Folk Theorems

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Tribal art gets mainstream status in the marketplace

“I’VE BEEN COLLECTING tribal art myself for around 10 years now, especially Jangarh Singh Shyam,” says Mandira Lamba, the co-owner of Blueprint 12 gallery, in Delhi’s Lado Sarai. Since Blueprint 12 has brought excellent South Asian contemporary artists like Bangladesh’s Mahbubur Rahman and Pala Pothupitiye from Sri Lanka to the India Art Fair in recent years, this is a bit of a surprise. But the tribal and folk artworks that they are exhibiting in a joint exhibition with Exhibit 320—another gallery in Lado Sarai run by Rasika Kajaria—hopes to shift the way we view and categorise Indian non-urban art. These, they believe, can compete and hold their own with contemporary art in the market.

The exhibition showcases some of the most fascinating turn-of-the-century and contemporary artworks from across India by master folk and tribal artists, including Gond artists Ram Singh Urveti and Ladoo Bai; Bhil artist Bhuri Bai; Patachitra artist Kalam Patua; Warli artists Balu Jivya Mashe and Sadashiv Soma Mashe, and Madhubani artist Sita Devi. But it’s not surprising that Jangarh Singh Shyam’s (1960-2001) works are the first to be mentioned. The genius artist from Madhya Pradesh can be compared to Picasso. He turned the simple white and brown lines that Gond women used to decorate mud walls into distinctive and matchless wall art. His fantastical menagerie of colorful deities, plants and animals made up of vibrant but delicate dots, swirls and lines created a whole new style of art that’s still called Jangarh Kalam. He’s also a lesson in both the brief shining life of an artist prodigy and an example of the perils that tribal artists in India often face.

Jangarh was discovered by artist J Swaminathan, who brought him to Bhopal at the age of 17. He painted the interiors of the Vidhan Bhavan in Madhya Pradesh and the dome of Bhopal’s Bharat Bhavan. He also realised the importance of signing his artworks. He taught this necessity to cousin after cousin who apprenticed with him. He soon became a national and international sensation and his works were exhibited widely including in Delhi, Tokyo and New York. His most notable exhibitions include Other Masters—curated by Jyotindra Jain at the Crafts Museum, New Delhi (1998) and the Magiciens de la Terre at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 1989. He committed suicide in July 2001 while at an arts residency at the Mithila Museum on the Japanese island of Honshu.

The irony is that while his art was critically appreciated even while he was alive, it appreciated in value considerably after his early death. His 1988 piece Landscape with Spider sold for $31,250 at Sotheby’s in 2010 —a first for an Adivasi artist. It was still a modest price internationally, compared to top-bracket African art at auctions. And yet, despite such positive results and encouraging growth indicators, tribal art remains a niche market and has little impact on the secondary market as a whole. Sales of tribal art accounted for just 0.68 per cent of total auction sales volume of art in 2014— the high point for tribal art sales worldwide.

SO, WHAT IS the value of tribal and folk art in India today? Thanks in large part to a few artists like Jangarh, it had a coming of age in the first decade of the 21st century with Sotheby’s consistently including it in their auctions from 2007 onwards. The Poddar collectors held an exhibition at their Devi Art Foundation (Gurugram) in 2010 that included artists like Mashe and Jangarh. Today, Saffronart is one of the few auction houses in India that consistently holds folk and tribal art auctions. But often their auctions are no-reserve, which means that artworks can sell at whatever price the buyer sets. Pundoles Fine Art Specialists auction house, which is headed by Rob Dean, who was the international head of the Indian and Southeast Asian Art Department at Sotheby’s in 2011 when the Jangarh work created its record, however, does not sell tribal and folk art. “We’re not looking at tribal contemporary art at all, although folk bronzes have done well,” he says. “We haven’t looked at it partly because the primary market is still being established. Most of these artists are alive and well represented by art galleries. They haven’t come up for resale on the secondary market. It would potentially be crystal ball gazing to say when we will start offering tribal and folk art. But if I was to compare indigenous art to contemporary art, it clearly lags behind, although there is a wider market for the best artists.”

So, why are galleries moving from contemporary art to folk art? Lamba and Kajaria insist that it’s not a shift but an extension of what they would like to showcase. “This is the first time that two contemporary galleries, which have been exhibiting contemporary South Asian artists, are collaborating to showcase masters from the tribal genre that India has ignored. We are striving to bring the attention of the art world to a form which is very popular in certain countries like Japan and France, but has not been able to get its due attention in the Indian market. Many key galleries are realising the importance of tribal art forms and it is great that they all are taking initiatives in showcasing them in the last few years. In recent times, several international shows have happened on tribal art, with Indian tribal art being of key importance. Hence we believe that in times to come, this form will see a surge and sustainable growth.”

“Folk art is familiar. It’s traditional and passed on from generation to generation, mostly in agrarian communities. The spirit of the work is in the imagery. Tribal art is done by nomadic people and the imagery is based on certain practices or rituals” - Dadaji Pundole, owner, Pundole Art Gallery, Mumbai

But Dadaji Pundole, owner of the Pundole Art Gallery in Mumbai (perhaps one of the first galleries to represent tribal artists), is candid: “There was a lukewarm response from whomever I showed the art to when we first started collecting in 1986. But around two decades later, when we held the Ranjit Hoskote-curated exhibition called, Now that The Trees have Spoken with Bhuri Bai, Ladoo Bai, Narmada Prasad Tekam and Ram Singh Urveti’s works, there was a very good response that surprised me. It surprised me further that some clients/friends had started collecting it. However, I still collect more for myself than for sale. There are several reasons why. One is because artists who are successful start repeating their own works and their families and assistants clone successful work. This diminishes the art works. Also, they start producing for the tourist market rather than making an identity. Somewhere they need to draw a line beneath what they have already done and think about taking the work to the next level. Art galleries also need to reject work that is repetitive.”

This is perhaps why this exhibition, and the proposed website that Exhibit 320 and Blueprint 28 are setting up in time for the India Art Fair 2018, are welcome initiatives. The works showcased are intelligently curated to project the best of the tribal and folk art that’s readily available today.

A wonderful Japani Shyam work, for instance, shows a tree drawn in white. At the base of the tree sits a man with an axe with firewood lying beside him. Women’s heads grow among the leaves and the canvas is speckled with birds and animals that add a dash of movement. There’s a corollary to the ability of birds and women to live in nature and the destructive hand of man in both lives. There’s also a dichotomy between the freedom and industry of the birds and the woman’s inability to move until freed/killed by the man. The monochromatic colours offer a contrast to the other Jangarh style inspired Gond works around this one, and surprises with its freshness of insight and rendering. Her other artworks share a similarity to Urveti, Bhuri and Ladoo Bai’s works in their sinuous animals, fabulous birds and trees that morph into animals—displaying an interplay of folk tales, reflections on current ecological and social problems —all through the finesse of stipples, dots and waves that remind the viewer of kantha embroidery.

Similarly, Kalam Patua’s audacious Patacharitra paintings show a Bengali babu moshai and a woman. The woman is possibly a prostitute but the freedom of the obviously sexual relationship they both share portrays the woman as an equal. Kalam Patua is one of the foremost figures of Patachitra painting who has helped revive the art of Kalighat painting. Born in 1962 in Murshidabad district of West Bengal, the artist belongs to a family of practising Patachitra artists and was influenced by both Birbhum and Murshidabad schools of Patachitra in his earlier years. Over time, however, he has developed a unique style that blends contemporary social commentary with folklore and religious themes.

Paintings by the Jogi Family were a last minute but delightful addition to the exhibition. A larger piece shows the various ways in which women labour in a rural landscape, while others show women in cars and falling with parachutes. Ganesh Jogi and his wife Teju Jogi were wandering bards from Chittorgarh, Rajasthan, who made a living from singing traditional, devotional folk songs in return for grain, clothes and money. In the 1970s, they began working for Indian artist and cultural anthropologist Haku Shah in Ahmedabad, where they committed their songs onto paper and created a style that came to be called Jogi Art. Now, the mother and daughter-in-law continue to create powerfully feminist works.

The show also contains atypical folk art like an unusual Picchwai from Rajasthan. Usually Picchwais from Nathdwara, near Udaipur, are created to be hung behind the main idol of the infant Krishna, and show him in his baby form amid changing seasons, or as a lover surrounded by gopis and bucolic delights. This one shows Vishnu as Mahaswarup —embodying all life and being worshipped by the denizens of each world, including Brahma and Shiva. He stretches from earth to heaven. The only likeness to the traditional Picchwai is the Rasleela, which is shown right in the middle, embodying its importance during Mahaswarup’s life on earth as a human being. It’s probably from the turn of the century, and the artist/s is unknown, which shows why Jangarh placed so much importance on artists signing their works. We can only conjecture about the chutzpah of the artist in creating such an unusual piece, and the linkages they must have had with other art traditions.

Equally, some of the bronzes on display are eye-catching. There are eight 20th-century bronzes from south Karnataka and north Kerala called Mukhalingams that patrons of Shiva temples donated as covers for Shivlings. Since Shivlings are an abstract version of Lord Shiva, these heads were made to fit the circumference of the lingam and gave the devotee a form to worship.

There are also a few seven-inch high Kangra bronzes, which are almost primitive in their appearance. Lamba says that the tribe who created them is now extinct. Pundole adds that this was possibly a Shaivite tribal community that made these pieces mainly for decoration. They slowly lost the craftsman tradition as they became more urban, much like the Bastar tribe from Madhya Pradesh who used to produce sculptures in wood carvings for worship. The beautiful memorial columns became a dying tradition when their patrons moved to urban centres and work dropped.

“Not since Pupul Jayakar’s times has anyone in the government looked at revitalising these crafts and artists,” Pundole says. “Now the private sector will have to take it up. The original traditions slowly started dismantling as education and developments in science caused people to question religion and blind beliefs. Now, as it continues to grow out of a collectible base, more people are producing it. But they have to ensure that they aren’t cloning the work of successful artists and focusing too much on stylisation and repetition.”

What’s the difference between tribal and folk art? “Folk art is familiar. It’s traditional and passed on from generation to generation, mostly in agrarian communities. It’s used for decoration and aesthetics mainly. The spirit of the work is in the imagery. Tribal comes out of nomadic people and the imagery is based on certain practices or rituals. It’s mostly functional. It had no identity till J Swaminathan brought it to the public eye. Non-urban is a term I like to use. Tribal and folk has too many connotations,” he says.

It is factors such as these, plus the global recession, the intellectual rigour required to collect tribal art, and the rarity of the works that have kept the market back so far. But internationally, tribal art fairs are becoming popular. And tribal and folk art is holding the interest of galleries and auction houses, even though the tribal art market remains polarised between a few fantastic works and several reproductions of a successful style. The works in this exhibition deserve a wider audience, and the website may bolster research on these traditions while drawing artists and viewers together into a mutually beneficial relationship.

(Given Power: From Tradition to Contemporary, an exhibition of Indian folk and tribal art, runs till December 24th at Exhibit320, Delhi)