Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art
INDIAN FOLK PAINTINGS:
15TH TO 19TH CENTURY
Until fifty years ago, it would have been inconceivable to plan an exhibition of the traditional folk paintings of India. At that time, folk paintings from most of the regions of the country were unknown, and even those somewhat familiar, had not yet found their way into the holdings of museums and private collections. Scholars engaged in the study of anthropology and the folklore of various regions of India did not consider it worthwhile to scrutinise and throw light on the painting or the other art expressions and crafts of the inaccessible terrain they were probing. Paintings made in the comparatively more frequented villages and centres of pilgrimage were termed "primitive".
In actual fact, beginning with the 20th century the appreciation of Indian painting slowly became more reasoned from the Indian point of view. Before this time, in emulation of British art lovers and scholars, only Mughal painting was appreciated by connoisseurs in India. It was in 1916 that Ananda Coomaraswamy established Rajasthani and Pahari paintings on a pedestal of respect. Although compared to the refined Mughal work these were folkish and rougher in execution, their charm was more logically and enthusiastically interpreted by him, His writings added a fresh nuance to the aesthetic evaluation of all forms of Indian art and the significance of Indian art was firmly rehabilitated in the West. Hereafter, various other factors led art lovers to look also for the pictorial expressions of the village painters.
Initially, this search for folk painting was restricted to Bengal. It was due to the fact that the Bengalis were the first to note the significant changes that were taking place on the 'modern art' scene in Europe around 1900. The work of contemporary European painters in France and Germany had created a revolution in Europe's art circles. The modern painters had ignored perspective, used colour for its own sake or for symbolic purposes and had freely distorted and modified the human form. They had aimed at intense simplifications and had abandoned the natural in favour of the abstract or the geometric. These changes were taking place partly as reactions to the just discovered African sculpture on one hand and Japanese woodcut prints on the other. As Mrs. Archer mentions, "popular painting in Bengal seemed in this respect no different from Negro sculpture and it was in a mood of excited patriotism that certain Bengali writers, critics and painters began to re-appraise Kalighat painting and at the same time to seek out and collect another distinctive form of village painting -the scrolls made by patuas in rural Bengal".
India's pioneer collector an art critic, Ajit Ghose, and the artist Mukul Dey, returned from London to Calcutta in the early 1920's. Both collected Kalighat painting which were still being made near the Kali temple at Calcutta. Ajit Ghose thus expressed (Rupam, 1926) his enthusiasm for Kalighat paintings, "there is an exquisite freshness and spontaneity of conception and execution in these old brush drawings". Similarity with Europe's modern art was detected also in the scroll paintings of rural Bengal and Ajit Ghose, in the same article, stressed their 'archaic simplicity', their 'largeness of style', their 'amazing boldness' and the dramatic effects which were achieved by their summary simplifications. Guru Saday Dutt, a senior Bengali official of the Indian Civil Service, toured the villages of Bengal in the 1930's. He made a large collection of folk arts and exposed to art lovers the charm of many more centres of rural Bengal's painting.
As 'folk' and 'popular painting' became more firmly established in its newly found position of respect , more centres of such paintings were gradually located, the immense pictorial strength of the work was increasingly noticed and their regional varieties put into art-chronological order. Added to this enthusiasm was the fact that in the early 1950's, in the post-Independence years after the abolition of the Indian States, miniatures coming from the Indian palace godowns flooded the art market. With a profitable art market, dealers began the search and sale of paintings other than those made for courts.
The term 'folk paintings' here encompasses pictures made in Indian villages, by both men and women, for ornamentation of their abodes, portrayals of their gods and for their various rituals; and, by local professional painters or artisans for use of the local people. The term also includes pictures made in the bazars by hereditary painters to cater to the needs of the urban population, and those made at centres of pilgrimage by traditional professional painter families. All these paintings were produced in a variety of styles and themes. History, sociology and geography infused the painting of each region with local flavour. To some extent their style and quality depended on the materials available in the place in which they were executed 'These very factors help us to identify them region wise. And yet, through all the apparent diversity there runs an underlying unity which makes them 'Indian'.
Although Indian painting is often classified as belonging to court, temple and the art of the folk, it is not very appropriate to make such a division. Until the establishment of the Mughal rule in early 16th century, the courts of early India were not a closed society apart, and the painters for rulers and the richer people like bankers, merchants and zamindars were often the same. The quality differed only because of the material used and the time given for its execution. both of which depended on the remuneration paid to the artist who was freelance. The idea of the exclusive court painters started with the Mughals and was followed by their feudatory rulers who adapted their mannerisms. It can be confidentally said that the energy, inventiveness and lyricism found in Akbari paintings were the features brought to the Mughal studios by the recruits from the hereditary painter families of Gujarat and other parts of India; they had originally been trained to work in a folkish style for small courts and others with modest means.
Paintings from Western India, chiefly Gujarat and southern Rajasthan, where the well-known and clearly identified styles of miniatures, chiefly of Jain themes, started from about the twelfth century, amply prove our point. Even after the establishment of the Gujarat Sultanate in the 15th century and the Mughal rule towards the end of the 16th century, work done in Western India retained its angular features, bright and boldly abstracted colour areas and full profiles. They can safely be classed folk. From this region, two very rare pages from a manuscript illustrating the Devi-Mahatmya (1 -2) are displayed in this exhibition. These are very close in style to a manuscript dated A.D. 1485 and painted at Pipalner in Malwa, near Gujarat.
Among various other groups of paintings from Gujarat, the illustrations from the Bhagavata Purana the first of about 1600, and the second (1 4 and 15) of about 1 625-50 may be termed 'folk'. Although Mughal costumes are depicted on some figures in both manuscripts, they were produced in a village or an urban centre by families of professional painters, whose style and strength of design changed very little in spite of their contact with Mughal artists or their work. They must have been proficient in producing manuscripts with a large number of illustrations. It is for this reason that both manuscripts have a studied uniformity of style and display an imaginative sense of space and design. This trait can be seen also in the Kathakalpataru The manuscript of about 1625 A.D. done somewhere in north-west recently. In all of them prevails a unique sense of colour and pattern, perhaps on account of Gujarat's love for colour and ornamentation.
Paintings from the Rajput and Central Indian centres are stylistically more individual. The love for the episodes from the Ramayana, Krishna Lila and local folk legends were an immense source of inspiration at the village level, both for the patron and the artist. The composition is simple, the treatment less sophisticated but more direct, and the colours are bright and symbolically used. Also noticeable is the touch of Mughal painting, and the use of Mughal fashions and manners at all courts, the rulers were Hindus spiritually, and painting at the folk level retained the use of local costumes and colour preferences.
Pahari painting, or the painting at the Rajput courts and their domains in the Punjab Hills, is a glorious facet of Indian painting. There are reasons to believe that their animated quality emerged out of the indigenous folk art. The power-charged style of Basohli, from about 1660, and the folkish work of Kulu and Mandi, from about 1675, set standards for other centres of Pahari painting. Little influenced by court painting, the pages from the early eighteenth century' Book of Omens' retain the sturdy primitive traits of folk painting done earlier in the region. In their simplicity of form, subdued use of colour, imaginative use of picture space and naive creativity, may be seen the best components of Indian folk paintings, displaying the intangible world of devout emotion with a tinge of playfulness.
One of the most ancient and significant forms of pictorial expression was employed by the traditional picture-showmen in parts of India for religious and ethical education, as well as for entertainment. Gujarat, Rajasthan, Bengal, Orissa, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh have had a long tradition of the narration of local legends, simultaneously illustrated by paintings. We have exhibited examples of scroll-painting from Andhra Pradesh and Bengal, and fifteen paintings on paper, used by the picture-showmen of southern Maharashtra. Andhra scroll paintings were executed on fine handwoven cotton; the scrolls of Bengal were done on paper; and, in examples from Maharashtra mill made paper was used.
The paintings of the scrolls of Andhra Pradesh, known examples of which date from about 1625, are of a fairly sophisticated style that can hardly be termed 'folk'. It is because the same artists were commissioned by the Hindu aristrocracy of the region. Each scroll painting narrates legends propagating the exploits of the progenitors only of a particular caste, and was shown only to people of that caste. Many such legends about 8 to 10 metres in length and about one metre in breadth. They were mostly vertical and episodes were divided into horizontal panels. There is a pervasive rhythmic unity in their total effect and a firm, vigorous line encloses areas of bright flat colour set against red ground. The costumes, ornaments and other details are South Indian.
The scroll paintings of Bengal and Bihar are smaller. There were several centres of their production and the style of painting varied from district to district. Yet, all of them were charged with a rhythmic expression, directness, freshness, a refined sense of bright colours and have used lively wiry line. They either narrate locally popular tales or the Krishna legend in Bengal. Another type of scrolls were made for Santhals of Bengal and Bihar, narrating legends favoured by them; one other group consisted of Chakshudan (restoration of sight); they were made after a death in village home and portray the dead person.
The picture-showmen (Chitrakathis) of southern Maharashtra, of Pinguli village in Sawantwadi State, were least influenced by outside influences (40-50). The main feature of the large series of these paintings are the battle scenes; they are charged with superhuman vitality. In style, these paintings, produced all through the nineteenth century, are very original; they have a typical dramatic quality and bold and flat colour areas bound by a uniform studied line. In a way, they follow the tradition of leather puppets which the same family of painters produced. The choice of themes and various details befittingly express the preference of their audience, the Marathas. The subjects chosen were from Hindu religious legends.
In places of pilgrimage and at temples, shops of painters often existed where pilgrims could buy souvenirs. A fascinating style developed in the nineteenth century at the Kalighat temple in Calcutta, where apart from popular Hindu deities, even topical events were painted on ordinary machine-made paper. Executed in a boldly swift and casual manner they retain an exclusively original sweeping power and the monumentality. Using European water colours, the figures and other forms have an accentuated roundness on account of the use of modelling tone along the inside of the contours, completed by strong black outlines.
Around the Puri temple and nearby villages, painters produced paintings for visiting pilgrims. Although the most common subjects were the three cult images painted on primed cotton, the painters sometimes kept sketch books for taking orders from clients. Almost all Orissan manuscripts were written and painted on palm leaf, yet, in many exceptional cases, they were executed on paper. However, in the latter case, their style changed only slightly, the difference being due to the nature of the material used.
In the vast plateau of the Deccan, a variety of patrons and, consequently, styles of paintings existed. Apart from the scroll paintings discussed above, conservative painting of great originality, strength and distinct style was produced at the various small courts of the Deccan. Wanaparti, a Hindu state in south Deccan, was one such centre. The three pages from a Ragamala series from this place are very original in style and their unconventional use of colour. A notable fact about them is that they illustrate the south Indian Karnatak modes of music; all other Indian Ragamala sets are based on north Indian music.
While concluding this small note, we must inform the reader that many types of Indian folk paintings are not represented in this exhibition. Firstly, the wall paintings done on village homes in several parts of Gujarat and Orissa, and the paintings on the walls of the bridal chambers of Madhubani in Bihar and by the Warlis in Maharashtra and Bastar in Central India, though familiar to us, are, naturally, not possible to show. Secondly, since the Museum restricts its collection to work done before 1900 AD, the recent work of the Madhubani and Warli painters on paper, so much sought after today, was outside our scope. So also the Museum does not possess good examples of folk painting from South India, where it is restricted only to glass painting. Otherwise, this exhibition is fully representative of India's folk paintings, and is a manifest tribute to the unknown master painters whose creations our Museum intends to glorify.
(Essay by JAGDISH MITTAL, written for an exhibition of Indian Folk Paintings from the collection of the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art, Hyderabad, at the CMC Art Gallery in New Delhi, March-Apr, 1990)
Illustrations: Top - Bhagvata Purana, Gujarat, c. 1600-10; Center - Bundi, c. 1800; Bottom - Ragini Saveri, Wanaparti