Beyond the Villages

Many Adivasi (indigenous) art forms in India have undergone a rapid transformation in the past 60 years. This exhibition charts the changes in painting styles as they leave their original medium, be that painted onto the walls of houses or as ritual scrolls, and become tools for a new generation of contemporary artists.

The South Asia Collection Museum, Norwich, Norfolk

Detail from Jungle Peacocks and Iguana
Putli Ganju
2015
Natural earth pigments on handmade paper

The natural world is a source of inspiration for many of the painters in this exhibition. But painting nature does not always evoke joy, sometimes it can chronicle loss, where villages are threatened with clearance for infrastructure projects that would divorce painters from nature, from their landscape, inspiration and materials.

Here we use the term Adivasi because of its association with emancipation. Beyond the Villages suggests that art is about freedom: freedom of expression, release from patriarchal norms, pride in skill, in being the bearer of a tradition, of representing a community or the self, freedom to be acknowledged, and the way that images can transcend the place and the people who created them.

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Pyatkar Scroll Paintings
Anil Chitraker
Poster paint on paper

Scroll painting in eastern India traditionally began, not with cloth or paint, but with a lyric to be sung or chanted. The paintings were created to illustrate the poetry. Scroll painters made a living by travelling to villages and narrating the details in their painted scrolls, gradually un-rolling the cloth, scene by scene, pointing at the characters, and telling their story. Their art was handed down within painting families. The different communities of scroll painters had different styles and favoured subjects.

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Pyatkar Scroll Paintings
Anil Chitraker
Poster paint on paper

Traditionally, scroll painters made their patachitra (meaning ‘cloth picture’) paintings on cloth, often stitched to recycled sari fabric for strength. The paints were made from natural materials available in the landscape. A scroll could be as long as 20ft. Now, paper use is abundant. It is common for a scroll to be made of sheaves of paper glued or stitched together, or for single painted sheets to be sold as tourist art. Fabric and acrylic paint is used rather instead of hand-manufacturing colours from vegetable dyes.

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Pyatkar Scroll Paintings
Anil Chitraker
Poster paint on paper

Anil Chitraker (Chitraker means painter) fears that he may be the last generation of Pyatkar painters. There are only two Pyatkar painters left in Amadubi village in rural Jharkhand, where he lives, of which he is one. In the rainy season, when business is slow, the Chitrakers earn extra income as vegetable sellers at the local haart (market). Anil is desperate to find new markets for his work. The young are leaving for jobs in towns. If he can’t show them that the art pays, then there is a real possibility Pyatkar will die out. He has encouraged NGO’s and other organisations to stock his work, and wants to diversify by working with designers on t-shirts, saris and diary covers. He had a local government grant to train young artists in 2006. But still he worries.

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Radha and Krishna
Laltu Chitrakar

In Bengal, the Chitrakars traditionally painted both Hindu and Muslim epics. Now they serve as educators in current affairs, travelling to villages with scrolls on themes as various as the 9/11 terror attacks and the benefits of planting trees. Their primary income is from sales of their paintings, mainly to art dealers and tourists.

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Buddha Mithila
Ranjan Paswan
Ink and poster paint on paper

Madhubani painting, or Mithila (both are names for a region in Bihar that borders Nepal) has been transformed since the 1960s when female artists were persuaded to make the paintings they usually produced as house murals on paper. In the villages, Madhubani painting was used to decorate rural house walls at the time of the Durga festival and, in the wedding season, to create the Kohbar design inside the marriage chamber. To make the Kohbar, groups of women, having selected a lead artist, would come together to whitewash the wall and plaster it with rice paste (considered auspicious). The design would be conceptualised by the lead artist, working outwards from a single red dot in the centre of the wall.

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Tree Of Life
Rakesh Paswan
Ink and poster paint on paper

Traditional brushes – bamboo sticks sometimes topped with cotton rags – were used to create the outlines, and then the colours were filled in. The process was accompanied with songs and devotional acts. In a patriarchal society, painting gave women (who often were not allowed out beyond the confines of the courtyard) a space to socialise and portray their concerns. The chosen designs were handed down within families and linked to specific communities – divided into the Kacchni (black line), Bharmi (colour) and symbolic Godana (tattoo) paintings.

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Untitled
Indu Devi
Ink and poster paint on paper

Almost sixty years on, Madhubani paintings are included in the collections of famous art galleries, there is a Mithila Art Institute in Bihar and even a Mithila Museum in Japan. Artists in Mithila are now free to explore the different manifestations of the artform, regardless of class, gender or caste background. Contemporary paintings address themes as diverse as environmentalism, female emancipation, terrorism, infanticide and the experience of visiting foreign cities. Alongside these observational works, symbolic designs that link the artists to Bihar and its proud cultural traditions remain popular subjects.

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Khovar Mural by Bandni Devi

Women from the forest villages near Hazaribagh, Jharkhand, are renowned for the murals they paint on the walls of their mud-built homes. Khovar art (white and black) was traditionally used to decorate the wedding chamber of the bride and groom. Symbolic designs, such as the marriage mandala or shaadi chouk (made up of squares and triangles), were used alongside the animals and plants that are commonly seen in the sal forest. Khovar murals are painted between January and May, in the hot months of the wedding season before the arrival of the monsoon in June. In these months the mother of the bride and the bride’s aunts, paint the walls of the room in the family home where the newly married couple will sleep on their wedding night.

The murals in these villages were made from materials close to hand. Traditionally, different shades of mud were gathered from the valley. In Khovar painting, the layer of black is made from dark earth or by dissolving manganese in a bucket overnight and then swabbing the paper. A slip mixed from kaolin white (from mud clay) or ochre (also an earth pigment) is brushed on and the design created by dragging a stick, finger or broken comb through the wet clay.

Elephant with a Rider
2003
Bandni Devi
Natural earth pigments on handmade paper

This Kurmi Khovar painting by Bandni Devi displays Shiva, lord of the animals, on the back of an elephant.

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Untitled
Rukhmani Devi

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Lotuses in Pond
Date Unknown
Gangwa Devi
Natural earth pigments, aalta, neel and turmeric, on handmade paper

This Prajapati style Khovar by Gangwa Devi depicts lotuses (a motif associated with fertility) in a pond. It has been coloured - some Khovar designs on houses are updated at the time of Sohrai by adding coloured pigments. Here, the pink is aalta, a pigment used by married women to colour their feet, the yellow is turmeric.

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Mural by Putli Ganju

Sohrai paintings (coloured) are made in the harvest season, from October to November. After the monsoon, as the paddy grows ripe, houses are repaired with a new mud coating, on which women traditionally painted designs associated with the upcoming harvest festival of Sohrai, which falls at the end of Diwali. The Khovar and Sohrai paintings exhibited here represent the first time that these mural forms were painted on paper - an initiative set up by the Tribal Women Artists Cooperative (TWAC). Each different village community among the Ganju, Prajapati, Santals, Oraon, Munda and others, has its own distinctive style of painting.

Jungle Peacocks and Iguana
Putli Ganju
2015
Natural earth pigments on handmade paper

Peacocks attempt to chase a hungry iguana away from their eggs in Putli Ganju’s Sohrai painting.

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There is a sadness embodied in this art. It is a tradition under threat. Jharkhand has become a key state in governmental development programmes. The villages these artists call home lie on top of coal seams. The region is littered with legal and illegal coal and mica mining works. Thirty-one additional opencast coal mines are planned: 2500 square kilometres of forests and agriculture, 203 villages, hundreds of sacred groves and crucial forest wildlife corridors for elephants, leopards, bears and bison moving between the different hill ranges, face eradication. The Tribal Women Artists Cooperative was founded in 1993 by the Sanskriti Museum and Art Gallery, Hazaribagh, to highlight this plight through the exhibition of Khovar and Sohrai paintings.