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  • Lasya GP

16 Indian Folk Art Forms That Survived the Test of Time

Updated: Apr 8, 2022

From time immemorial, India is known for its rich art, customs, and cultural heritage. The origin of Indian paintings dates back to pre-historic times. Not only that, India features amongst the most culturally rich countries in the world.

This is because multiple regions within India's various states practice their own art forms.

India's soul lies in its myriad folk art forms. After generations of dedication and hard work, many of these art forms have been kept alive by the regional communities, the Indian government, and other practitioners around the world who are willing to learn these art forms. Also, with its growing global popularity in recent years, India is exporting some of these artworks, brightening up homes and wardrobes for many around the world.

Paintings are the expression of ideas, emotions, and stories. With plenty of aesthetic qualities, a painting is a two-dimensional form of visual language. Additionally, many communities still earn their livelihood by painting their rich lives on various types of surfaces.

16 of India's popular folk art forms are discussed below.

Madhubani painting, Kalighat painting, and Rajasthani miniature painting
From left—Madhubani painting, Kalighat painting, and Rajasthani miniature painting

1. Madhubani paintings (Bihar)

Madhubani painting is known as the art of Mithila as it was born in the Mithila region of Bihar. It is believed that in the 7th or 8th century BC, King Janak, ruler of Mithila Kingdom, had asked his people to create these paintings to celebrate his daughter Sita's wedding to Prince Rama from the Hindu epic, Ramayana.

Madhubani painting is essentially a form of wall art created with lines and filled in with bright colors. Both the base and the paints used for the paintings are completely natural. The surfaces include natural paper, canvas, or a cloth. The tools used range from fingers, brushes, nib-pens, twigs, matchsticks, and natural pigments from leaves and flowers.

The five distinct styles of Madhubani painting are Bharni, Katchni, Tantrik, Godna, and Kohbar. They mainly depict three themesreligious, social, and natural.

2. Pattachitra (Odisha)

Pattachitra is the traditional cloth scroll painting of Odisha that is being practiced for thousands of years. Patta means cloth and chitra means picture.

The paintings showcase bold outlines and vibrant colors like red, yellow, white, and black. The technique needs expert skills, years of practice, devotion, and concentration.

A small Pattachitra painting may take a minimum of 5 to 15 days to complete while some others may take several months. With strict rules and restrictions, Pattachitra paintings are dedicated mainly to religious themes. They depict Hindu deities that are much revered in Odisha.

3. Mysore painting (Karnataka)

This traditional art form of Mysore got its name from a famous Mysore king, Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar who introduced it in the Mysore Palace in the 19th century. Inspired by the brilliance of the Tanjore paintings, the king invited the Mysore artists to create artworks that exuded similar radiance.

The kings of Mysore supported the artists of the Mysore paintings immensely. In some cases, the kings actively participated in creating these spectacular artworks by providing sketches to the painters.

Originally, the colors used were made organically from vegetables and minerals but commercially-produced paints are also being used today. Red, green, and blue are the predominant hues used in these paintings.

The Mysore paintings showcase Hindu deities, royal ceremonies, and epic tales of India.

However, at present, there are very few who practice this art form, and hence, it needs considerable attention from art lovers.

4. Tanjore painting (Tamil Nadu)

Originated in the 16th century, Tanjore painting is one of the most-loved artforms of South India. It hails from the town of Thanjavur or Tanjore in Tamil Nadu. It is done in a classical south Indian painting style with gold leaf embellishments, bright hues, cut glass, and semi-precious stones. In the past, artists used vegetable and mineral dyes to create these paintings.

Tanjore painting is made in several stages. First, a dense base sketch is created on a cloth surface fixed onto a wooden frame. Then cut glass, beads, and stones are pasted on the surface. To enhance the impact, a thin gold foil is also stuck onto some parts of the painting. The background is finally painted as the last step in the process.

These panel paintings depict devotion to gods, goddesses, and saints. The subject of the painting is usually at the center of the composition. The gold foil glitters and hits all the right spots of the observer.

Tanjore painting, Kalamkari painting
From left—Tanjore painting, Kalamkari painting

5. Kalamkari (Andhra Pradesh and Telangana)

Kalamkari is a type of hand painting or block printing done mainly on cotton textile. It is an ancient Indian art form, born around 3000 years ago, in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Kalamkari originated in the temple town of Sri Kalahasti and Machilipatnam which are also the two distinctive styles of Kalamkari art in Indiathe Srikalahasti style and Machilipatnam style.

Kalamkari paintings are made with a 'kalam' or pen on a cloth. First, a freehand drawing of the subject is created which is then filled in with natural dyes. Artists use only natural dyes in Kalamkari which involves 23 steps. Primarily, earthy colors like indigo, green, rust, black, and mustard are used. Before the artwork is complete, it goes through bleaching, coloring, starching, and block printing.

These paintings are entirely hand-worked and usually depict scenes from Mahabharata, Ramayana, and other Puranas.

Kalamkari has recently become more popular due to its chemical-free procedure for creating printed textiles. It is said that Kalamkari paintings and folk music were used to tell people popular stories from ancient Indian epics.

6. Kalighat painting (West Bengal)

Kalighat painting originated around the mid-19th century around Kalighat Kali Temple in Kolkata. It mainly depicts Hindu gods, goddesses, folk tales, and the everyday lifestyle in the region.

Not one, but various communities practicing different professions like potters, sculptors, carpenters, etc. helped develop this art form. Currently, the biggest collection of Kalighat paintings is in Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Kalighat painters mainly use earthy Indian colors like Indian red, indigo, blue, ochre, grey, and white. The paintings are done on paper by a group known as 'Patuas'. Thus, these paintings are also known as Kalighata Pata.

7) Warli painting (Maharashtra)

The 3000-year-old Warli paintings hail from the Thane and Nashik districts of Maharashtra. This tribal art form is created in the northern region of the Sahyadri Range.

Warli figures are traditionally painted on walls of houses during special occasions and celebrations. The painting is usually done on a brown surface which is essentially a mixture of mud and cow dung. The figures on the surface are painted with a bamboo stick and white paste made of rice, water, and gum which is the binding catalyst.

Simple geometrical patterns like a circle, a triangle, and a square are painted in white against a red or yellow base. The illustrations generally consist of men and women surrounding a central figure. They are closely linked with the nature and social rituals of the tribe. The artwork showcases the daily activities of the local people like farming, hunting, praying, dancing, etc.

Traditionally, women used twigs to draw with rice paste on mud walls of tribal houses to mark celebrations of harvests or weddings. These days, art enthusiasts across the world use commercially-manufactured colors and brushes to draw detailed Warli designs.

8. Gond painting (Madhya Pradesh)

Gond painting is a form of folk art that originated around 1400 years ago. It is created by one of the largest tribes called the Gond tribe that lives in Madhya Pradesh. Gond paintings depict a mysterious world created with a series of intricately arranged dots and dashes.

Originally, the colors were derived from natural resources like cow dung, plant sap, charcoal, colored soil, mud, flowers, leaves, etc. But the Gond artists now use commercial water-based colors to paint on paper canvas.

Gond paintings recreate mythological tales, natural surroundings, traditional songs, important events, and rituals with exquisite detailing and vibrant colors. The Gond tribes illustrate such figures on the walls and floors of their huts during festivals and celebrations.

Gond painting, Pahari painting
From left—Gond painting, Pahari painting

9. Pahari paintings (Jammu and Kashmir)

Pahari paintings or the hill paintings is a style of miniature paintings, practiced in Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. It developed during the period between the 17th and 19th centuries at the Himalayan foothills in India. Pahari paintings can be classified into two categories, based on their geographical range, namely:

  • Basohli and Kullu Style (influenced by Chaurapanchasika style): depict bold and intense designs

  • Guler and Kangra Style (showcases cooler colors and refined work): depict delicate and lyrical designs

Due to the close relations with the Mughal and Rajput families, Pahari paintings were deeply influenced by them. But Pahari painting is essentially the art of the Himalayan kingdoms.

10. Aipan (Uttarakhand)

Aipan is a popular art form from the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand that originated during the rule of the Chand dynasty (770 AD to 1790 AD).

It is a ritualistic folk art that is painted on floors and walls of houses to decorate them. Its specialty lies in its social, traditional, and religious significance. One will find it decorating the entrances of Indian homes, especially during important rituals, celebrations, and festivals.

Traditionally Aipan was made with rice paste on brown surfaces but today it is also made with white paint on red surfaces. It signifies the people's heightened respect for Hindu deities along with bliss and prosperity in Indian households.

11. Phad paintings (Rajasthan)

Phad paintings are religious scrolls and folk paintings, practiced in Rajasthan, India. They originated 700 years ago and are a blend of two popular painting stylesRajput and Mughal.

They are traditionally done on a long piece of cloth or canvas, known as Phad. Artists acquire completely natural pigments from various plants and vegetable extracts to create the Phad paintings.

In olden times, the storytellers who traveled from village to village used Phads as their pictorial aid in the art of storytelling. They also sang and danced while narrating these stories with Phads.

Stories of folk deities and heroes of Rajasthan are painted on Phad in attractive hues of red, yellow, and orange. Folk artists accommodate multiple stories in a single composition, yet maintain the aesthetics of the artistic expression.

12. Miniature painting (Rajasthan)

The miniature painting came to India with the Mughals in the 16th century. Since then, it has developed into a distinct style with a combination of Islamic, Persian, and Indian elements. Though extremely pleasing to look at, they unravel stories captured with intricate details when observed more closely.

The miniature paintings are illustrated on a range of materials like palm leaves, wood, marble, ivory panels, and cloth. Also, organic and natural minerals like stone dust, real gold, and silver dust are used to create exquisite colors. A special paper called 'Wasli' is also used that is polished with stone to render a smooth non-porous finish.

Kerala murals, Pichwai
From left—Kerala murals, Pichwai

13. Kerala Murals (Kerala)

Kerala murals date back to the 14th Century AD, characterized by vivid imagery, bold strokes, and vibrant colors. These are one of the ancient murals in India and one of the most famous frescos in the world.

Kerala murals are called so since they are made directly on permanent surfaces such as the wall. Ochre-red, yellow-ochre, bluish-green, white, and pure colors are predominantly used in Kerala mural paintings.

This traditional art style has deep spiritual roots that depict imagery from Hindu mythology and epics such as those of Lord Krishna, Shiva, and Shakti.

14. Pichwai (Rajasthan)

The word Pichwai means 'hanging at the back' ("Pichh" means back and "wais" means textile hanging in Sanskrit).

The art of Pichwai originated 400 years ago as wall hangings behind the main deity in Krishna temples near Udaipur in Rajasthan, India. They are detailed dreamlike paintings made on cloth that narrate stories related to Lord Krishna.

Creating Pichwai paintings requires great skills and experience even after which, it would take several months to finish one of these artistic wonders.

15. Cheriyal painting (Telangana)

Cheriyal scroll painting, also known as Nakashi Art, came to India with the Mughals in the 16th century.

These scrolls are painted with rich local motifs in a narrative format, like film rolls, that depict short stories from Indian mythology and popular epics. One can notice the subtle influence of Kalamkari and Deccani scroll paintings in Cheriyal scroll paintings.

Cheriyal Scroll Paintings are similar to Pattachitra and Phad paintings that are used as pictorial aids while the folk singers narrate stories. The number of characters in a story determines the length of the scroll, ranging from 1 to 60 feet.

Performers narrate these rich stories to spread essential moral virtues amongst people that they consider education in its truest sense. The existence of such performers dates back to as early as the 10th-century with evidence in Telugu literature.

16. Pithora painting (Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh)

Pithora paintings are ritualistic paintings done by the Rathwa, Bhil, Nayak, and Tadi tribes on the inner walls of their houses. It is more of a ritual than an art form to these tribes that live in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. The Pithora paintings celebrate the authenticity of the rural lifestyle.

The Pithora art form coexists with the Gond art that originated around 1000 years ago. The art form depicts weddings, festivals, and other forms of celebration, accompanied by community singing and dancing.

The paintings are done by creating engravings with fingers on a base made ready by smearing cow dung. Then, several elements of nature are made by filling the engravings with brilliant colors. The tribes also celebrate activities like plowing, farming, hunting, social bonds, and local gods through these ritualistic and vivid paintings.

Final Thoughts

Indian folk art lies at the heart of humanist Indian culture. Most folk paintings carry traditional stories from Indian mythology and epics that inculcate essential moral values in future generations.

Additionally, the unique methods of creating these artworks can generate ideas about an eco-friendly way of life. Through these paintings, one can learn a great deal about living in harmony with nature, society, and moral principles from the artist communities that create them.

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