Tribal artists: Hues of tradition | The Financial Express

Tribal artists: Hues of tradition

The world of art may continue to evolve with each passing day but some tribal artists are still holding on to their ancient way of using natural pigments and tools for painting

Hues of tradition
Just like the tribal groups are distinct from one another, so are their paintings, with nature, yet again, being the binding thread, not just in themes but colours, medium, and tools.

India is home to over 10 crore tribals, with each group having its distinct characteristics. But what binds them together is their affinity with nature, with aspects of their lives from food, and medicine to paintings deeply intertwined with the natural surroundings. Just like the tribal groups are distinct from one another, so are their paintings, with nature, yet again, being the binding thread, not just in themes but colours, medium, and tools.

With so-called modernisation, many tribal artists have switched to synthetic colours and brushes, yet some are still holding on to their ancient way of using natural pigments and tools.

Clay for brown, coal for black

White-coloured figurines, trees, animals, and other aspects of village life painted on a black, brown, or red background make Maharashtra’s Warli art easily recognisable. A legacy of the Warli tribe, the painting has found several takers among the urban folks. Padma Shri Jivya Soma Mashe has been widely credited for popularising the art, thus encouraging others to take it up too.

Manki Wayeda is a Warli artist, engaged in this trade for years. What defines her work is the use of natural pigments for her paintings.

Showcasing several of her creations at Samvaad, a five-day conclave organised by Tata Steel Foundation in Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, Wayeda explains, “We use charcoal for black, red soil for red, clay for dark brown, and cow dung for light brown. These make for the base. For white, we use rice. First, we soak it in water, then grind it to make a paste, which is then dried. It is then mixed with water, which makes for the white colour, using which the painting is done.” While earlier sticks were used to paint on the wall, now brushes and canvas are used. “As rice wears off the canvas, many have started using paint,” she says.

As some paintings are so intricate as to take up to three days to paint, the popularity of Warli has paid off as it fetches decent money for the tribal artists who often find it difficult to survive solely on their craft. “There are many buyers, especially in Mumbai and some of my paintings fetch me `5,000 or more,” she adds.

Apart from nature, another element that binds all of Wayeda’s paintings is that each one tells a story of village life, customs, and proximity to nature.

Holding on to dying art

Displaying the characteristic of unflinching dedication to one’s craft is Kurumba artist Balasubramaniam from Tamil Nadu. He belongs to the Kurumba tribe of Tamil Nadu, some of whom also live in Kerala and Karnataka. With few practising it, “Kurumba is a dying art,” he says. But that has not deterred Balasubramaniam from holding on to it, and that too to its authentic element.

Just like Wayeda, the Kurumba artist uses natural pigments found in his surroundings. Colours are largely neutral in a Kurumba painting. “We use the bark of different trees for the different shades of brown, leaves for green, and certain white seeds for the white colour, not to mention clay for red and shades of brown,” he explains.

In ancient times, Kurumba tribesmen were known to be hunter-gatherers and honey collectors. And that is what one of the many paintings made by Balasubramaniam portrays – tribesmen climbing a vertical rock to collect honey. His painting is minimalist but extremely effective in showcasing the tribal way of life. In fact, just like Warli, each Kurumba painting tells a story showcasing different aspects of tribal life and their relationship with nature.

The land of different soils

“Our Chhattisgarh is home to various types of soils, which we use to make different shades of red, brown, and black. Leaves are used for green,” tells Oraon artist Sumanta Devi. She belongs to the Chhatisgarh tribe of the same name and gloats over continuing to use natural pigments for her paintings. “You mix different types of soil to get the requisite shade. The same goes for leaves. At times, we also use charcoal for black,” she explains.

Using natural pigments keeps the creation authentic, but it is a cumbersome process, which can “even take up to 15 days for just making the colour.” While brushes are being widely used, Sumanta also uses a cloth and even her fingers to paint the different figures. The result is a painting that is vibrant and minimalist at the same time that definitely draws attention.

Again, every painting tells a story, largely revolving around village life, the tribe, festivals, and customs, all of which are deeply associated with nature. Looking at these, one cannot help but notice that organic as a way of life is as modern as it is ancient, and India’s tribals are a testimony to that.  

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First published on: 05-02-2023 at 01:15 IST