To the roots: Camp on tribal paintings  
- Padma Jayaraj, Thrissur 

April 24, 2009 

It is an archival moment for Lalitha Kala Academy as it hosted 20 plus artists of Primary Colors. The subcontinent shares a colorful cultural heritage. Art occupies an important place in this interaction. While modern art gained momentum, it still derives inspiration from ethnic art and painting. Tribal artists from Manipur, Andhra, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Bihar and Rajasthan assembled at the Durbar Hall, Kochi for a month long camp demonstrating their work and mode of painting.  
These national artists take you to the roots of Indian art and painting. One wonders whether ethnic art has stagnated over centuries. Expressions of life, society, religion and philosophy of the community, myth and contemporary themes jostle. Yes, time leaves his foot prints. Folk art has remained the undercurrents of many innovations that ushered modern art in India. And it has given sustenance to experiments as an enriching source for artists. Surprisingly, women dominated the camp. Indeed it was women who decorated their hutments; wove their fabric; prepared paints culled from leaves and stones. 
Gaisingduan is from Manipur, painting Tarang-kai, celestial home with motifs of sun, moon and stars - celestial wonders. "We do this as part of kabui rituals during festivals," he said. Abuanlu Kamei reveals her joy of creation by humming as she painted a traditional dress material that goes with festivals in Manipur. Art has sprung from leisurely activities at home, for ritualistic ceremonies on cloth.  
Mithila paintings originated in the Mithila area of Bihar. Associated with Sita's home, stories of Ramayana is central to the art. Also known as Madhubani paintings, it is rich in art symbolism, with a rare simplicity and beauty. Activities of life, ornate floral patterns with inevitable Hindu icons forms its distinct style. 
A few hand-painted saris for sale shows the vibrant colors used, the small figures painted, and the intricate details that make the painting unique.  Urmila Devi and her husband Paswan teach even foreigners, back home in Mithila. Yes, this traditional folk art has succeeded in creating a place for itself internationally and so is recognized worldwide. 
Warli paintings from Maharashtra and Gujarat belong to the tribe known as Warli and it's said their tradition dates back to 2500 BC. Women decorated their walls for festivals; bridal chamber had a celebratory cast traditionally. Later, like all tribal arts, the paintings got transferred on to fabric and paper.  The distinguishing feature of Warli paintings is the use of geometric designs: triangles, circles, squares. Dots and crooked lines depict humans, animals and plants. The artists celebrate the joy of community life: hunting, fishing, farming, wedding and birth; festivals and dance. Tiny figures fill a wide canvas as they draw in white. These monochromatic depictions on ochre red background express the folk customs, beliefs, and imaginations of a community. The white color goes back to its origin whence they used rice paste and water mixed in a gum for a binder. 
Pithora paintings are the inheritance of the Bhil tribe of Madhya Pradesh. The tree of life dominates with animals of different hues, all made from colors from leaves, flowers and other ingredients from nature. Pithora paintings are much more than the colorful images that decorated their walls once upon a time. They signified auspicious occasions both in the family and community, for an art form always conveys the joy and celebration of a community reflecting its collective mood. Pithora paintings of Rathwas, Bhilals and Naykas of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh showcase colorful animated figures that mirror the sentiments of their creators. Its essence lies in its earthiness - from theme to execution, it reveals the ethnicity of rural India. 
Patachitra style of depicting mythology originated in Orissa. Manimala from Bengal along with Jaba Chitrakar belong to this school of painting. The iconic Durga is overwhelmingly present. 
Kalampari artists come from Gujarat. Kalampari is well known in Kerala because of their presence in many camps held over the years. Gond painters from Madhya Pradesh who paint colorful figures of animals and people, attract attention.  
The simplicity of the tribal arts like the people who create them is untouched by modernity. For them the indigenous art is sacrosanct. It is urban artists who go to these roots to experiment and create innovative designs and trends. As the camp came to a close on 10th April, it is heartening to note that well-wishers help these marginalized artists to rediscover themselves in a changed scenario.  

Padma Jayaraj is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to