Paintings The 3000-year old art form has been revived through the frames of the tribal artists, which are on display at Vennirul Art Gallery. Pushpa Chari

The frames seem to come alive with the music of the Nilgiri forests and the rhythms of Kurumba life, the throb of its drum beats, the edgy movements of its dancers. Taut, rectangular silhouettes of men and women dance in half circles, worship at megalithic dolmans, harvest and winnow rice, climb up overhanging rock faces to collect honey- all with a sense of amazing grace.

As Kurumba artists Kitna and Palla dip brush into colours made out of green leaf, earth, tree resin and bark to give life to a delicate tiger or fill in the branches of a tree or artist Kalpana outlines angular female dancers in profile, it is easy to believe that these are the descendants of artists who created the stunning prehistoric Eluthupaarvai on Nilgiri rock faces.

Graceful shades

The same graceful, yet edgy, movements and flat rectangular human forms mark the art genre except that today’s Kurumba artist has moved from rock face to expanded canvases and evolving visual context to paint his life and times.

Vennirul Art Gallery’s exhibition of the ‘Art of Kurumba Tribe of Nilgiris’ offers never before seen glimpses of Kurumba life painted by tribal artists. Forest scenes abound featuring ancestor worship and death rite under megalithic dolmans, honey gatherers, abundance of trees and herbs, frolicking animals and birds, marriage and tilling of fields. And everywhere the rectangular figures are involved in the dance of life - in circles and semi circles, and in formations and harmonious lines. The colours are gentle but veer from traditional yellow ochre, brown and green to blues and reds, even purple and black. Today the Kurumba artist revels in the revival of his nearly lost skill of painting on cloth and canvas, handmade paper and wood and as tiny motifs on the edge of his veshti!

It was C.P. Ramaswami Iyer Foundation’s dedicated effort, spearheaded by Dr. Nandita Krishna, which lead to the revival of this 3000-year old art form. “ It was a chance encounter with an old tribal artist, Krishnan, – the only painter left in the tribe - which got us going. His work bore a strong resemblance to the Eluthupaarvai rock paintings. We asked Krishnan ‘What happens after you?’ and convinced him to teach the art to his grandson Kitna. We also sent C.P. Art Foundation’s artist Venkatesh to teach him to use the pencil, the brush etc. with which he was unfamiliar, as well as to adopt a newer colour palette. Venkatesh taught him to compose and slowly exciting but tentative frames, such as these on view at the exhibition, emerged marrying tribal ethos with innovative techniques,” says Dr. Nandita Krishna.

The C.P. Art Foundation has trained 20 tribal artists every year since the start of their programme in 1998. Today, tribal master painters teach groups of Kurumbas and painting has become not only a revived vocation but a means of livelihood.

Decades ago, even scholars debated if the prehistoric rock paintings done at a height of 20 feet in Eluthupaarvai on impossible rock faces could be the work of aliens! Their possible descendants, today’s Kurumba artists, open up a nearly lost art genre in frames which speak of India’s indigenous people. And perhaps it’s first artists.

See Kurumba paintings at a special exhibition at Venirul Art Gallery at the Vennirul Art Gallery, 1 Eldams Road, Alwarpet, till September 21. Also on display is a priceless collection of Kurumba pottery, and tools.

(A workshop on Kurumba painting will be held between September 15 and 21 at the C.P. Arts Centre premises.)

As artists Kitna and Palla dip brush into colours made out of green leaf, earth, tree resin and bark, Kalpana outlines angular female dancers.