Folk & Tribal art in Contemporary India
4th September to 30th October, 2021

Karu, the sweetest part of the Bengali word Karu Kala, which means craft or functional art, mostly traditional ones, as opposed to Charu Kala or Fine Art, refers to the rich indigenous visual traditions for which India has been known for centuries. The exhibition highlights the work created by six widely recognized artists – Akshaya Kumar Bariki, Bhuri Bai, Kalyan Mal Sahu, Mohan Prajapati, Nand Kishor Sharma and Ram Soni – and the group of skilled artisans working with She Kantha. They forged an individual path within established conventions, revealing the aesthetic continuum of India's contemporary folk and tribal art and miniature painting.

Parallel to the modernization project in the post-Independence era, a need was strongly felt among the educated intellectuals to protect and revive the indigenous artistic traditions, mainly the rural arts, which increasingly became an integral part of the nation's cultural identity. Moreover, to create a new source of non-agricultural income, government art and design organizations like All India Handicrafts Board encouraged the traditional artisans. They made a space to collaborate with professional, art-school-trained fine artists to produce traditional artefacts for international audiences. The new design interventions and resurgence of the rural arts in the decades after Independence provide the historical context to understand the artists and their artworks in the exhibition, made primarily for aesthetic rather than ritual purposes.

Each of the artworks featured side by side in the exhibition shows the power of traditional imagery, delicacy of mediums, forms and expressions. Tradition is not a static thing of the past, but something living and connected to the present we live. The terms "folk" and "tribal" art used in the title is simply descriptive and not canonical since we are aware that such categories pigeonhole the artists and prevent them from getting the respect they deserve. In addition to showcasing the artists, the exhibition aims to raise exciting debates.

The intricate dotted lines and brilliant hues in Bhuri Bai's paintings bring to the fore not the local fables of the Bhil community depicted through them but also a wave of emotions. The large Pata paintings based on Vaishnava and Jagannath themes by Akshaya Bariki, born to a family of traditional painters in Ragurajpur, Odisha, and the tales of Krishna depicted in the Pichwai paintings by Kalyan Mal Sahu, a largely self-taught artist, enchant our eyes. One can find similar delicacy in showing the devotional contents in Nand Kishor Sharma's Phad painting and Ram Soni's fine paper cutting of Sanjhi Art, two unique traditional art forms of Rajasthan and North India. The refined treatments in Mohan Prajapati's Mughal and Rajasthani styles of miniature paintings contrast the playful, unsophisticated quilt embroideries done by the skilled women artisans of Bengal. In all these diverse artworks on display, the creative energy of India – the distant sound of the earthen drum – reverberates in widely different forms.