The endearing quality about traditional art forms ensures their survival. Many families in rural India continue to pursue these art forms as a means of livelihood.

In the recently concluded Commonwealth Games, while India asserted its sporting supremacy, an almost unknown traditional Indian art was asserting its existence on the pictograms of 17 sporting disciplines, oblivious to the ignorant eye. The pictograms used in the Commonwealth Games were a fusion of pictograms designed earlier for the 1972 Munich Olympic Games and an Indian art form called Sanjhi.

It is a rare art of paper-cutting that is indigenous to Vraja in the north-western Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The art work thus created was used to decorate palaces, temples and other places during various festivals and celebrations. Though commonly it portrayed Radha-Krishna leela, mundane scenes also featured in the art work.

Traditional Indian art forms like this one and more survive in India.But while many like the miniature painting struggle for survival of Rajasthan, quite a few have found popular patronage.

Indian art forms can be traced back to the days of the early man. Proof of this lies deep within the 700 caves at Bhimbetka, 45 km from Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. Though discovered only as recently as 1957 by V.S. Wakankar, some of the cave paintings at this World Heritage sites have been found to date back to the Palaeolithic age. And these, like any other, evolved along with man, thus giving us traditional art to savour from all parts of the country. The oldest of these “evolved” art forms in India can be found in the Ajanta caves where the frescos date back to second century BC.

Popular ones

Many of the traditional art forms are still practised in rural India by families that have been pursuing them for several generations. Of all, the art forms encompassing wall paintings, oil paintings, cave paintings, miniatures and even calendar paintings, the popular ones would be Madhubani, Warli, miniatures, Kalamkari, Pattachitra and Tanjore paintings.

Madhubani, which has its roots in the present day Madhubani village of Bihar, was traditionally painted on mud walls using natural dyes. It colourfully depicted nature, mythology and life with grandly decorated figures carrying well defined borders.

Developed during the medieval period in India, miniature paintings are almost synonymous to Rajasthan, where they flourished well during the Mughal and Rajput reigns. Initially used as illustrations to support manuscript texts, the miniature paintings depicting life of the times and Radha-Krishna images soon developed into an art form of its own.

Tanjore painting is a rich and colourful art form belonging to Tamil Nadu. It flourished extensively during the Chola reign whose capital was the city of Tanjore, from which it derives its name. Deities are popularly depicted in this art using colourful dyes, gold foils, coloured stones and laces.

What is a pictograph

It is actually an ideogram — bringing out its meaning in pictorial form. Ancient and prehistoric drawings and paintings found on rock walls could be the earliest examples. Sometimes, pictographs are also used in writing and graphic systems where the characters are to an extent pictorial in appearance.

Pictography is a form of writing which uses representational, pictorial drawings. It is a basis of cuneiform and, to some extent, hieroglyphic writing, which uses drawings also as phonetic letters or determinative rhymes.

Peek into the past

The Bhimbetka caves in Madhya Pradesh have some of the oldest prehistoric paintings in the world. These paintings are said to resemble the aboriginal rock paintings in the Australian outback, the cave paintings of the Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert and the Paleolithic Lascaux cave paintings in France. These caves belong to the Neolithic Age and have been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Most of the paintings depict the life and times of the people who lived in these caves. There are also paintings of animals, such as wild buffalo, rhinoceros, bears and tigers. Because of the natural red and white pigments the painters used, the colours have been preserved.

The name Bhimbetika comes from the mythological association of the place with Bhima, one of the Pandavas (The Five) in the Mahabharata. The place has around 700 caves with drawings but just 10 to 15 are open for viewing.

On fabric and canvas

Warli, endemic to a tribe of the same name in Maharashtra, is dominated by geometric designs including dots, triangle and crooked lines. The paintings in this style are usually circular depicting the circle of life in a limited colour palette against an earthen background.

Kalamkari, literally meaning pen work, is a tradition that has survived for 3000 years. With its root in Andhra Pradesh, specifically in the towns of Masulipatnam and Srikalahasti, this art involves hand printing or painting on fabric using natural vegetable dyes. It depicts scenes from popular Indian epics and portraits of deities.

Pattachitra is a devotional art form from Orissa, and perhaps its oldest as well. Literally meaning ‘canvas-picture', it is traditionally painted on canvas colourfully depicting mythological themes inspired by the Bhakti movement.

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