The many mutinies of the tribal art and journeys thereafter

Home / Special Story / The many mutinies of the tribal art and journeys thereafter

Shampa Shah

“Initially I used to get frightened listening to the sound of cars and hide in my house, apprehensive of who has come to take me away and where,” says the acclaimed artist late Smt. Sona Bai Rajwar who hailed from Sarguja in Chhattisgarh. Art critics and historians from India and abroad have written books on her and her art practice. ‘Rajwar Clay Relief’ as it is called now, is widely identified and admired in the country and abroad. Such is her body of work that now it is not hers alone; it has brought a new identity to her entire community and region.

The art form had its genesis in the lonely little courtyard of her house in Puhputra village. She felt the desire to liven up the spartan atmosphere and for years together Sona Bai crafted varied clay objects as if to transform the desolate landscape into a garden. At the time she had no inkling that one day people from all corners of the world will come to see, admire, and buy the clay things that she had begun to make to remedy her desolation and loneliness.


In 1982– 83, a delegation had come to Sarguja to collect art made by folk communities to be showcased in the gallery of Bharat Bhavan, a multi art’s complex, Bhopal. It was this delegation that had first discovered the hidden treasure at Sona Bai’s house. Her far-reaching journey innocuously started on that day owing to the three or four items that she grudgingly sold to the group.

At Neelmani Devi’s house in Manipur one found that she slept with a bag of moist clay near her pillow. At night, if she lost sleep, she would get busy making clay figurines. She said that at such moments, her entire life would replays like a film reel before her eyes. Fond memories of collaborating with organisations such as Khadi Gram Udyog Kendra, Patna, Museum of Man, Bhopal, Crafts Museum, Delhi, as well as travels to America, France and many other countries regale her memories like a motion picture. “I wonder what my life would have been like without these travels and without those people whom I met after stepping out of the house for the first time,” she says. “When I am working late hours, I remember all the people who helped me along the way.”

Neelmani Devi hails from a potter community from a small village called Thongjao in Manipur. Many women make pottery in the village and so one wonders what is so special about her works that has earned her such fame and admiration. She revealed how her clay vessels fetched thrice the usual price in Imphal’s famous Khwairamband or Imma(mother’s) market (as it is totally run by women)because she used a type of a seed to smoothen and burnish the vessels from inside out which caused them to sparkle.

Another work by Jangarh Singh Shyam. It must be noted that people from the communities understand the greatness of their “local” masters. It is not something that only a critic from an urban scenario can dissect

If one analyses the trajectories and stories of all these artists, some aspects begin to stand out that otherwise elude us if we are not alert to the nuances. There are common elements which link together the varied trajectories of the fore bearer of various art practices such as the Pardhan Gond paintings and the artist who lead to it’s genesis– Shri Jangadh Singh Shyam from Patangarh, Mandla, Shri Kalipad Kumbhakar from Bankura, West Bengal, who created the now famous ‘Bonga Hathi,’ Odisha’s scroll painter or “Pat chitrakar” Prahlad Mohrana who for probably for the first time painted the legend of“Ta–poi,” and Sona Bai, or Nilmani who’s contribution have already been referred to in this text.

After being associated with Indira Gandhi National Museum of Man in 1992, I developed an intimate and multifaceted bond with folk and tribal art and artists that continues to be strong till date. My understanding of folk and tribal art practices has undergone a sea change over the years. Earlier, like many others, I used to believe that traditional art forms, especially folk arts intricately entwined with different communities, are passed on from one generation to the next unchanged and without undergoing any transformation. And since it is so, I believed that to maintain the continuity it could be only repetitive and therefore leaving little or no scope for individual innovations in these art practices. Thirdly, a conception that the expanse of traditional art forms is quite restricted in comparison to contemporary arts. A corollary to this is the idea that traditional arts’ with its rich mythological and cultural context is of immense historical value and though still practiced, it can not qualify as a contemporary art practice. The fifth belief, which is again an extension of the fourth, is that despite groundbreaking innovations, innumerable examples of self expression, traditional forms cannot be deemed as ‘modern’ or fit for any modern expression. Today, the above-mentioned arguments stand on their head at least for me and many others like me. Research, documentation and collection done over the past 25-30 years, by organisations such as Bharat Bhavan, Museum of Man, Craft Council of India, Craft Museum and others have dislodged many long-held beliefs tainted by colonial mindset.

It can be said for most of them that they have given birth to a new tradition (at par with Shantiniketan or Baroda School of Arts). A pertinent example of this is Jangarh; before his innovations came into play, there was nothing like ‘Pardhan Gond Art’ that we know of as it exists today. Similarly, the beginning of ‘Bhil Painting’ can be traced to the initiative of Bharat Bhavan’s first Director Shri Jagdish Swaminathan; he approached a Bhil woman named Bhuri Bai and asked her to recreate their ritual and ceremonial drawings on paper for the first time.

Tremendous patience and years of practice are required to understand the essence of an art practice and to comprehend the vast array of dynamics in play. At the same time, one requires a deep sympathetic understanding which maintains equidistance from reducing an artwork to it’s mere objectification
and the claims and assertions of traditionalists on the other hand.

Jangarh Singh Shyam’s oeuvre is a manifestation of his deep connection with the folk idiom

The artists mentioned above have brought about revolutionary changes in their art forms through innovation. It can be said for most of them that they have given birth to a new tradition (at par with Shantiniketan or Baroda School of Arts). A pertinent example of this is Jangarh; before his innovations came into play, there was nothing like ‘Pardhan Gond Art’ that we know of as it exists today. Similarly, the beginning of ‘Bhil Painting’ can be traced to the initiative of Bharat Bhavan’s first Director Shri Jagdish Swaminathan; he approached a Bhil woman named Bhuri Bai and asked her to recreate their ritual and ceremonial drawings on paper for the first time. The ‘burnished’ or polished pottery of Thongjao, Manipur, and ‘Bonga elephant’ of Bengal also have a similar story pertaining to their origin. These examples demonstrate beyond doubt how any tradition can survive only if it constantly strives to reinvent itself. This innovation, the art of constantly ‘remaining new’ with changing times is made possible for a tradition only by the creative intervention of it’s artists. Sona Bai populated her home with an imaginary world of clay figurines to defy her stark loneliness. Her creation helped her to fill the void that existed in her life. Whether we accept it or not, it is a modern sensibility that would use creativity as a tool for addressing personal loneliness and a schism within oneself.
There is one more aspect in the context of traditional arts, that is hotly debated for its merit. It is often said that in traditional art practices the artist remains anonymous. To some extent, this is true. Sona Bai or Kalipad were not interested in telling people what art forms they had individually given birth to. But, this is not the whole truth because, people from their community were aware of their special contributions and therefore respected them. It is generally believed that society at large or the common masses lack the ‘eye’ of a connoisseur
and cannot perceive and appreciate individuals’ contribution in traditional art forms. Though it is true that the the real potential of Jangarh’s talent came to light through the discerning intervention of J.Swaminathan but the villagers of Patangarh also had some idea of the creative mind of Jangarh and hence gave his name to the team visiting the village from Bhopal. The creation of the ‘Bonga elephant’ happened because of the faith reposed by some Santhali men who traversed many miles to commission a special terracotta elephant for their deity– Bonga Dev specifically from Kalipad Kumbhakar and not any other potter. So happy were the Santhali men with Kalipad ji’s creation that they paid double the amount that had been fixed as payment for the Bonga hathi before returning to their village. Likewise, the common people from nearby villages were the ones who were ready to pay triple the price of an ordinary pot for the special, burnished pot crafted painstakingly by Neelmani Devi. She told me once that the demand for her pots in her village itself was so big that she was never able to meet it.

Hence, the fact of the matter is that this truly discerning eye is at work and resides sometimes in the artist her/himself, sometimes in the community, and sometimes in someone outside of that community in the likes of people like Stella Kramrisch, Pupul Jayakar, Swaminathan, Haku Shah, or Jyotindra Jain. In the absence of this visionary, probing, ‘discerning eye,’ that can see beyond and across the limitations of its time or space, the world becomes a chaotic place where things lose their meaning and intrinsic worth. To borrow a dialogue from the famous Hindi play – ‘Andher Nagari’ “everything in this city is priced at par with everything else – a penny for spinach, a penny for the choicest sweetmeats!”

(To be continued)

Shampa Shah established the Ceramic Section at Indira Gandhi National Museum of Man (IGRMS), writes about how tribal artists and artefact makers have reimagined and reinvented an entire tradition, and created a new world altogether. These last mile creative figureheads have helped keep India’s glorious history of art relevant in the contemporary world. This is first part of her series.