Traditional Indian art is undergoing a contemporary metamorphosis. And the art market loves it

Tribal and traditional artists explore new ways of telling stories, experimenting with color, techniques and contemporary themes, to connect with younger and mainstream audiences

Tribal and traditional artists explore new ways of telling stories, experimenting with color, techniques and contemporary themes, to connect with younger and mainstream audiences

Unusually sweltering September and a busy makeshift stand don’t stop Rupsona. A folk artist-singer of the pattachitra tradition, hailing from Pingla district, West Bengal, she narrates her scrolls through song, armed with a powerful voice. Undeterred by visitors trying to film her art, she points to her canvas and sings of the playful love that Radha and Krishna share. Lately, his paintings have also told socially relevant stories: of female infanticide, the 2004 tsunami, and even the life of Mother Teresa.

In another stand by the artisan collective recently concluded by the Craft Council in Chennai, a pichwai cow adorned with ceremonial jewels dominates a stretched canvas, against the backdrop of a surprisingly trendy monochrome grid. The Warli artist opposite stretches canvases where the traditional tarpaulin the dance and the geometric figures are now replaced by the Tree of Life, painted in acrylic. Nearby, Bhil artists display the Hindi alphabet drawn in their traditional style to introduce children to tribal art.

A Warli painting featuring the Tree of Life

A Warli painting featuring the Tree of Life | Photo credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Traditional Indian art forms, a treasure rooted in the deepest trenches of culture, are thus adapting to the changing sensibilities of domestic and international art buyers: through contemporary themes, social messages and experimental mediums. . The reasons are many: wider reach and visibility, the changing demands of a diverse clientele, and artists’ personal desire to grow and elevate themselves as a brand. “All this, without compromising the ethics of the art,” recalls Mala Dhawan of A Hundred Hands, a Bengaluru-based organization that bridges customers and artisans.

While characters from Hindu mythology and nature remain the main subjects of centuries-old traditional and tribal arts , aware the innovation of third, fourth and fifth generation artists introduces new ways of telling stories.

Now pichwai cows or kamdhénus – Radha and Shrinathji’s trusted companions, usually a silent witness to all his leelas- can also be protagonists. Naveen Soni, a third-generation pichwai artist from Nathdhwara, Rajasthan, shows the cow as an all-encompassing figure: a scene takes place inside its ornate body, as Krishna and Radha reappear. It is abstract to a certain extent, and will fit easily into a contemporary decorated home.

Artist Pichwai Naveen Soni with his 'optical illusion' work

Artist Pichwai Naveen Soni with his ‘optical illusion’ work | Photo credit: RAVINDRAN R

“We fused some modern subjects into these pichwais, while staying true to the traditional drawing style,” says Naveen. Modernization, according to Naveen, also means the marriage of elements from different schools of the same traditional art form that emerged in the 17th century, revolving around the central figure of Shrinathji. Pointing to a canvas, he explains, “Here you can see trees from different schools of Indian miniature painting like Kishangarh school and Pahadi school in one painting.” Traditionally, a pichwai inspired by flora-fauna themes is unheard of, but Naveen has innovated with birds, trees and some animals – other than Kamdhenu – to follow the evolution of the demands of its customers.

It has only been four months since he introduced his “optical illusion works” to the market. “In exhibitions, most of the optical illusion works are sold the very first day! And most are purchased for office buildings and workspaces, more so than homes. “It takes time and it’s a different skill.”

“As much as we would like to modernize, it is important to keep the essence of the art forms intact,” says artist Gond Bhajju Shyam, from Patangarh, Madhya Pradesh, home to the indigenous Gond Pradhan tribe. There is no greater authority that can speak on the evolution of traditional art than Bhajju: over the past decade he has reinvented Gond art, which relies heavily on animal forms , imaginatively, from murals in Delhi and Singapore to hardcover children’s books, such as The London Jungle Book by Tara Books where The Big Ben is a Gond hen. Symbols, themes and legends inspired by nature remain the same in his works.

Rupsona, a pattachitra artist, with her scrolls

Rupsona, a pattachitra artist, with her swirls | Photo credit: RAVINDRAN R

The sole aim of the Padma Shri laureate is to popularize the art form so that it enters mainstream galleries. Speaking from Delhi, where he exhibits alongside contemporary artist Manjunath Kamath, Bhajju says: “It’s these kinds of collaborations that push us to think in a contemporary way. In Singapore’s Little India, Bhajju’s collaboration with Singaporean contemporary artist Sam Lo resulted in a facade (Broadway Hotel) that celebrates nature.

Translating a form rooted in tradition onto the walls took a lot of learning, says Bhajju: it took him a while to get used to the idea of ​​stencils and spray paint. But he sees this change as a gateway to the general public. “It acts as a form of preservation of the gods we worship, as well as our Adivasi histories and practices,” Bhajju explains.

Artist Gond Bhajju Shyam experiments with stencil

Artist Gond Bhajju Shyam experiments with stencil | Photo credit: special arrangement

The market and its many atmospheres

Adapting to the current market did not happen overnight. “For example,” says Mala, “this year we took five nature-inspired symbols and created a mood board that looks at patterns and colors, more than patterns. Most of our traditional art forms have no design background. In this way, a craftsman is forced to think differently. Consumer insights play a crucial role in understanding what to glean from the art form. “People come to bazaars asking ‘what’s new?’ New clients don’t want to see the same elephant come out, for every work. They also seek exclusivity and see value in that,” Mala says. “It’s also mentally stimulating for artists.”

Pichwai patterns and elements on a monochrome grid

Pichwai Patterns and Elements on a Monochromatic ‘Optical Illusion’ Grid | Photo credit: special arrangement

Today’s artist has moved from recreation to manifestation of personal thoughts and idioms, says curator Tulika Kedia, whose Delhi-based Must Art Gallery has worked closely with traditional arts such as such as Madhubani, Warli, Kalighat, Phad, Gond, Kerala murals and Pattachitra. , over the past two decades. “Now we see social discourse, political flows, scenes of contemporary life, fantasy, adversity, all represented in art,” Tulika explains.

Bhajju dates this pivot, albeit slow, to the last decade. He says, “People want our art in their homes and private collections, which is encouraging.” And they are willing to spend. “At an exhibition in Delhi before the pandemic,” says Naveen, “many people said they didn’t want to buy works with ‘cows’. Many weren’t interested in religious scenes either. That’s when we realized that if we’re going to stay in the market, we need to bring in new subjects that can be set up anywhere.

More recently, there has also been an encouraging movement among young art connoisseurs in their twenties and thirties, who make up a significant portion of their clientele. Tulika says, “There is a genuine understanding and respect for folk art. They visit galleries, take heritage walks, participate in workshops and even invest.

Miniature art, known for its intricate detail

Miniature art, known for its meticulous detail | Photo credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Young buyers, like the IT entrepreneur crowd, are definitely interested in investing in traditional art, Mala says. “We have seen Gond artists selling art for say ₹5,000 10 years ago now selling for around ₹1 to 1.5 lakhs. It only comes with appreciation,” adds Mala.

That said, the pandemic has forced the art market and artisans to set competitive prices. “People have become a little more aware. If someone spends ₹20,000 or ₹30,000 on an artwork, they will not hesitate to spend ₹35,000 or ₹50,000. But if I’m looking for an artwork for ₹600-800, I probably won’t cross ₹1500 too. There is a big market for these,” says Mala. Innovative and modernized art also falls into the latter category, as their clientele is younger.

As they pivot to the mainstream, young traditional artists are hoping for this change. After all, it’s what keeps art relevant over time. But they are also aware of the sanctity of the art form and are unwilling to compromise on skill and effort. Navin concludes: “It’s important to be relatable. In the end, art is all that, isn’t it?

Back To Top