A tableau of the Nirbhaya rape in the unmistakable Patua style of West Bengal; an aircraft soaring alongside Hindu deities Shiva and Parvati, painted in the Warli art style from Maharashtra, in a work titled Development; a girl child lying in the bloodied hands of women drawn in the intricate Madhubani art style of Bihar...
Violence against women, female infanticide and communalism are among the new themes that Indian folk artists are exploring, as they create new contexts for their art and woo urban Indian audiences. Some consider it a new genre altogether - contemporary Indian folk art. “Folk and tribal art have moved beyond mass-producing the same mythological themes and this has led to galleries identifying them as contemporary artists,” says art and cultural historian Jyotindra Jain. “You can map this change back through the past decade. When such forms began to be recognised worldwide, artists began to get a different kind of exposure and some started rethinking their oeuvre altogether.”
This certainly holds true for Kalam Patua, the creator of the Nirbhaya Kand. “I was in Delhi in December 2012 and I remember following the Nirbhaya rape case in the news. It weighed on my conscience, as it did with so many others, and I felt I had to express my horror through my art,” says Patua, whose work has been showcased at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
“Despite its contemporary themes, Kalam’s work carries the essential characteristic of his art form - satire,” says art collector Reed Harrison of the Nirula Family Art Trust. “What I like is that he adds his own spin, and his range of subjects is unique.
Gond artist Venkat Raman Singh Shyam, meanwhile, was inspired by the terror siege of 26/11.
“My works were supposed to be auctioned at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai on November 27, 2008. My friend was curious to see the exhibit a day before it opened, but I was not in the mood. And that’s how we escaped the terror that would last four days at that hotel,” says Shyam. “When I realised what had happened, I knew I had to sketch it.”
The resultant work, Smoking Taj, captures the iconic image of the burning dome of the hotel, in Shyam’s intricate style. Among others making the shift from painting Hindu epics, deities and pastoral scenes to sketching contemporary issues are Patachitra artist Anwar Chitrakar, Madhubani artist Pushpa Kumari and Warli artist Anil Vangad.
They have etched political and social issues such as the Saradha scam, communal rioting, surrogacy and changing cityscapes. Artists are also deciding that they do not want to all be clubbed together, and instead want to be recognised for their own voice.
“The traditional themes have become old and monotonous. So much has happened lately that needs to be on canvas,” says Chitrakar. Pushpa Kumari’s work features female foeticide and domestic violence for the same reasons. Based in the coastal town of Dahanu, on the rapidly developing fringes of Mumbai, Warli artist Vangad says he was uniquely situated to examine the altering and expanding cityscape from afar, and that prompted him to move away from established norms for his art.
“Everyone draws Shiva and Parvati, but through my art work Development, I wanted to show the leaps in growth that humanity has achieved,” he says. Vangad also paints the plight of local Adivasi tribals, and welcomes being commissioned to paint his views on T-shirts, dupattas and sarees.
Responding to the urban aesthetic, Saqib Ali Beigh from Kashmir has begun weaving urban motifs such as men and women playing golf or football onto his Pashmina shawls. A sixth-generation shawl maker, he says he feels the need to express himself and create his own style. In Rajasthan, meanwhile, a work in the Jogi folk art style shows a husband drinking and shouting at his wife; another shows sadhus doing yoga as monkeys imitate them. Similarly, Gond artist Bhajju Shyam, whose London Jungle Book featured the Big Ben as a rooster and the London Underground as an earthworm, is also open to designing wedding cards.
Bangalore-based British social media consultant Maegan Sippy, who commissioned a wedding card based on that work, says, “The book was about seeing London thorough Bhajju’s eyes, and because it presented London through an Indian aesthetic, my Indian husband and I felt it was appropriate for our wedding.”
“It’s not about commercial value,” says Mitchell Crites, an American art historian who has lived in India for 45 years. “Not everyone wants a work where a woman is being abused in their homes. It’s more like catharsis, a way for artists to explore the issues that concern them.” Crites had stopped collecting works of art for almost a decade. “It was the political and social art of the Jogi family that made me start collecting again,” he says. Clearly, contemporary Indian folk art is, at long last, being recognised and valued for its originality, combination of the naive and the sophisticated, and its sheer vitality.