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The Art of Adivasi India

The Art of Adivasi India

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With a population that is as strong as 60 million, it was only a matter of time before the artists from the so called tribal India came to the mainstream art world. There have been exhibitions showcasing their works from crafts to terracotta, paintings to sculptures, weaved clothes to masks, the forms of expression and ritual objects that have outgrown their utility.


Bronze Statue of Elephant in 6 Elements from Bastar, India
photo Michel Urtado, Thiery Ollivier


The last major exhibitions that treated indigenous and folk art of India in its theme were 'Magiciens de la terre' in 1989 at Centre Pompidou in Paris and 'Other Masters' in 1998 in Delhi. The ongoing Exhibition 'Other Masters of India' at quai Branly Museum brings to forefront the art of adivasi and folk India.



Who exactly are adivasi, tribal or folk people of India and what is their current status in modern India ? To answer the question, one must delve deeper into the history of indigenous people of India. Hindu mythological legends such as the Ramayana are replete with references of tribal folks such as Bhil, Nishad, Kiraat, Mallah etc. These folks have existed in references since legends to the present day without really entering the 'mainstream'. As per the Indian constitution, tribal people are recognized based on their ethnography- a non-insular criterion which is amended from time to time without being concretely defined.


'Aeroplane'- Painting by Gond artist Nankusia Shyam

© photo Aditya Arya



The first section of the exhibition lets the viewer interpret his own version of the Indian tribal identity through a collection of lithographs, engravings, postcards, calendar arts, film photos and film footings. As per Jyotindra Jain*, this section is his answer to the tribal identity- it is what we have ourselves created and projected over a period of past century or so by stereotyping the image of a rudimentary, semi-clad India living in the forests and the hills. Census by the British Raj, Bollywood films and sensationalism of feminine form through different medias did further to reinforce this image. To sum up the situation in the words of Vikas Harish* "the tribals are often presented as tableaux inspired by the registers of oriental photography or museum dioramas even while showcasing India's cultural diversity in its annual Republic day celebrations."


Mural Painting

© photo Aditya Arya

Coming to the pre and post independence era, not much has changed as far as the sidetracks are concerned. The tribal or indigenous folks have traditionally lived on the outskirts of the Hindu caste system, metaphorically and habitat-wise. However, this did not prevent a cross-cultural exchange and sharing of influences between the parties concerned.



The Hindus had material, religious and mythological influences on the tribal people who, in turn, may have sold their crafted objects to the former, thereby establishing close links and reciprocal exchanges. In some instances, there may exist a common ground such as worship or ritual around the same local or religious deities. This influence and exchange is clearly visible in the tribal and folk contemporary Indian art which has come to be interpreted as the art done and influenced by the tribal people of India.

According to Jean-Pierre Mohen*, this art is a link between the ancient and the contemporary where one can often sense a strong personality of the artist. He recounts that in his interactions with indigenous Indian artists, he found that the habitat was an integral part of their sense of identity- "In a family, there are three members- the father, the mother and the forest". As a heritage conservator, he perceives tribal art as a celebration of cultural and biological diversity.



The second section deals with various artistic and ritualistic objects corresponding to different tribal areas and people- Bhuta sculptures and armours from Canara, Karnataka; architectural bas-reliefs from Chattisgarh area;Terracotta sculptures from Ayannars in Tamil Nadu; Pithora paintings from Rathawas of Gujarat; Molela clay figures from Rajasthan; wooden sculptures from Andaman and Nicobar; Santhal wooden carvings of West Bengal; Waghri temple textiles of Gijarat; Naga masks and ceremonial warrior accoutrements; Bronze sculptures from Bastar and adivasi paintings.


The last section culminates the art of adivasi India and raises it to an international platform by showcasing the works of two prominent world renowned artists- Jivya Soma Mashe and Jangarh Shyam Singh. Both these artists took the ritualistic and traditional art from their respective communities and transformed it to an individual expression coloured by their own transition in modern times. Read more on them in Other Masters of India.



Having charted the route of folk art from an ancient, ritualistic to a modern day perspective, one comes out of the exhibition with a lot of questions for self-introspection. Coming from a relatively comfortable echelon of the society, what could be our role in the development and rightful projection of a traditionally disadvantaged yet hardy folk ?

© photo Aditya Arya

*Dr.Jyotindra Jain is an art historian, anthropologist, ex-director of National Crafts Museum, New Delhi. Currently he is a professor in the School of Arts and Aesthetics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He has curated the exhibitions 'Other Masters' in Delhi in 1998 and 'Other Masters of India' at MQB, Paris in 2010. He has authored several books on the subject of popular and tribal arts of India.


Vikas Harish is an art historian and museologist. He is the scientific advisor for the exhibition 'Other Masters of India'. A specialist in the history of Indian art, he has curated various exhibitions in India. He represents India at the Executive Council of the Common wealth Museums Association


Dr. Jean- Pierre Mohen is the co-curator of this exhibition. He is a pre-historian and a heritage conservator who has worked on folk Indian arts for various exhibitions. He has worked at the quai Branly Museum in heritage conservation and currently works as the director of renovation at Musée de l'Homme in Paris.


Photo details (in the order of appearance)

Elephant in six elements. Bronze statuette representing an elephant. Created by Gond population of Bastar © Musée du Quai Branly, photo Michel Urtado, Thiery Ollivier

Aeroplane. Nankusia Shyam. Acrylic on canvas. Collection: Lekha & Anupam Poddar © photo Aditya Arya.

Stage of realisation of a painted mural panel. Work commissioned for the exhibition. Sarguja District, Chattisgarh, India © photo Aditya Arya

Horse. Work in terracotta specially commissioned for the exhibition. Ayyanar © photo Aditya Arya. Courtesy Musée du Quai Branly


Related Programs and Events

Exhibition Other Masters of India

Meeting: Artist Jivya Soma Mashe

Conference: Emerging Indian contemporary art and challenges

Conference- Sarguja- Where the walls tell the stories