South Asian Art - In Memory Of Prashant H. Fadia
Traditional Indian Art
Most who don’t know much about India, consider it is a mystical land of elephants, cows and snake charmers who somehow co-exist with the high tech world of computer geeks and call centres. In the art world, contemporary Indian art is synonymous with the old vanguard of M F Hussain, Raza and Tyeb Mehta, these days, Subodh Gupta (who some term the Indian Damien Hirst), Riyas Komu, Atul Dodiya are making waves at international auctions.
But what about the old traditions of Indian art that are deep rooted in all that is Indian, some of which even inspire today’s ‘modern artists’? Has anyone heard of the many tribes that still inhabit the few pockets of ecology left in this country? They live at one with nature and governed by Her laws, their rituals may be considered pagan by some for they still worship the elements in different forms. Their deities, Gods and Goddesses are represented in fantastical forms, some taking on human dimensions. All their beliefs and myths find expression in their art, mainly because most of the tribal languages have no written script. The traditional arts of India are so diverse that even most Indians are not aware of the many myriad hues and forms that traditional India has to offer. This vast subcontinent is divided into states, communities (over 600), districts, dialects, tribes; which has given rise to a rich diversity in art forms as well.
Warli Art: This is probably one of the most well known forms of tribal arts both at the national and international level and its popularity can be credited to the creativity of one individual – Jivya Soma Mashe, who has single handedly put this ancient tribal art on the international map. The Warli are a tribe based in the otherwise affluent state of Maharashtra. It is indeed amazing that just a few kilometres away from the bustling metropolis of Mumbai, this tribe continues with its rudimentary methods of farming and still lives in mud huts. The Warli art is characterised by abstraction of the natural world. Even the human figures are shown as two triangles joined at the apex representing the delicate balance of the world, much like the Chinese Yin and Yan. The primitive style of rendering is reminiscent of cave paintings of early man but they have a rich wealth of folklore to draw from which gives them a storyboard appearance at times. They are made on cloth that is coated with cow dung or a natural red extract called gerue, a white paste made from rice is then used as paint, with small twigs serving as brushes. Needless to say Warli art is a national heritage!
Gond Art : The Gonds of the Godavari belt, in the State of Madhya Pradesh, produce figurative works rich in colours. Members of the animal world and plants find place of honour in most compositions revealing the close links these tribals have with nature. Gond art has come into the prominence in the international arena when Gond artist Bhajju Shyam was commissioned to do the illustrations for the book “The London Jungle Book” which was released simultaneously in English and Italian. Though present-day Gond art uses bright yellows, oranges, greens and blues, the original art, still worked on to walls and doors in Bhajju's village for festivals, comprises only three mud-based colours and white.
Madhubani : Literally translated as “forest of honey”,these paintings are also called Mithila paintings with reference to the Mithila region in the North Indian State of Bihar where they originate. Traditionally, the women would paint these on the walls of their homes especially in the prayer room, to invoke divine protection. Hence, Gods and Goddesses form an important and recurring theme in Madhubani art. They also depict flora and fauna and important festivals, weddings and village scenes. Due to commercial demands the women have taken to creating their works of art on paper and cloth. They continue to use the traditional materials for painting; the brush is a cloth wrapped around a stick, the colours are natural derivatives. One unusual feature about this art form is that no part of the painting is left blank, even the background will be covered with animal, plant motifs, geometrical shapes or tattoo like markings. They highlight certain features by drawing a double line which is also filled in by a small trellis of lines.
Miniature paintings: They refer to small works of art executed with amazing attention to details. They are mainly associated with the state of Rajasthan where the art is still practised. The paintings celebrate every aspect of life - kings on elephants, camel fights, bejewelled women, the elaborate costumes of the Rajput princes and scenes from the Mughal court are just some of the subjects that come to lie in the miniature format. Originally they were made using natural elements, today they use commercially available paints. The fine brushes required for such delicate work are made from squirrel hair. The main areas in India where you could find these are in the cities of Jaipur, Udaipur, Bikaner in Rajasthan; Delhi; and of course with bCA Galleries!
Tanjore Paintings are associated with the state of Tamil Nadu located in Southern India. The notable features of Tanjore paintings are the embellishments. The paintings are literally adorned using gold leaf, semi-precious stones, pearls, crystals and glass. The figures in these paintings are large and the faces are round and divine. There is also a lot of relief work in the paintings. Since the paintings are created on a specially created board of wood, they are also referred to as “palagai padam” which translated in the local language to mean “wooden plank picture”. The skill of the artist is demonstrated in the attention to detail. An ornate frame helps to add to the opulence of the entire creation
Kalamkari: Originating in the state of Andhra Pradesh, this refers to the technique of painting cloth with a pointed bamboo ‘kalam’ or pen. The pre-preparation involved in the creation is quite interesting. To remove the starch from the cloth it is washed in river water after which the fabric is dipped in a solution of myrobalam, milk and water to make the black dye permanent. The cloth is then twisted to wring out the water. The squeezing motion helps to spread the fat content of buffalo's milk. The fat holds the colours on the surface and prevents them from spreading. Mordants set up a chemical reaction due to which cotton fibres are able to absorb the desired hue. A mordant could be applied either with a block or with a brush or pen, the 'Kalam'.
After the cloth is dried in the sun, it is folded and pressed. Straight lines are drawn in charcoal along the creases. This defines the decorative panel within which the main theme will be drawn. Charcoal sticks made from tamarind twigs are used for tracing outlines. These are of two types, a sharp tipped one for outline and a broad round tipped Kalam has a fibrous edge. The final lines are drawn with a Kalam using a mixture of molasses and iron filings called Kasam. The primary figures are sketched first followed by the others. The charcoal drawing provides the basic layout.
Then a pointed Kalam is used to make line drawings using an iron mordant. All the details are subsequently filled in by pen. The background colours are filled first and then the figures. The fabric is then held in flowing water, taken out, shaken and dipped back in water. Excess mordant is swept away, after which the fabric is squeezed and dried. When the red and black colours have fixed, the fabric is boiled before being again washed in the river. The cloth is now ready for the yellow and blue painting after which the final washing and drying takes place. While traditional compositions depicting gods and goddesses abound, the artists have taken to innovations and are now incorporating modern themes and are even being commissioned for corporate logos!
Kalighat Pats: Considered one of the first art forms that ever came out of Bengal, the Kalighat Pats have even been influential on the style of artists like Jamini Roy and Benode Bihari Mukherjee. They depict scenes from everyday life often with a dose of humour. They were created as wood craft and lithographs initially and gave rise to a whole class of artists who made their living from creating pats. They were called the the Patuas, patidars or chitrakars. The influence of the foreingers brought European themes to the pats. They were also made on paper which was usually 7 inches by 11 inches which was the size preferred by the general populance that purchased their wares. The patuas not only created art but also presented a form of education since they would explain the stories that underlined their paintings to all, the themes included not only the deeds of Gods and Goddesses but also current affairs of the period like the French Revolution or bombing of Hiroshima. This practice continues to till this day with the death of Mother Teresa finding place of honour in the Kalighat Pats.
Phad paintngs: A phad is a long rectangular cloth painting that tells of the adventures and
travails of some local or epic hero. The painting involves the use of a coarse white cloth, which is starched and smoothened with a wooden burnisher. The initial sketch is executed with a non-permanent yellow color, followed by application of colors in the order of green, brown, vermilion, and sky blue. Finally, black color is used for outlining the figures. Earlier y, natural colors derived from vegetables and minerals were used but today synthetic colors are more prevelant. Usually about five metres by one and a half metres in size, the phad is painted in bold colors and is rolled on two shafts of bamboo, thus making it easy to carry.When the painting is completed, it is given to bhopa (a wandering bard or minstrel) who would perform at night to the accompaniment of the instruments, entertaining the villagers.
Patachitra : This ancient art form traces its roots to the famous Jagannath Temple of Puri, a beach town in the East Indian State of Orissa. The cloth is prepared using a mixture of chalk and gum from tamarind seeds which gives the cloth a leathery texture. The colours are bright and vibrant while the themes typically are based on the main deity of the Jagannath temple and also scenes from the life of Lord Krishna. Embellishments with silver and gold paint are not uncommon.
Pichvai: It literally means‘something at the back’ and unfolds scenes from the life of the Hindu deity Lord Krishna and is used as a backdrop for his idol at the Nathdwara Temple, near Udaipur, Rajasthan. These cloth paintings are decorated by golden work, Salma Sitara etc. Like many other forms of traditional art, today the pichvai too is created for commercial sales and are used as decorative wall hangings.
The essential thing to understand about traditional Indian art was that the canvas for the artist was the walls of his home; it was only much later that the artists started expressing themselves on cloth and other mediums. Even today, a drive through rural India will reveal intricate murals and frescos on walls. In most communities women also use chalk powder or flowers to create wonderful designs using traditional symbols outside their homes, which are done fresh everyday. The purpose of most traditional art was to keep away the evil spirits and invite good energies into the homes. Some believe in their mystical powers even today!
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