama is seen killing the golden deer. The central panel relates to Rama’s meeting with Hanuman and other subsequent events up to the construction of bridge over the sea to Lanka by Nala, Neela and other monkeys. The bottom panel depicts some random themes. Two images of the goddess Mansadevi apart, it depicts a woman immolating herself with her dead husband, and another, sacrificing two human beings, the wide-spread social evils.

It depicts a woman immolating herself with her dead husband, and another, sacrificing two human beings, the wide-spread social evils.

The scroll portrays themes which seem to have Biblical contexts especially the fall of Adam and Eve from Paradise. It begins with the portrayal of the Garden of Eden where neither is divided the time into the day and the night nor the space into ocean, earth or sky. The moon and the sun simultaneously shine and the ocean and the earth share common space. Happily they lived enjoying whatever they chose to do except pluck and eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge doing which they had to suffer expulsion from the Paradise. Adam used restraint, curious Eve could not. She ate the fruit and the other moment they were expelled from Paradise and thrown on to the earth. Now death, which a huge snake symbolises in the painting, was their destiny. They were required to earn their livelihood, suffer violence and move from place to place for various errands. The race of Adam and Eve expanded and so their sufferings, worst being the case of woman who was tortured on many counts.

Adam used restraint, curious Eve could not. She ate the fruit and the other moment they were expelled from the Paradise and thrown on to the earth.

A favourite theme of Bengal artists, here is a world of sea-friends, the umbrella-like tortoises, tall awe-striking crocodile, multi-legged crab, fish, duck… and the sea itself - all contained within a floral frame.

Here is a world of sea-friends, the umbrella-like tortoises, tall awe-striking crocodile, multi-legged crab, fish, duck.

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