A stunning exhibition, Other Masters, curated by Dr. Jyotindra Jain at the Quai Branly Museum, Paris, showcases the best of contemporary Indian tribal art, both in its traditional form and its transformation to modernity.

“I cannot make this mud move and twist under my fingers. It's hard and it cracks, it's not elastic like the earth in my native Chattisgarh,” says Sundari Bai in disgust. Wearing a bright orange sari, she is bent over her work, painfully coaxing out the rough shape of an Eiffel Tower from a mound of clay dough, watched by a fascinated gaggle of visitors to the Quai Branly Museum in Paris where she has been invited to show her sculpted mud panels showing village scenes which have a distinctly modern feel. A train occupies the top third of the frieze and in the foreground a policeman has arrested a thief who has stolen a visitor's handbag.

“There was no train when I came to the village as a young bride of 11 and no thieves either! No telephones, no watches none of these modern things that I now put into my work,” she laughs. “I was so lonely in my husband's house, I started making clay figurines. Birds, beasts and animals, parrots, clay dolls all became my playmates. And then one day some people from the Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal came looking for artists like me. That was many years ago. I have since taught several others to sculpt and paint in our traditional style,” she recalls.

Best of adivasi art

Sundari Bai is one of several tribal artists invited to demonstrate their work during a major exhibition of Indian tribal art at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. Entitled “Other Masters, Contemporary creations of the Adivasis”, the exhibition, curated by Dr. Jyotindra Jain, showcases Indian adivasi art at its best, both in its traditional and ritualistic form and as it moves, under the influence of technology, mass media and the evolution of society at large, towards a more contemporary, “modern” idiom.

Divided into three sections, the exhibition first takes the visitor through perceptions of “tribals” as seen by society — the British coloniser, as well as the mainstream Hinduistic culture in India. As Dr. Jyotindra Jain, one of India's foremost authorities on folk and tribal art and the former director of the Crafts Museum, New Delhi, points out: “The term ‘tribe' has never been precisely defined during and after the colonial period. Racial typology, long-term dwelling in a territory, relative isolation in hills and forests, a non-linear sense of history, non-literateness or the absence of an alphabet or written literature, archaic technology of production, difference from other groups in terms of language, social institutions, and religion have been largely used as criteria for defining certain groups of tribals.”

In post-independence India, two factors had an enduring influence on tribal art, bringing it out of its purely ritualistic and iconographic confines and allowing it to conquer its own contemporary artistic space — the government's decision to promote an active “handicrafts” policy and to give paper to tribal communities, and the creation of museums where this art could be showcased. Artists were no longer circumscribed to painting the walls of their homes. Paper, paint and other modern artists' materials freed them not just physically but also emotionally and psychologically to give expression to their existential problems.

“The tribal and folk artists of India have, over the centuries, experienced the effects of new means of transportation and communication; modern media technologies, commodity culture, new forms of governance, control and policy with regard to forests, agricultural lands and natural resources and have been faced with social segregation and economic deprivation — not as passive observers but as active subjects struggling to negotiate these changes and engaging with modernity in their artistic expression on their own terms. This exhibition tries to unfold some of these processes. It centres around the works of artists who have consciously elected to express their social predicaments and individual subjectivities through the medium of the visual image,” explains Dr Jain.

The second section of the exhibition gives us examples of ritualistic and iconographic art from various parts of India. Gigantic Bhuta sculptures from Karnataka, made of jackfruit wood and used in ancestor worship or appeasement have been brought all the way from the Crafts Museum in New Delhi. There are objects here of astounding beauty, grace, colour and cultural and religious significance: magical healing amulets from the Nicobar Islands, votive terracotta figures from the Ayyanar tribe in Tamil Nadu, bronze figurines from Bastar (Gond) and Orissa (Kondh), clay storytelling sculptures from Sarguja in Chattisgarh, votive tablets from Rajasthan, paintings from the Rathwa tribe in Gujarat or the jadupatua scrolls from the Santhal tribes of Bihar or West Bengal.

Contemporary takes

The third section of the exhibition is the most rewarding, featuring as it does the works of some of India's most exceptional and original contemporary tribal artists. Here tribal art steps out of the confines of the purely ritualistic to give voice to concerns such as urban encroachment, violence practised by the state, and the influence of modern technology. In one of the Santhal scrolls, Yama, the God of death is portrayed wearing a policeman's uniform, a telling comment on how the guardians of the law are perceived by a largely disenfranchised and oppressed population. Trains, airplanes (depicted as part mechanical, part mythical creature) telephones and mirrors mingle with harvests, fields and creatures of the forest, sometimes, as in the case of a train, completely cutting the artistic space in two.

Raw truths

Janghar Singh Shyam, a Gond from Madhya Pradesh, who was unable to take the demands made on him by the modern artistic milieu with its fierce competition and pressure to produce, took his own life while on an artists' residency in Japan in 2001. He was just 39 at the time and at the peak of his artistic powers and his exuberant canvases, touched with a sense of wonderment and magic, rich in colour, peopled with fantastic birds and beasts, literally soar to touch universal truths.

Jivya Shoma Mashe, of the Warli tribe in Maharashtra, like Janghar Singh Shyam, has transformed traditional Warli painting to give it new form, shape and dimension. He pits the smallness and helplessness of the individual against the immense forces of nature as in his series on the fisherman's nets, giving us a new commentary on the human predicament.

These individual works of great power demonstrate that tribal art in India is no longer limited to the “community” but has crossed the threshold to produce individual artists capable of giving voice to their inner turmoil through their own specific vision.