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Insights into tribal art

The recent exhibitions of Kota pottery and Kurumba paintings, organised by the C.P. Arts Centre, captured the unique tradition of these Nilgiris tribes.

ALONG WITH the vanishing forest wealth of India is disappearing a wealth of tribal lifestyles nurtured by the forest people from practically the dawn of history. As many invaluable insights into tribal anthropology, art forms and cultural artefacts also gradually vanish. Often unsung and undocumented, others come to light some times in serendipitous encounters. Reminding one of Arnold Toynbee's famous words that in India one literally stumbles into history every half a mile!

Which is exactly what the C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar Foundation's environmental activists did some three years ago while doing a survey of the art and craft traditions of the Nilgiri tribals. And in the process, literally walked into an ancient 3,000-year-old rock-painting site done by the Kurumba tribals at Eluthu Paarai in the Kotagiri forest region. It was a landmark discovery, since the richly executed artwork unveiled in the universal genre of prehistoric art, many facets of the tribal ethos and lifestyle. Primarily ritualistic, drawn with burnt twigs and coloured with resin drawn from the kino tree, the cave walls provided rich vignettes of Kurumba life; huts built of leaves and wood, women drying food grain, weddings and funerals — all singing with the vitality of tribal art. Since only one very old Kurumba artist was alive, the C.P. Arts Foundation and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India, set upon the task of reviving and resurrecting the art.

With the funds, 20 Kurumba youths were taught their own craft traditions. The foundation simultaneously began reviving the forgotten pottery traditions of the Kota tribals of the Nilgiris.

Recently, the C.P. Arts Centre organised two fascinating exhibitions of Kota pottery and Kurumba paintings.

The Kota pottery included delicately conceived terracotta jewellery along with terracotta tumblers, pots, vases, tea cups, mugs, wall hangings and so on.

The motifs were distinctly tribal with repetition of flowers and leaf juxtapositions and ritualistic symbols. The mood and motifs were of the earth, an ever-present ethos in tribal connectedness with mother earth.

The Kurumba paintings provided unique insights. Against the delicate tracery of trees, again a typical tribal leitmotif — men and women danced, walked in virtual procession, took their nuptial vows and so on.

Arranged in symbolic patterns and moving in pre-arranged ways, the paintings exhibited a fine sense of symmetry and a delicacy of conceptualisation. White and black stylised human figures against brightly coloured backgrounds exuded dramatic Warli art-like vibrations.

The brightly coloured animal forms and banana trees brought a touch of sheer charm to the art.

But it was in the delineation of tribal life and everyday chores that the Kurumba paintings excelled. And to think that these tribal artists had to be literally taught how to hold a brush and use watercolours by the C.P. Arts Centre artist!

Today, the hills and forests of Kotagiri hum with the art and craft of Kurumba artists and Kota potters, heirs to a unique tradition who can now carry it forward into the future.


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