FOLK ART In the vast panorama of India's sociocultural diversity, creative expressions are closely linked to diurnal rhythms, fertility cults, and protective rituals. Traditional ways of life as well as professions shape the form of creative expression. Women as the nurturers of the household have played the dominant role in performing rituals; many folk expressions arose from these traditions, thus evolving a parallel creative expression to the classical arts. In addition, there are professional groups that cater to the ritual needs of different communities. These professionals intervene between the physical and mythical world, involved not only in rites of passage but also serving as healers and as propitiators of the gods and the spirits that populate the inner hidden world. Many folk expressions are multifaceted, combining the creation of objects for worship with ritual mudras, song, dance, and performance, and well-known schools of folk art have evolved from these traditions.
Folk art from the earliest times included works created by women for ritual purpose, such as wall and floor paintings, hand-molded gods and goddesses, and offerings to sacred shrines to propitiate their gods. Art objects created by women for the family and for exchange as gifts cementing social relationships, also serve as an expression of their dreams, their longings, and their anguish. Traditional craftspeople, of course, also produce art for ritual use by the people of a village community or by shamans, who are not only the priests and genealogists of different communities, but who visually create and narrate the tales of deified heroes, as well as those of the progenitors of craft guilds. Pilgrim centers also became important centers for folk art.
Different communities have distinctive styles of artistic expression. In Gujarat's Kutch, a single village may contain several different groups, such as Ahirs, Rabaries, Lohanas, and Bhatias, each creating art objects in a distinctive style. The same is true of most rural communities, the unique ethos of each reflected in its artistic motifs, which are connected to ancient tribal or caste origins.
Painting on Floors, Walls, and Paper
In most Hindu households, a woman's daily morning task is the creation of floor decorations, known as alpona,aripana, and kolam. These auspicious patterns are meant not only to welcome visitors and to propitiate the household gods, but also to provide food for unseen creatures, or spirits. In South India each dot of the kolam, created with dots of pure rice flour, is believed to feed three ants. Each design, every motif has a symbolic significance; some of the stylized patterns can be found as well in the tattoo designs created by wandering tattoo artists.
In different seasons, for festivals and rites of passage, each house is painted, and that too is traditionally women's art. Among the women in Saurashtra and Kutch, Gujarat, the Meos of Haryana, and the Jats and Harijans of Punjab, dung- or mud-work walls, encrusted with mirrors, decorate the interiors of the village huts, creating a shimmering inner landscape.
The ritual paintings of Mithila, North Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Warli have long been recognized and acknowledged as sensitive expressions of a folk art tradition. Mithila, a poverty-stricken area, had an extraordinary tradition of painting on mud walls. The most elaborate was the Kobar Ghar, paintings for the nuptial chamber, which were created to bless the inner room where the young couple would be together for the first time. The ritual focal point was a tree form of lotuses, often with a female head on the top, known as the kamalban, alongside of which was painted bamboo. These motifs were not only associated with fertility but were also subtle delineations of the sexual organs. Paintings of sacred Hindu couples—Rāma and Sītā, Shiva and Pārvatī—brought the blessings of the eternally united gods. The Brahman and Kayasta styles of painting were quite distinct. Older women painted from memory directly onto the mud walls, while others relied upon aide-mémoires kept on paper. Brahman women's work often exhibited a great spontaneity, while Kayasta women's paintings were usually linear and more controlled. Interesting ancient folk stylizations of a veiled woman with one eye and of floating animals and birds are sometimes mistakenly interpreted by Western viewers as the influence of the European modernists Paul Klee and Joan Miró.
Painting moved from village walls to paper, thanks to the encouragement of government departments, to add income to impoverished village families. Many women artists, including Jagdama Devi, Sita Devi, Mahasundari Devi, and later, Ganga Devi, emerged as highly creative and successful popular artists.
Another art form, the paintings of the Warli, a tribal group of Maharashtra in western India, also emerged from the walls of village huts. Originally, men were prohibited from painting, but the emergence of a lucrative art market broke this prohibition. One of the finest Warli painters, Jivya Soma Mashe, is a male folk artist who has won many awards.
The Navarātras, the nine nights devoted to the worship of the mother goddess, which require strict fasting, were also the occasion for creating images of the goddess, painting or preparing mud figures in relief on the walls. These were then immersed in a local pond or river with great ceremony. From this ancient ritual evolved a popular modern tradition, the elaborate creation of Goddess Durga images, in Bengal.
These traditions are also associated with the seventy-two vratas, rituals of fasting and praying performed by women, which are the early beginnings of narrative folk painting. The paintings continue to be used to tell the stories associated with each vrata. Hoi, for example, is created for the protection of children and karvachaut for the protection of a husband. The women recite the stories painted on the walls, a tradition that is still practiced. In urban areas, however, lithographic prints have taken the place of the wall paintings, curtailing women's creativity.
The women of Kumaon, in the mountainous areas of Uttar Pradesh, create images of Lord Shiva and his family, which are worshiped by the household during Mahashivaratri, and then left outside on the ledge of the house. The collection of these images placed on the house ledges evokes an art gallery.
Other Art Forms
Indian women create a vast range of artistic products, using recycled or common materials that often hold no intrinsic value; yet their labor and artistic expression transform these materials into works of great value. The finest pieces may be the sculptural forms created from golden grass in North Bihar, made by the women of the household for a young bride as gifts to be taken to her new home. Grass elephants, peacocks, statuesque men, and boxes are made to simulate the dowry gifts of the wealthy landlords of the area. Wastepaper and rags are pulverized to create papier-mâché figures of men, women, animals, and large grain containers, further enlivened by painting, as gifts and for decorating the home. Elaborate palm leaf, bamboo, and straw baskets are created as gifts. The women of Chettinad in Tamil Nadu make exquisite baskets from dyed palm leaf that are as fine as any embroidered cloth and that also serve as wedding gifts.
Throughout India, new clothes are never made for a newborn child; instead, a patched wrapper is created from rags, often collected from different individuals who have led long and happy lives. These patches are stitched together with great care for the newborn baby. The rag wrappers, known as kantha, sujani, gudree, and dharkhee, are representative of the spirit of Chind-deo, the "Lord of Tatters," and Chinddevi, the "Goddess of Tatters"; not only are they protective clothes, they also symbolize a child's purity, connecting him with the final stage of life, sanyas, when a person gives up all attachments to family and hearth.
Woven durries of Punjab and Haryana, created by the Jat community, are made only for the household, and as gifts for their children or relatives, as an act of bonding. Pictorial scenes from folk epics such as Heer Ranja or from local ballads are created, often interspersed with lines from folk songs or a form of poetry, for example, Bagha wich aiyee bahar koil kuk uthi (The spring flowered and the nightingale began to sing).
A number of folk artists created painted ritual cloths, which were used by the shamans of different communities for celebrating deified heroes. These scroll paintings are of ancient origin and are mentioned in ancient texts. The Pabuji ka Phadh, Ramdeoji-ka Phardh are painted by Brahmans of Shapura, Rajasthan, and are used by the Bhopas, the priests of the local communities, to celebrate the lives of the heroes, thus earning merit for the community. The creation of wall paintings, known as Pithoda, by the shamans of the Rathwa tribe is an important household ritual through which the legend of Pithoda is related.
The painters, or patuas, of the painted scrolls (pata) of Bengal are often those who relate the stories as they move from village to village. The Ghazi Pat, which is now found only in Bangladesh, was painted by a Brahman but used by Muslim performers, who sang, danced, and told the story, which is an interesting syncretism of Muslim and Hindu beliefs. The Hindu patuas of West Bengal were painters and wandering minstrels who unrolled their long scrolls scene by scene as they sang the story. Jadu pats, magical scrolls, were created by the Jadu patuas for the tribal Santhals, of the Santhal and Pargana districts of Bihar, as well as among the Santhals of Bengal. They claimed that creating the image of the ancestor would help them find their way to the other world. The Chitrakuthis of Paithan in the Deccan were famous for their extraordinary paintings, which they used to relate religious legends.
Scrolls painted in Andhra of the Markandaya Purāṇa were created specially for the Padmasalis, a weavers' community. The painters also created clay figures of the main characters, which were used along with the scrolls to tell the story of Bhavana Rishi, their progenitor.
Centers of the folk art tradition
Places of pilgrimage became important centers for the creation of ritual objects as well as mementos for pilgrims to carry back to their homes. Important schools of art emerged from this tradition. Kalighat paintings achieved fame because of the large number of pilgrims who visited the temple. Local patuas, as well as painters who had lost their courtly patrons, thus found other outlets for their talent. They began to paint pictures of gods and goddesses, as well as local scenes and narratives. European influence was seen in the use of watercolor in place of gouache, and in the use of bold lines for creating figures. These paintings were not only bought by Europeans, but were also appreciated by the Bengali elite, who had been exposed to contemporary art in Europe. Jamini Roy, a contemporary painter inspired by Kalighat painting, became world renowned. Kalighat painters continued their tradition by painting on clay plaques, which were used to decorate family shrines as well as the home.
The pata-chitra painting of Orissa was practiced by local painters, whose primary duty had been and continues to be the painting of the deities Lord Jagannath, Balram, and Subhadra of the Jagannath Temple of Puri. They created replicas of the images for the pilgrims, both in wood and on a canvas created from cloth and a paste made of vegetal materials. They painted Subhadra, scenes from the Gītā Govinda, and depictions of a number of deities for sale to pilgrims. They also painted the ganjifa, local playing cards, a tradition maintained in many parts of India. Raghurajpur village on the outskirts of Puri has a number of such well-known painters.
Tanjore, an important pilgrimage center in Tamil Nadu, developed a range of paintings depicting Lord Krishna as a child and as a lover surrounded by the gopis, lovelorn women devotees of Vrindavan, as well as paintings of other gods. The paintings were painted on treated wood, using gold and silver, and were even encrusted with stones and jewels. Tanjore also became known for its glass paintings.
The Bhats, a priestly caste of the lower castes of Rajasthan, were string puppeteers who carved and dressed their puppets, performing throughout North India. According to their oral tradition, they played in the Mughal court and evolved their art at the court under a Persian master puppeteer, though there is also a reference to the string and shadow puppetry of Central Asia. Rajasthani puppeteers may have been responsible for the spread of string puppets throughout India. Orissa had a tradition of string puppets, painted in the pata-chitra style, while Bengal had a tradition of rod puppets as well as string puppets. Leather shadow puppets were found in South India in Karnataka, Andhra, and Kerala. Kerala shadow puppets, made of buffalo hide, were distinctive and echoed the classical style as represented in the bronze and wooden sculptures. Beautifully carved wooden dancing puppets with articulated body movements and eye movements are used in temple processions in Tamil Nadu.
The dhokra, or cire-perdue (lost wax) technique of metal casting of Bastar in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, and Orissa was created by itinerant metalsmiths known as Kasars, Malhars, and Mals. Originally they moved from place to place, living on the fringe of the village, and were often treated as vagrants. They would buy broken brass pots and melt them to create their pieces. The base was made out of clay, and the figure was shaped from strings of wax. Thus spiral patterns appeared on the finished pieces. They created images worshiped by the tribal people, as well as ritual objects and jewelry worn by the men, women, and shamans. Each of the center's had a distinctive style of work. Over the years, Bastar and West Bengal further developed the art as a form of creative expression. Jaidev Baghel of Bastar has emerged as an artist whose work is exhibited in galleries in India and abroad.
Karnataka also has centers where the ciré-perdu method is used for casting anklets, belts worn by the traditional shamans, who perform the rituals of exorcism, by the worship of the Bhoota figures, as well as performance of ritual dance and plays in Kerala associated with the Theyyam and worship of Bhadrakali.
Some of the richest forms of creative expression are to be found in Kerala in the celebration of temple festivals and the enactment of rituals for ancestor worship and healing. One of the most powerful performances is the creation of large floor paintings of the powerful goddess, Bhadrakali, from which the goddess is believed to appear. Her painted face, headdress, and costume create a world of fantasy in which, accompanied by loud drumming, the battle between good and evil is enacted. The theyyam, or ritual performance, patronized by landed gentry, brings into play the creation of mythical characters with the use of palm leaves, straw, paint, and facial as well as body masks, enhancing the viewers' entry into a mythical world.
Recognition and acclaim
A new class of folk artists has emerged as a result of their recognition and promotion by well-known artists, art historians, and art institutes. A number of artists began the study and advocacy of the work of folk and tribal artists: Shankho Choudary, a sculptor, initiated his students at the Baroda Fine Arts Faculty in the 1950s into an appreciation of folk arts; and J. Swaminathan, the well-known painter, promoted the cause of folk and tribal artists, presenting a policy paper to the Governing Council of the Lalit Kala Akademi (the institution for contemporary art), stating that it should give equal status to folk and tribal artists. As director of the Kala Bhawan in Bhopal, Swaminathan ran workshops jointly for contemporary and folk artists. He also held exhibitions at which the work of folk and tribal artists was hung alongside the work of contemporary artists. Haku Shah, a sensitive contemporary artist, was responsible for encouraging the talent of many folk artists, such as Saroja Bai and Ganesh, whose works were featured in international exhibitions and now are preserved in a number of museums. Balan Nambiar, a sculptor and enamel artist from Kerala, made a detailed study of folk expression in Kerala State. The photographs taken by the well-known artist Jyoti Bhat were responsible for the discovery of Sona Bai, whose work in clay created a unique environment.
An exhibition organized by Dr. Jyotindra Jain, called "Other Masters: Five Contemporary Folk and Tribal Artists of India," at the National Crafts Museum in New Delhi brought the works of Sona Bai, Jivya Soma Mashe, Ganga Devi, Jangardh Sing Shyam, and of the great Manipuri potter Nilomani Devi into the public eye. Though Jain's catalog of the exhibition, as well as his book on Ganga Devi, focused public attention on the enduring creative work of Indian folk artists, great numbers of them will no doubt continue to work in anonymity.
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Folk art is produced by an individual or group working together in response to the religious, ceremonial, cultural, and artisanal traditions of the particular ethnic or tribal group to which he or she or they belong. Called arte popular, arte folk-lórico, or artesanías (artisan goods) in Spanish and artesenato in Portuguese, the genre includes religious or ceremonial art and sculpture, toys, masks, pottery, basketry, textile arts, musical instruments, decorative items, equestrian gear, jewelry, and other objects that are both artistic and folkloric in nature. The folk artist is generally untrained in academic art, and uses at-hand materials. At its best and most traditional, folk art in Latin America is spontaneous, colorful, whimsical, thought-provoking, and crafted by skilled artisans. At its worst, the work—often derided as "airport art"—is the mass-produced degeneration of traditional folk art forms, produced by impoverished, unskilled workers responding to consumer demand from outside their cultural and economic circle.
In the pre-Columbian era, highly skilled metallurgists, weavers, ceramicists, jewelers, lapidaries, stonemasons, muralists, and other artisans created works of timeless beauty for political and religious elites, primarily in the urban centers of Mesoamerica and the Andes. In the homes and villages of ordinary people, less well-trained artists created objects for their own needs and those of the common folk. Although many fine examples of elite art from this period have survived to the present, little of the pre-Columbian folk art created for the masses exists today, although its influence endures. Much of this work was made of highly perishable materials, such as straw, flowers, and wax.
The arrival of Europeans in the late fifteenth century had a major impact on the folk arts of Latin America. Diseases and mistreatment at the hands of the Iberian conquerors led to the extinction of many native groups and to the irretrievable loss of much knowledge and many artistic skills. Europeans destroyed much of the art, especially that made of precious metals and objects they considered idolatrous.
On the positive side, however, Europeans introduced new materials and technologies into the Americas. Artists were quick to incorporate such novelties as glass, sheep's wool, iron, cowhide, canvas, linen, paper, and silk into their art. Forged iron and steel tools meant improved techniques for working metal, wood, leather, and stone. The pottery wheel and glazing techniques revolutionized ceramic art. Domestic animals, the wheel, oceangoing vessels, written languages, and other imports from Europe led to better communication and transportation, as well as advances in mining, farming, marketing, and supply. The galleon trade between Acapulco and Manila, which began in 1570 and ended with Mexican Independence from Spain in 1821, brought additional new materials and artistic influences to the Americas from the Orient. The galleons, which also called at ports such as Lima and San Salvador de Bahia, introduced Latin America to such Asian influences as glazing techniques and forms in ceramics: silk and metallic threads in textile arts; incrustation of mother-of-pearl and tortoise shell in furniture; ivory carving for religious imagery; and lacquer techniques. Black slaves from Africa brought to many parts of Latin America other artistic techniques and cultural heritages. Their skills at working gold, silver and iron, as well as their textile art traditions, had a lasting impact on popular arts in those regions, where, even during slavery, blacks were allowed to practice their ancient arts. Within a short period after contact with Europe, Latin American folk art, while still an indigenous expression in most regions of the Americas, demonstrated nevertheless the impact of innovations and influences from Europe, Asia, and Africa.
As indentured servants, slaves, or apprentices, native and mestizo craftsmen learned new skills from master European craftsmen. Catholic clergy were also instrumental in instructing natives. They fostered and preserved the arts, although they often destroyed work they believed to be idolatrous. A select few pupils were taught at formal arts-and-crafts schools such as San José de los Naturales, founded in Mexico City by Pedro de Gante about 1526; and the Franciscans' Colegio de San Andrés, founded in Quito in 1552.
During the three centuries of colonial rule, however, native artisans and their output were subjected to strict regulations and controls. Although Europeans appreciated native artistry, they resented the prestige that artisans enjoyed, and feared competition from them. For example, although natives were highly skilled at working metals, in 1550 Philip II of Spain forbade them to possess or work precious metals. Artisans also were not allowed to incorporate native constructs and designs in their work. In the isolated regions of the Americas and in private, however, indigenous people, mestizos, and blacks conserved ancient folk art traditions, passing cultural knowledge and skills from parents to children.
When most parts of Latin America declared their independence from Spain and Portugal in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the folk arts in the new nations experienced an exuberant revival. Liberated from servitude to the Iberians, the people had more freedom to create objects for their own pleasure and use. Pre-Columbian themes, symbols and flags of the new nations, local flora and fauna, and other conceits previously forbidden by the Iberians appeared in religious and ceremonial art, silver, jewelry, equestrian gear, toys, ceramics, household goods, public art, clothing, textile arts, architecture, and popular painting. The trend continued throughout the political chaos of the nineteenth century, until the twentieth century, when the pervasiveness of a cash economy made increasing demands on people's time and energies. "Folk art occupies the brief interlude between court taste and commercial taste," wrote George Kubler. In those regions of the Americas where barter economies, poverty, and cultural conservatism still prevail, the traditional folk art phenomenon endures, primarily in the Andean highlands, rural Northeastern Brazil, and the Indian regions of Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, and the Amazon basin.
In the mid-twentieth century, when air travel, affluence, and consumerism began to bring tens of thousands of visitors from the Northern Hemisphere to all parts of Latin America, the folk arts underwent a new mutation. Artists who had produced works only for their own use and enjoyment, or for that of their traditional clientele, responded to the new market created by outsiders eager to purchase their work. Increasingly, upper- and middle-class Latin Americans, as well as foreigners, became interested in collecting folk art. The casual output of part-time artists and family workshops was rapidly supplanted by cottage industries producing folk art goods on a near industrial scale and to importers' specifications. By the late 1960s the employment of thousands of workers in the production and exportation of folk art from Latin America had become a burgeoning part of the economies of nearly all countries in the region. Since the 1990s, the Fair Trade movement has reshaped Latin American folk art. Under Fair Trade principles, sellers of local crafts promise to pay artists a socially just wage. Organizations such as Manos Artesanas in Peru have shops and websites where the goods are certified under Fair Trade principles. Stores selling Fair Trade folk art from Latin America have become increasingly popular in the United States and Europe.
The work itself was forever changed. Some of the folk artists, who traditionally work in anonymity, became famous personalities, showing their work in galleries and museums around the world and sharing art critics' columns with artists working in academic modes. The lines between folk art and fine art were blurred. Yet in the villages, alleys, markets, and workshops of Latin America, anonymous folk artists still hover over their workbenches, spontaneously fashioning ordinary materials into objects of delight and beauty, in the exercise of ages-old traditions and the enduring human need for artistic expression.
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Bartra, Eli. Crafting Gender: Women and Folk Art in Latin America and the Caribbean. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.
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Martha J. Egan