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Touching upon the tribal instincts
The amazing adivasis or the talented tribals, whichever way you may refer to them, the indigenous populations and folk communities only enhance India’s cultural diversity. They produce captivating creative works, which are as utilitarian as they are passionate and sacred. This art is an integral link between the ancient and the contemporary where one can sense a strong personality of the individual artist.

The astounding tribal art tradition, having taken roots and thrived at the fringes of the majority communities, is indeed different from the mainstream and internationally recognized standard Indian art scene. Despite their struggle for survival, these hardworking populations have kept alive their enchanting artistic streak. They have retained their identity even while being in constant touch with the dominant Indian population. Equally attached to their dynamic living traditions, woven into their day-to-day living like music, dance and drama, they still are hardly familiar to Western world. Many established contemporary artists like Sujata Bajaj are influenced by tribal art and culture, which reflect in her works. Unfortunately, the representations of the adivasis have been full of prejudices and pre-set notions removed from reality, for a long time, as much for the Indians as for art lovers abroad barring a few exceptions. However, the scenario is changing for the better…

Tribal art is gradually entering the mainstream and getting more innovative thanks to a greater exposure and awareness of it. Frequent exhibitions with experimental works are elevating the status of tribal art that bear a timely testimony to the vibrant artistic tradition of the different tribal communities, as well as to their engrossing evolution and a greater exposure internationally.

•Paris based Musée du Quai Branly unraveled the most fascinating artistic face of India with the show ‘Other Masters of India: Contemporary Creations of the Adivasis’. The show in 2009 was curated by noted museologist Jyotindra Jain. Apart from focusing on eleven magnificent macrocosms each corresponding to the different tribal communities; each of these characterized by its artistic and ritualistic material productions, a separate section in the show featured the works of two world renowned contemporary artists, Jangarh Singh Shyam (Gond) and Jivya Soma Mashe (Warli tribe). Their works are showcased in a monographic fashion.

•Vernacular, In the Contemporary’ , a new two parts show at Devi Art Foundation in New Delhi, features over 60 artists typically categorized as makers of folk and tribal art from remote corners of the country. It showcases their amazing artistic productions. The India Art Summit hosted its closing party at DAF, with a live performance to highlight the show there.

•Mumbai based Institute of Contemporary Indian Art (ICIA) recently presented an interesting show, entitled ‘Tribal Instincts - The Ancient & The Contemporary’, which featured works by Ramsingh Urveti and Arijoy Bhattacharya. Both practise traditional forms of painting and sculpture.

•Mumbai based Pundole (Gond artists with the likes of Bhuribai) and Chemould Prescott Road (drawings and paintings of Jangarh Singh Shyam & family) held tribal art shows last year. Delhi’s W+K Exp hosted a show of Gond sculpture, entitled ‘Dog Father, Fox Mother, their Daughter & Other Stories’.

•At a seminar conducted by Art Alive in Delhi last year, panelists discussed factors responsible for restricting tribal artists’ viewership and buyer base. A recent group show of Gond art at the gallery was attributed to Jangarh Kalam who started it all. It brought together four talented artists, namely Durga Bai Vyam, Ram Singh Urveti, Mayank Shyam and Bhajju Shyam.

•The J.D. Centre of Art in Orissa, a brainchild of veteran artist Jatin Das, strives to bring tribal, folk, classical as well as contemporary art practices together with scholars and philosophers, dancers and craftspeople, painters and sculptors.

Importantly, it was the first time that auction house Sotheby’s incorporated tribal art from India in its sales in 2009. Tracking the trend, Anindita Ghose of The Mint publication points out in an insightful essay how it’s now ‘the youngest star’ of India’s contemporary art scene. “The raison d’être of tribal art is that in an age of digital imaging and virtual installations, they seem handmade. They’re the farmers’ market equivalent of cling-wrapped fruit,” the writer states, and quoting renowned curator Yashodhara Dalmia underlines the fact that folk & tribal artists aren’t the ones perhaps slow in catching us, but it’s probably other way round, as we’ve been a tad slow in recognizing them.

The Business Standard art writer Kishore Singh, in one of his columns, while depicting tribal art as ‘the next big thing’, has noted: “Precious little has been done so far to position the talented tribal artists alongside their more illustrious ‘urban’ contemporaries (in terms of respectability and value), or create dialogue to bridge the condescension, which keeps apart one school of artist from the other. However, with international collectors now discreetly buying into this segment of the art market, things might change soon.” That indeed seems to be happening!

Of course, seasoned collectors like Lekha Poddar spotted the potential of the art form a long ago. The astute art patron noticed a young tribal artist Ramesh Tekam and mesmerized by his peculiar animals and tree of life works done on paper, and realized the work was as ‘contemporary’ as those already there in her collection. She also bought papier mâché masks at a recent show of folk & tribal masks in Delhi. Among the god, goddess and tiger masks, there’s a captivating character from Vodafone’s Zoozoo. It’s this blend of this innocence with the contemporary touch to it that draws her to tribal art. The Poddars, as mentioned above, have now unveiled an ambitious contemporary tribal art exhibition, probably the largest ever in India at their non-profit institution.

In essence, conscious efforts are being made to bring tribal art into the mainstream by presenting the most representative and authentic pieces that symbolize day-to-day, artistic and religious productions of these Indian populations. Such multi-disciplinary and thematic approach will help the audiences to discover a vital but still unrecognized area of the contemporary popular art scene in India. The broader idea is to foreground the contemporary relevance of folk and tribal artists, to initiate a fresh public discourse.