Folk art forms, be they paintings, sculpture, dance or music are an integral part of Indian culture. My journey into folk art began after a ten-year involvement with designing and marketing crafts from all over India. An artist friend from America, Scott Rothstein was spending a couple of years in India and was utterly fascinated by folk paintings and sculptures. I began translating for him as we met with folk art practitioners and soon enough, we were both totally drawn into the deep and complex world of folk art in India. Little did we know that in the months to come, the preservation and promotion of these artistic traditions would become a major pre-occupation for us.
By definition, folk art is the art ‘of’ and ‘by’ the people and by and large adheres to the norms and values of established traditions or communities. People belonging to the tradition/community learn these artistic skills and knowledge systems, both consciously and subconsciously, through predetermined cultural ceremonies and by simply living in the particular milieu in which the art form is practiced. Usually, these art forms are passed from one generation to the other. Consider a child born in an artist’s home in Madhubani, Bihar. Surrounded from birth by the beautiful drawings on the floor and walls, s/he perhaps sees close relatives working on the paintings on paper, unconsciously assimilating all the aesthetic and symbolic essence of the art form. As a young bride or groom, when they enter the marriage chamber or kobhar ghar, they will see the beautiful and meaningful wall paintings done specially to bless the union. Madhubani paintings for them, is the stuff that colours their lives, transforming the mundane into the beautiful.
In working with talented young folk artists like Pushpa Kumari (whose grandmother Maha Sundari Devi was one of the pioneers in transferring the art of Madhubani onto paper) and Montu and Joba Chitrakar (who belong to the Bengali patachitra tradition), I have seen for myself the confining nature of how folk art is defined and perceived. These new generation of artists who are exposed to a thousand and one new stimuli thanks to the technologically replete world of today are definitely carriers of their traditions. But they bring to these centuries old traditions something new, something of their own sensibilities, perhaps even of angst. But is there space for all of this in how they produce and market their work? Do they simply employ the stylistic devices of the traditions they are born into to convey their private pre-occupations or are they re-invigorating their traditional art forms? Are they committing some kind of aesthetic hara-kiri, mutating their tradition? Are they transforming their tradition to carry it forth into the new millennium? These are complex issues, with no clear answers – there are many shades of gray in the truth of the matter.
Most of the younger generation of folk artists somehow cannot seem to get away from the slightly pejorative associations of folk art. In many ways, the personalized aspects of their works are totally ignored and they are clubbed together with the generations of folk artists gone by. This devalues them as individual artists and they are seen as the faceless, nameless carriers of tradition, ensuring cultural continuity anonymously. They are always seen as slightly less than the self-taught or art college educated contemporary artist who ironically seem to have time on their side. Few galleries or curators consider them as independent artists in their own rights and one seldom hears of shows where folk art is appreciated for what it really is, or for and by itself. Even if there are interested and empathetic curators, the folk artists are hesitant to reach out, afraid of being rebuffed. There is unfortunately an attempt to either compare folk art with contemporary art in a rather self-conscious manner as to where tradition departs and modernity begin or folk art is seen as part of India’s rich cultural legacy, the relics of a ‘hoary past’ with all the baggage that it entails.
This constant comparison between tradition and contemporaniety brings its own stresses, particularly for the artists who are bombarded with things modern in their day-to-day life, in the popular culture around them. How do they divorce this reality from their work or more importantly and intriguingly should they even attempt to do so? A Madhubani artist who draws in a helicopter into her works or a pata-chitra artist from Bengal who tries to tell a story about the scourge of AIDS – what is really happening here? Are they trying too hard to bring something alien into their art or are they just reflecting the times they live in? If a Madhubani artist forsakes all the floridity usually associated with the genre and pares down the pictorial vocabulary to offer one striking image using the familiar stylistic devices, is she forsaking her tradition? Sometimes, this rush to be thought of being up-to-date is forcing these folk artists to forget the strong roots of their traditions, the original tales that gave the tradition much of its vigour and vitality. At a conference recently, I watched a very interesting Rajasthani folk puppet show – but with a difference. Instead of moving gracefully to the romantic ballads of our western state, the puppet dressed in traditional Rajasthani ensemble of lehenga-choli-odhni moved energetically to a disco number, her moves so smooth that she would have put any disco dancer in the West to shame. While some may decry this as a perversion of tradition, to me it was clear that the puppeteer was market-savvy – he was simply catering to the new audience who like to disco.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of my work with folk art is the case of Pradyumna Kumar. Although he is from Madhubani, Bihar and is married into a family of artists working in the Madhubani painting tradition, he never really tried his hand at the art form until recently. A land surveyor for several years, he lost his job after a surgery when he became too weak to work outside. He began experimenting with simple drawings, trying to replicate initially what his wife and her relatives were doing. When Scott and I first met him and he hesitantly showed us his work, we decided to take the experimentation a little further and see if he could become a fully-fledged artist. To our great delight, he has constantly amazed us with his grasp of his chosen idiom and his works have great technical felicity and deep cultural moorings. His years as a map maker allow him to bring a unique spatial sensibility – his picture of a peacock on a tree is remarkable for its clean strong imagery and the deliberate way in which the motifs are arranged on the sheet of paper – all of this underscored by the typical delicate lines of Madhubani black and white drawings. But what would you call him – a folk artist or what? Does he fulfill the criteria of a folk artist – whatever they may be in today’s day and age? Personally, after my experiences, I prefer to use the term artist instead of labeling as folk, contemporary or outsider because in most cases, the dividing line is too thin.
So where is folk art today in India? To my mind, it is in a very paradoxical state, with some traditions flourishing and others in terminal decline. On one hand is the crass mass commercialization of certain folk art such as Madhubani paintings as seen in the dozens of stalls in Dilli Haat and other exhibitions where the emphasis is on churning out stock imagery. On a more positive note, is the occasional use of folk art forms and artists to produce animated movies, taking the folk art one step closer to integration with real time technologies. But what of the talented individuals who produce works of stupendous artistic worth but who find few takers because everyone has blinkered vision of what folk art should really be? Perhaps that is the tragedy of folk art in India today and we need committed visionaries, both within and outside of the tradition to take this vital aspect of our culture into the limelight, into a future where folk art forms are considered no less worthy than Indian contemporary art which in recent times is commanding astounding prices worldwide. We are in the danger of devaluing and thereby losing the repositories of our traditional wisdom, our spiritual moorings for if one thing all folk art practitioners have in common is that they draw their sustenance from a deep wellspring of sacred knowledge. For them, the creation of a work or a performance is an act of devotion, a profound statement of being and becoming. Let us blur the boundaries and re-configure a new space for folk art so that the generations to come can continue to enjoy, learn from and be inspired by it.