Folk Artists in India Get a New Global Platform

The Indian crafts sector has always been on the global map for craftsmanship, creativity, techniques. Craft & Community Development Foundation (CCDF), a nonprofit focused on Indian arts and crafts, has been running a refreshing new initiative called the Gondwana Art Project since 2019. Artisans in the Gondwana region in central India have been having a hard time selling their work in recent years. The project arose to bridge the widening gap between artisans and patrons, and support craftspeople. 

CCDF elevates and upskills tribal and folk artisans from this region who are practicing three art forms: Gond, Warli, and Bhil art. Each of these forms has a unique visual identity and history and a rich lineage of artists who have passed down the traditional knowledge over generations. 

Anita Shyam, “Fierce Tiger”

Gond art can be easily recognized by the use of lines, dots, and visual strong motifs. Bhil art is a similar folk art identified by ​​the dot pattern and use of earth colors. It is practiced by the Bhil tribal community, who paint on the walls and ceilings of their homes. One of the oldest forms of Indian folk art, Warli paintings are traditionally practiced on mud walls with white paste, and uses geometric shapes and spirals to speak of human experiences.

During their research on the Indian arts and crafts sector, CCDF officials identified the need for a platform for tribal and folk artists to present their work and showcase their craftsmanship. With the belief that these art forms deserve to be showcased globally, the group started this project to help develop new and more contemporary visual languages within these three art forms. 

“We observed that Indian tribal artisans have been making the same images and products without innovating the concepts and color palettes. This was resulting in a fatigue among consumers, who started treating tribal arts as cheap products found at fairs and markets. CCDF started this project with the objective of upskilling the artisans, helping them with design inputs, and mentoring them to create tribal arts that are more contemporary and appeal to a much wider global audience,” says Sundeep Bhandari, CCDF’s founder trustee.

Warli artist Anita Balu Mhase from Dahanu, Maharashtra

Creating new aesthetics for a traditional art form can get tricky. But the project ensures that the authenticity of the art form remains intact. Bhandari explains, “Each artwork is conceptualized and discussed between the relevant CCDF designer and the artisan. The artwork is typically based on folklore, and the storyline is further developed during these discussions. The upskilling happens right from the conceptualizing to the sketching and stylizing of the artworks. To make the art look more contemporary, CCDF has introduced new methods and techniques and played with different uses of the tribal motifs, modifications in the color palettes, and improving the finishing. Even something small, like ensuring the artisan signs and dates each work, is an important aspect of the upskilling process.”

CCDF has a list of over 150 tribal artisans practicing Bhil, Warli, and Gond art forms. The organization has selected 30 artists to work with so far, based on the quality of the artist’s work, along with age, skill level, and current income from art. “We picked artisans who are willing to adapt and are interested in learning new concepts. The artisans had to apply with sample images of their works. They have been encouraged to experiment, without fear of the outcome, as they have an assured stipend that is paid to them,” shares Bhandari.

Yaspal Baranda, “The Wedding Feast” (Bhil). This artwork portrays a wedding feast of a Bhil tribe. It shows the tradition of drawing the peacock, trident, bow and arrow, and tribal gods on the walls of their houses and temples.

The project culminated as an exhibition in New Delhi, concurrent with the India Art Fair in January 2020. The exhibition’s success helped support the project financially through the tough months of COVID-19 shutdowns in India. CCDF also hosted an online exhibition of the artworks at Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur. The organization hopes to find new opportunities to exhibit artworks across India and, hopefully, the world, providing exposure for the artisans.

Gond artist Santoshi Shyam says the project really helped sustain her during the lockdown. “We sell our work at traditional marketplaces like Indian bazaars and melas (craft fairs), which were closed during the lockdown. CCDF supported me by giving me work and teaching me new techniques,” she says.

Jyoti Uikey, a fellow Gond artist, says, “I’ve been watching my family do Gond art since my childhood and practicing it for 10 years. But this is the first time I’m enjoying what I do. This project has given me a new direction and identity. I’m grateful to the project for helping me learn and unlearn.”

Rahul Shyam, “Untitled”Geeta Bhariya, “Holi Rituals” (Bhil). This folklore narrates the rituals of the Bhil tribe during the festival of Holi. The Bhils are celebrating Holi in a local fair in which the head of the tribe offers prayers to the galbassa, which is used to offer sacrifices to the many gods and mud idols for good health and wellbeing of the community.Suresh Kumar, “Story of Narmada” (Gond). This artwork depicts the River Narmada, one of the five holy rivers of India, in the form of a goddess who is worshipped by the Gond tribe.Jyoti Uikey, “Untitled” (Gond)Anita Balu Mhase, “United Swarm” (Warli). This folklore depicts the story of a swarm of bees uniting together to make their new home.Suresh Dhurve, “Matsya Avatar” (Gond)

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