From the Ocean of Indian Folk Stories

Craft, Handloom, Art, Reviews

From the Ocean of Indian Folk Stories: Two Books on the Birth of Bamboo

Majumdar, Minhazz


Two new books based on Indian folk stories with beautiful folk art illustrations have just been published by The National Mission on Bamboo Applications (NMBA), yet another valuable contribution to the growing list of folk-art based books available today.   The two books share a theme – the origin of bamboo but are very different in terms of style and content.  The Bamboo Maiden is based on a Gond folk tale and has beautiful black and white illustrations done in the typical Gond art style while Durva’s Bamboo Forest is a story from the Mithila region and is done in the Madhubani style of painting.


NMBA is a technology initiative of the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India and is working on capacity building measures to boost new usages of bamboo. Bamboo is a readily renewable natural resource and thus, offers great economic and ecological advantages.  As part of its efforts, NMBA publishes manuals and books on various aspects of bamboo usage and  these bamboo folk stories aim to ‘create a better understanding of the linkage of bamboo with humankind’.Spurred on by the National Mission on Bamboo Applications (NMBA) initiative to publish folk stories related to bamboo, the hunt was on for me as project co-ordinator for the perfect bamboo story.  With over 1500 documented uses, bamboo is a miracle grass and is one of the fastest growing plants in the world. Bamboo is found in many parts of India and is used for housing, fencing, agricultural implements, basketry, bridges, musical instruments and much more. However, bamboo is regarded as ‘poor man’s timber’ in many parts of India and its use has been replaced by metals, plastic, wood and other materials.


Dipping into the vast ocean of folk stories in India looking for stories related to bamboo proved to be a rewarding experience. Mangru Uike, a young and promising Gond artist narrated the story of the Bassein Kanya (literally Bamboo Maiden) which he had heard in his childhood. This was a treacherous tale of seven brothers and their only sister who lived together.  By a strange twist of fate (for which you have to read the book), all but her youngest brother conspire to kill her. Subsequently as the story progresses, she is then reborn as the bamboo, one of the most useful plants known to mankind and is highly revered by the Gonds, who are one of the oldest tribes on earth. 

The Gonds who refer to themselves as Koi or Koiture live in the verdant jungles of Central India, particularly in Madhya Pradesh. Gond homes are decorated for weddings and other occasions with two kinds of traditional art – digna which is more geometric and bhittichitra which is figurative, both of which were done using mineral and vegetable colours. Contemporary Gond art as practiced today owes a lot to Jangarh Singh Shyam. Artist J Swaminathan, then the director of Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal, brought the young Shyam to Bhopal where he had access to paper, canvas, paints of different kinds and exposure to another world, far from his home in the forest. Shyam soon dazzled people with his bold compositions and with the dramatic colour combinations and decorative patternings in his paintings. Sadly, he died under mysterious circumstances while on an artist residency in Japan. Today, his wife, children and other relatives as well as other Gond artists have created an amazing body of contemporary Gond art.

Mangru Uike in illustrating the Bamboo Maiden story drew on his heritage from the village as well as contemporary Gond art. However, he eschewed the typical bright colour palette of contemporary Gond art for dramatic black and white drawings. He has used multiple patterning devices such as crosshatching, parallel lines, shading and stippling.  The resulting drawings are amazingly minimalistic with a poignancy that is more pronounced as both text and image seem to float on the stark white pages.  The  graphic quality of Gond art is a visual delight in this book – the heaviness of the wood the brothers cut  coming through  in the dense patterning, the bountiful mango tree lush with fruits and leaves. The most powerful imagery is that of the body of the young woman transforming into the Bamboo Maiden.

Kumar felt inspired by Durva’s complex tale to illustrate the various events as they unfolded. He has created beautiful, colourful Madhubani paintings on cow-dung washed paper with a wealth of details on each and every page.  Each illustration is like a tapestry, replete with interesting imagery and a wealth of details, making one linger at the page to discover more and more clues.  Madhubani paintings from Bihar was once upon a time the private ritualistic art of high-caste women but today it is amongst the most popular folk art forms of India and is made by men and women.Pradyumna Kumar, the first Indian to ever win the Grand Prize at the UNESCO NOMA Concours is an amazing Madhubani artist with a vast repertoire of stories. Turning to the myths and legends he had heard, he unearthed the fascinating story of Durva, a grass who is granted a boon (detailed in the book) by Lord Vishnu which results in the Prince of Mithila becoming the bamboo plant. The Prince is entrapped by Durva and has to forsake his wife and life in the palace. His father, King Maithil decrees that bamboo is to be used by people in his kingdom both for utilitarian objects and in rituals and rites.

The Bamboo Maiden and Durva’s Bamboo Forest are wonderful testimony to the important place bamboo has in Indian culture and to the wealth of our folk culture. Designer Paulomi Shah has laid out the books in a way that highlights the artworks beautifully and Maneesha Taneja did a great job with the translations. For the artists, it was a good experience to illustrate an entire story and they enjoyed the process greatly. Thanks to the NMBA initiative, two folk tales have been not only documented but are also available for  worldwide readership .

The books are available from the National Mission on Bamboo Applications website http/

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