Art that tells a story

Books with pictures make for interesting reading. It is the picture that invites you to read the book. Check out India’s rich and varied folk art forms.

October 15, 2012 04:42 pm | Updated October 18, 2016 12:40 pm IST

Colour and exquisite detail in Gond art.

Colour and exquisite detail in Gond art.

While browsing books at your local bookstore, did you happen to notice illustrations that were different — almond-eyed two dimensional figures, animals and birds defined by dots, lines and waves in colourful patches, white geometric figures dancing against a monochromatic background? Publishing houses are not being abstract or innovative but just using talent from our own folk backyard.

Folk art like Gond, Warli, Madhubani, Patua and Kalighat are now slowly garnering the attention and credit they deserve thanks to such creative initiatives that also ensure that you become more aware of our folk art tradition before you familiarise yourself with the fine art.

Community life

You would have probably heard of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, the surrealism and cubism incorporated by Pablo Picasso, the life-like portraits of Raja Ravi Verma and the record-breaking paintings of M.F. Hussain. These are what you would call fine art that is defined by the individual. But folk art has the distinction of the community.

It was a way of life in tribal communities where they would paint on walls or cloth using natural dyes. The introduction of paper led to introduction of the expression of self and taking folk art out of the communities,” explains Padma Srinath, Head of School, Akshar Arbol International School.

To create awareness about indigenous art and understand its importance, the World Crafts Council organised “The ‘Craft’ of Reading — Introducing Young India to our Folk Art Traditions”. It was an exhibition and seminar on children’s books illustrated in folk art styles of India, curated by Young India Books.

Here are some of the folk art traditions and books that use them for illustrations…


Community: The Gonds, the largest tribal community in India

Region: Chhindwara district in Madhya Pradesh, Bastar in Chhattisgarh, parts of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Orissa.

Themes: Draws inspiration from nature and social customs.

Features: The images are decorated by a distinct, repetitive pattern of dots, dashes and waves that add intricate detailing to the flora and fauna. They use the art as a means to record history.


Mai and Her Friends by Durga Bai, Katha

The London Jungle Book by Bhajju Shyam, Tara Books

The Old Animals' Forest Band by Sirish Rao, Tara Books


Region: Mithila region in Bihar

Themes: Mythology, nature, stories of the origin of earth and moral instructions.

Features: Madhubani refers more to the way of painting — using natural dyes on mud walls and floors of huts, cloth, handmade paper and canvas. They use a bamboo stick with one of its ends frayed, as the brush. For centuries, the art has been passed down from mothers to daughters, and its only recently that men have started taking it up and the art has come out of the community.

The story goes…: King Janaka ordered the kingdom of Mythila to be painted at the time of his daughter Sita’s wedding to Ram. The wall painting tradition continued for many centuries to mark special occasions like weddings and festivals.


Following my Paintbrush by Dulari Devi, Tara Books

Panna by Kamala Das, Puffin

Drawing from the City by Teju Behan, Tara Books


Region: Originated in Warli village, Thane district, Maharashtra. Now indigenous to Dahani, Nashik and Dhulr districts of Maharashtra, Valsad district of Gujarat and the union territories of Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu

Themes: Marriage, harvest and other activities like hunting, fishing and dancing.

Features: The art uses basic geometric shapes like circle — derived from sun and moon, triangle — from hills and tree tops and square — denoting a piece of land is significant to Warli art. The paintings are monochromatic — white (a mixture of rice paste and water with gum for binding) against the predominantly red or brown of the walls (mixture of branches, earth and cow dung)


Do! by Gita Wolf, Tara Books

Where’s the Sun by Niveditha Subramaniam, Tulika

Dancing on Walls by Shamim Padamsee, Tulika


Community: Patuas

Region: West Bengal

Themes: Stories of gods and goddesses and social issues.

Features: The practitioners of this art painted stories on scrolls and travel from one village to another singing their stories in return for money or food. Pieces of cloth or paper of different sizes are sewn together to make the scrolls and are then painted. Now the artists use it to address social and political issues to create awareness among people.


I See the Promised Land: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Arthur Flowers, Tara Books

The Enduring Ark by Joydeb Chitrakar and Gita Wolf, Tara Books

Other Indian folk art

Kalamkari , Tanjore painting, Rajasthani Minature painting, Kalamezhuthu, Phulkari


Region: Kolkata, West Bengal

Themes: Deities and mundane life.

Features: At a time when the Kalighta temple in Kolkata was gaining popularity as an important place of pilgrimage in 19 century British-India, local Patua and other artists developed a method to paint on mill-made paper. These were intended to be bought by the visitors as souvenirs but soon developed into an art form in itself. This art that has free-flowing lines is said to have inspired Jamini Roy an Indian artist.


My Mother by Bahadur Chitrakar and Jaya Jaitly, Pratham Books

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