From caves to canvas

LABOUR OF LOVE: Madhusudan Majhi demonstrates his art. Photo: R. Shivaji Rao  

Madhusudan Mahji is a picture of concentration as he deftly paints on the bonnet of a car. The final product depicts a wedding procession -- the bride is being carried on a palanquin, musicians play instruments and others follow -- and the classic stick figures so symmetrical and in a perfect line, capture your attention.

For this tribal artist who was born into a Pithora family but pursues the Saora style of painting, it’s just another day at work. But for the few who have gathered at the Lalit Kala Akademi, Chennai, to participate in an exhibition that reiterates India’s rich art heritage, every painting is a bright and beautiful throwback to the Palaeolithic and Neolithic Ages.

Reflections of life

Titled ‘Aadi Chitra’, the show has on display the handiwork of tribals from the Bastar region, Warli from Maharashtra (mainly Thane and Nasik), Pithora (Gujarat) and Saora from Odisha. Presented by TRIFED (Tribal Co-operative Marketing Development Federation of India) and curated by V.V. Ramani, these paintings are more than just pieces of art… they are a means of communication. Marriage, death, celebrations, festivals and daily routines are captured on these canvases with utmost simplicity and precision. They mirror life and transmit heritage.

While Warli, Pithora and Gond art has found a platform and wide appreciation in various exhibitions over the years, the Saora paintings are a highlight here. Talking to the 29-year-old Madhusudan about this art form is engaging and enlightening. The shy artist explains that commercialisation has forced most tribal artists to explore methods which do not stay true to tradition. “We do not use natural dyes anymore. We prefer poster or acrylic colours. It is easier for the artist as making natural colours is laborious. Also, today, people prefer poster paints,” says Madhusudan, who has been painting since he turned 19. According to him, Saora paintings, also called ‘ittal,’ were painted to honour the dead, and during village festivities. They were done on the kitchen walls of their homes. Often it was the woman who picked up a twig and drew figures on the wall. “It is only in the past 40 or 50 years that men have taken to it,” he adds.

Saora art originally used red clay and rice flour for the medium, and a twig served as the brush. So, in most paintings, the background is white with earthy red figures on it, leaving a startling effect.

The strong influence of the cave paintings found in the Bhimbetka region (the Paleolithic cave shelters in Madhya Pradesh) is seen everywhere. For, the stick and animal figures are quite similar in appearance as are the themes. The variation is perhaps in the extra lines in the depiction of man and animal. One aspect of tribal art that is fascinating and in fact significant today is the smooth co-existence of Man and Nature.

Trees and the leaf motifs dominate most paintings, telling us the important role that Nature played in the lives of people centuries ago.

Bucolic images are central to almost all the paintings. Villagers hunting, milking cows, pounding rice, ploughing fields, building homes and travelling… their simple lives are translated on to these canvases with clarity.

The mounted art works at the Akademi are highly symbolic, richly hued and intricately detailed, and emerge from various geometric shapes – curves, straight lines, triangles and dots. There is a certain raw appeal in each of the canvases which is a mix of interesting hues --- purple, pink and green with magenta, red and green with blue and orange.

Warli paintings are invariably linked to marriage ceremonies and done by women. White is the dominant colour here with an occasional yellow or red.

The Muria Gonds make paintings which reflect the Bastar beliefs and traditions.

The Pithora ritual paintings boast of bolder strokes and brighter colours. Horses are the main figures here for they represent the gods and goddesses of the Rathwa tribe.

Walking past these displays, one wonders why there is no representation from the South. Is there no tribal painting tradition down South?

“There is. Take the Kurumba style. It is slowly but surely getting recognised. Ideas are being tossed around and hopefully, something on the lines of TRIFED will be set up in South India,” says Ramani on a positive note.

>View the video here.

(The Aadi Chitra exhibition (11 a.m. to 7 p.m.) concludes on October 21 at Lalit Kala Akademi, Greams Road, Chennai.)

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Printable version | Apr 4, 2021 3:56:10 PM |

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