Cultural theorist and curator Nancy Adajania on why tribal/folk art is differentiated from contemporary art
Many of us associate folk or tribal arts with craftspeople supposedly trapped in a time warp, unthinkingly practising the skills of their ancestors. On the other hand, we think contemporary art is the monopoly of metropolitan academy-trained artists.
Do folk and tribal artists not experiment with their visual material, demonstrate technical ingenuity, respond dynamically to new experiences? And do contemporary artists not repeat their signature styles at the market’s bidding?
These questions have possessed me ever since I worked with Morcrafts (Morarka Centre for Crafts; housed at the NCPA) during the mid-1990s. The seed of dissent had been sown for me by poet-translator AK Ramanujan — especially his celebration of the ‘little traditions’, the local, largely oral lineages of Indian culture. I chose to engage with irreverent, subversive narratives that came from the bottom of the social pyramid.
In 1995, I travelled to Pinguli, in coastal Maharashtra (Sindhudurg), to meet the chitrakathikar Ganpat Sakharam Mhasge. In the middle of his narration of the Hindu epics, accompanied by luminous paintings, this gifted picture-scroll narrator would pause, look at me, and ask: “Do Ramanand Sagar or BR Chopra have this story?”
Mhasge’s narration of the epics was stubbornly open-ended, resisting a single, authorised version. I recall his line drawing of a tense moment in the Ramayana. Distrustful of his wife Sita, Rama orders Lakshmana to cut off her hands. Sita is rescued by the humble chitaris, the local artists of Sawantwadi, known for their lacquered wooden fruits. The chitaris make a pair of real-looking wooden arms to beguile Lakshmana. By inventing this episode, Mhasge turned marginalised artisans into heroes.
Chitrakathi is anything but a static tradition. It can vault out of the past, speak of the now, and even suggest a future contrary to the projections of Brahminical Hinduism.
The terms folk and tribal are a legacy of the British colonial administration. The folk was an exotic, primordial Other, invented by the colonial scholar-administrator to justify the “white man’s burden”. Tribal emerged from the colonial regime’s preoccupation with classifying the population into revenue-paying and non-revenue paying groups.
The use of these terms continued in post-Independence India because these suited our caste-ridden society. To this day, the folk and tribal artist is treated as a poor relation to the contemporary artist.
In 2012, as joint artistic director of the 9th Gwangju Biennale (South Korea), I chose to show, among other artists, Jangarh Singh Shyam, who belonged to the Pardhan Gond community. While installing his painting Barasingha (1989), I became mesmerised by the antlers spreading like a forest from the stag’s head.
While the prejudiced might stereotype his paintings as tribal art, his was an individuated vocabulary, which had broken free from a preordained tribal identity, as well as the styles of modern or contemporary art.
Jangarh was nurtured by the artist J Swaminathan, who invited him to Bharat Bhavan (Madhya Pradesh) — the transdisciplinary centre where art, music, theatre and poetry cross-fertilised one other. After installing his silken drawings and prints, I placed the last letter he wrote, before his death in 2001, in a vitrine (glass cabinet). He was barely 40 when he committed suicide at the Mithila Museum in Japan, where he had been forced to batch produce works for a paltry sum of money.
Although Jangarh achieved international success — he had shown in Magiciens de la Terre, a path-breaking exhibition of global art in Paris (1989) — the system exploited him because he had not been able to declare his artistic autonomy (freedom from external control).
A new generation of artists from rural/tribal backgrounds is learning to articulate its political and aesthetic concerns. Bastar-based artists Shantibai and Rajkumar, for instance, have co-founded the Dialogue Centre with the Mumbai-based artist Navjot Altaf.
I once asked Rajkumar how he defined the act of collaboration. Collaboration, he said, was “akal baanta baanti” (the sharing and exchange of intelligence). In his quiet way, Rajkumar claimed the contemporary, redefining it through an equality and solidarity among peers.
Adajania is a cultural theorist and curator, and the author of The Thirteenth Place: Positionality as Critique in the Art of Navjot Altaf.
Nancy Adajania will speak on Who Decides What Contemporary Art Is? on July 15, 5.30pm
At Kitab Khana, Fort
Call 6170 2276