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Book Review
‘Indian Painting: The lesser-known traditions’
India as a rich, vast land is known to harbor a very fine visual history, including its enchanting painting traditions. Of course, not many people have the scope or opportunity to know in greater depth about the captivating courtly paintings of those of the Rajastani, Pahari and Decconi schools. The general public is treated to an occasional show here and an event there, once in a while. The Indian painting traditions have remained more in the academic realms, but for a few museum showcases – in India and abroad.

Of course, scholars from across the world have dedicated for several decades their precious time and energies for studying them. In one such endeavor, ‘Indian Painting: The lesser-known traditions’, a comprehensive collection of research papers from a conference held in Houston a few years ago, focuses on vibrant and vivacious local vernacular idioms that still survive and continue to evolve, adjusting to political and social changes. As an introductory note elaborates, “Its aim was to highlight these lesser-known artistic expressions grouped, until the recent past, under the heading of ‘folk art’. These artistic expressions are now beginning to be recognized as of pivotal importance for an understanding of the social setting in which they have evolved.

Quite a few of us quickly tend to label Indian miniatures as Mughal art. This is perhaps because some of erstwhile miniature painting schools are for all practical purposes virtually extinct largely owing to the demise of aristocratic patronage and lack of institutional backing. The book exposes the lesser known schools that did survive, still in the process of evolving through from generation to generation, sans support of the elite. With India fast emerging as one the major economical powers globally, is there a possibility that the so-called nouveau riche will dawn the mantle of the cultural aristocrats of the new millennium and play a proactive role in reviving the magic of ancient miniature painting traditions?

‘Indian Painting: The lesser-known traditions’ (Publisher: Niyogi Books: Pages: 216; Photographs: 194; Price: Rs 2495) is a laudable effort in this direction. It’s meticulously edited by Anna L. Dallapiccola, who has worked as a professor of Indian Art at the South Asian Institute of Heidelberg University and also as Honorary Professor at Edinburgh University. It has scholarly contributions by several experts including Crispin Branfoot, Mary Beth Heston, Rosemary Crill, Crispin Branfoot, Samiran Boruah, T. Richard Blurton, and Jyotindra Jain among others.

The topics that the experts have covered in depth are all-encompassing and extensive like ‘Minakshi’s Wedding: Painting the Sacred Marriage in Early Modern Madurai’ (by Dr Crispin Branfoot); ‘Crossing Borders: Contemporary Folk and Tribal Artists in India’ (by Jyotindra Jain Jain); ‘Transfixed by the Arrow of Time: Phad Paintings of Rajasthan’ (by Kavita Singh): ‘Oral, Theatrical and Performative Dimensions of a Painted Scroll from Telengana’ (by Kirtana Thangavelu); ‘Reconsidering the Ramayana Murals: Paintings at the Mattancheri Palace’ (by Mary Beth Heston); and ‘The Kavad Phenomenon of Rajasthan: A lesser-known Folk Tradition’ (by Nina Sabnani).

Other essays include ‘Aspects of South Indian Manuscript Paintings: Three Paintings in the Victoria & Albert Museum’ (by Rosemary Crill); ‘The Ramayana: Two 19th-century Canopies from Coastal Andhra in the V&A Museum’ (by Anna L. Dallapiccola); ‘Of Gods, Heroes and Kings: Illustrated Manuscripts from Assam’ (by Samiran Boruah); ‘Jamini Roy and the Folk Art Paradigm’ (by Sona Datta); and ‘Painting with intent: History and Variety in an Indian Painting Tradition’ (by T. Richard Blurton).

Collectively, the essays bring to the fore the artistic richness of the time-span, starting from the late 17th century to the present day. They give a thorough insight in the traditional forms of fascinating folk art painting. Five of them are dedicated to the different aspects of south Indian painting on a wide variety of media like paper, fabric and temple walls. More contemporary in nature, in a way, is the essay on current events like the assassination death of former Indira Gandhi or the 9/11 terrorist attacks are some of the themes seen in modern-day pata paintings. Finally the careers of a number of tribal and folk artists are examined.

Although compiled by experts, ‘Indian Painting: The lesser-known traditions’ should not wean away laypersons and non-scholars. Despite’ the provenances of the illustrious authors or contributors, the documentation does manage to present a reader-friendly collection of insightful essays that will most defiantly appeal to both to professional art historical academics and the novice art aficionado with an apparent interest in Indian folk art. There’s absolutely no need to fear of getting ‘lost’ thanks to uncomplicated and well-presented arguments. The copy is readable and the pages are richly illustrated. In essence, it’s a fine example of art historical literature, which gives the lesser-known folk art traditions of the country the kind of attention they deserve.