With a history that’s rich in culture and heritage, India is a treasure trove of art forms that have been passed down from one generation to another. One such art form is Indian folk paintings that have stood the test of time; yes, even thousands of years. While some of these gems remain completely untouched by the vagaries of modernisation, some have evolved to become more mainstream.
Despite sharing the common themes of mythology and nature, each of these paintings are unique in their beauty and style. Made with natural dyes and colours, these simple art forms can transport you back in time and leave you in awe and admiration of their rustic charm. Here’s a look at 11 such ancient art forms that have been enthralling us since the beginning of time.
Madhubani painting, also known as Mithila painting is an art form popular in the state of Mithila in Nepal and Bihar in India. While we can’t be sure of the exact origins of the art form, it can be traced back to the Ramayana during the 7th century! The art form, kept alive only by women folk, is said to have originated when King Janaka of Nepal commissioned local artists to paint murals in his palace for the wedding of his daughter Sita to Lord Rama. Originally, these paintings were done on the walls of the kohbar ghar or the nuptial chamber of newlyweds, coated with mud and cow dung. Those paintings depicted symbolic images of the lotus plant, the bamboo grove, fishes, birds and snakes in union to represent fertility. Like most ancient art forms, Madhubani art too takes inspiration from nature and Hindu religious motifs, and the themes generally revolve around Hindu deities like Krishna, Rama, Shiva, Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati. Natural objects like the sun, the moon and religious plants like Tulsi are also common. Usually, the paintings do not leave any empty space and the gaps are filled by paintings of flowers, animals, birds and even geometric patterns. Characterised by the use of bright colours, Madhubani paintings make use of natural sources like plants and charcoal soot for their colour. You will be amazed to know that the yellow colour comes from turmeric, pollen or lime and the milk of banyan leaves, red comes from kusum flower juice, red sandalwood or rose, green from the leaves of apple trees, white from rice powder and orange from palasha flowers! Surprisingly, the existence of this art form remained unknown to the outside world until the earthquake of 1934 when houses along the India-Nepal border tumbled down and the then British colonial officer in Madhubani district of Bihar stumbled upon these paintings on the walls of those homes!
More than a thousand years old, Pattachitra is one of the oldest and most popular art forms of Odisha. The name comes from the Sanskrit words “patta” (meaning canvas) and “chitra” (meaning picture). Known for its rich colours, attractive motifs, designs, and depiction of mythological figures or episodes, Pattachitra is characterised by the following themes: Thia Badhia – depiction of the Jagannath temple; Krishna Lila – enactment of Jagannath as Lord Krishna displayed his powers as a child; Dasabatara Patti – the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu and Panchamukhi – depiction of Lord Ganesh as a five-headed deity. Preparing the patta is the first step to the Pattachitra art. A task that takes around five days, the patta is prepared by making a tamarind paste, also known as niryas kalpa. This paste is then used to hold two pieces of cloth together and coated with a powder of soft clay stone until it becomes firm. As soon as the cloth dries, it is polished with a rough stone and then with a smooth stone or wood. The canvas is considered ready to paint once it becomes leathery. The next stage involves preparing the paints to be used for this art. The gum of kaitha tree, powdered conch shells, lamp soot, etc. are used to make the colours. Pattachitra painters, traditionally known as chitrakars, primarily use bright colours like red, yellow, indigo, black and white. From being painted on palm leaves to silks, the Pattachitra art has come full circle.
3. Mysore painting
Mysore painting is an important South Indian art form that comes from the Vijayanagara School of painting. While the origins of the art form can be traced back to the Ajanta times (2nd century BC to 7th century AD), it actually flourished and evolved under the patronage of the Vijayanagar empire. The art form spread to places like Mysore, Tanjore and Surpur after the painters migrated to these areas post the fall of the Vijayanagar empire in the Battle of Talikota. However, these artists found a saviour in Raja Wodeyar I (1578–1617 A.D) who rehabilitated their families in Srirangapatna. The successors of Raja Wodeyar continued to patronise the art by commissioning temples and palaces to be painted with mythological scenes. While those specimens were destroyed during the war between the British and Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, the art form continued to flourish under the patronage of Tipu Sultan as well. Characterised by use of bright colours and gesso work, Mysore paintings are known to inspire feelings of devotion and humility in the viewer. The themes of these paintings primarily revolve around Hindu gods and goddesses and scenes from Hindu mythology. Gesso refers to a mixture of white lead powder, gambose and glue that is used as an embossing material and covered with gold foil. The gesso work in Mysore paintings is more intricate than in Tanjore paintings.
4. Tanjore painting
With roots in the Vijayanagara School of painting, Tanjore painting (also known as Thanjavur painting) originated in the Maratha court of Thanjavur (1676 – 1855). Characterised by rich colours, glittering gold foils, extensive gesso work and the use of glass beads or precious and semi-precious stones, Tanjore painting is an amalgamation of Deccani, Vijayanagar, Maratha and even European or Company styles of painting. Like most art forms of the ancient era, the subjects of most paintings are Hindu gods, goddesses, and saints. Episodes from Puranas and other religious texts were sketched or traced and painted with the main figure or figures placed in the central section of the picture mostly within an architecturally delineated space such as a mantapa or prabhavali surrounded by several subsidiary figures. Traditionally, a Tanjore painting was generally made on a canvas pasted over a plank of wood with Arabic gum. The canvas was then evenly coated with a paste of powdered limestone and a binding medium and dried. The artist then drew or traced the main subjects using a stencil. A paste, made of limestone powder and a binding medium called sukkan or makku, was used for creating the Gesso work. Gold leaves and gems of varied hues were inlaid in selected areas like pillars, arches, thrones, dresses, etc. Finally, colours were applied on the sketch.
5. Cheriyal scroll painting
With its roots in the ancient art of storytelling, the Cheriyal scroll painting is a stylised version of Nakashi art. The scroll, generally 40 to 45 feet in length was rolled out like a film roll and depicted stories from Indian mythology and folk traditions. The most common themes are Krishna Leela, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Shiva Purana, Markandeya Purana with hints of folk stories of communities like Gauda, Madiga, etc. Painted in bright hues, with red dominating the background, Cheriyal paintings are done on a canvas made of khadi cotton treated with a mixture of rice starch, suddha matti (white mud), a paste of boiled tamarind seeds and gum water. Once the coating dries, artists paint their figures directly onto the canvas using a brush and outline them with black. While the colours are made by the artists from natural sources, the brushes are made with squirrel hair.
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6. Rajput painting
Rajput painting, also popular known as Rajasthani painting is a style of painting that flourished in the royal courts of Rajputana in India. While the most preferred medium of Rajput painting was miniatures in manuscripts or single sheets, a number of paintings adorned the walls of palaces, forts, havelis, especially the havelis built by Shekhawat Rajputs. Though each Rajput kingdom introduced its distinct style, certain features remain constant throughout such themes that borrowed heavily from epics like the Ramayana. In the late 16th century, Rajput art schools began to develop distinctive styles by combining indigenous as well as foreign influences such as Persian, Mughal, Chinese and European. Another feature Rajput paintings are known for is their use of colours extracted from minerals, plants, conch shells, precious stones and even gold and silver. Interestingly, these colours sometimes took weeks to prepare.
The pen art form, Kalamkari has its roots in storytelling by musicians and painters, called chitrakattis. These artists moved from village to village to tell great stories from Hindu mythology and illustrated their accounts on a large canvas with dyes extracted from plants. The first step was to stiffen the cloth by dipping it in astringents and buffalo milk and then drying it under the sun. Afterwards, the red, black, brown, and violet portions of the designs were outlined. The cloth was then covered in wax, except for the parts to be dyed blue, and immersed in indigo dye. The wax is then scraped off and the remaining areas are painted by hand. To create designs, artists used a bamboo or date palm stick pointed at one end to serve as the brush or pen. Kalamkari took shape as an art in the state of Golconda sultanate in Hyderabad in the Middle Ages and flourished under the patronage of the Mughals, who referred to the artists as qualamkars, giving the art its name. Though traditionally, Kalamkari is known to depict scenes from epics such as the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, recent applications have been used to depict scenes from the life and times of Lord Buddha. Kalamkari has been practised by many families in Andhra Pradesh over the generations and is their primary source of income.
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8. Kalighat painting
Kalighat painting or Kalighat Pat is an art form that originated in 19th century Bengal, in and around the Kalighat Kali Temple in Kolkata. In the nineteenth century, the only school of painting that flourished in Bengal was the traditional art of scroll paintings. These paintings, done on cloth or patas, depicted images of gods and goddesses and scenes from epics like Tulsidas’ Rama Charita Manas. The artists were villagers who travelled from place to place with their scroll paintings and described the scenes from the epics depicted in the paintings through songs during village gatherings and festivals. These artists, called patuas or ‘painters on cloth’ were said to be half Hindu and half Muslim and practised Islam. Around the same time, the British too introduced the European techniques of painting, and the Kalighat painting emerged to be a unique blend of both styles. The charm of these paintings lie in the fact that they capture the simplicity of daily life very well.
9. Pahari painting
As the name suggests, Pahari painting refers to a form of painting done mostly in miniature forms, originating in Himalayan hill kingdoms such as Basohli, Mankot, Nurpur, Chamba, Kangra, Guler, Mandi, and Garhwal, between 17th and 19th century. An offshoot of Mughal painting, Pahari painting was patronised mostly by the Rajput kings who ruled many parts of these regions. Each region created unique variations in the genre, giving us the bold Basohli paintings and the intricate Kangra paintings. The Kangra style reached its peak with paintings of Radha and Krishna, inspired by Jayadev’s Gita Govinda.
10. Warli painting
An art form practised by Warli tribes from the mountains and coastal regions in and around the borders of Maharashtra and Gujarat, Warli paintings originated around 3000 BC. Traditional Warli paintings are well known for the use of white paint on ochre mud walls. The white paint is derived from natural materials like rice paste, water and gum. The paintings are made using a bamboo twig that has been chewed on. This tribal art is characterised by intricate geometric patterns of flowers, wedding rituals, hunting scenes and other everyday activities. An interesting feature of the Warli painting is that there aren’t any straight lines used in these paintings. They are usually crooked lines, dots, circles and triangles. Essentially ritualistic, Warli paintings were usually made by married women to celebrate a wedding. These paintings were also used to decorate the huts of Warli tribes, usually made from a mixture of cow dung and red mud. One of the important aspects of most Warli paintings is the “Tarpa dance” – the tarpa is a trumpet-like instrument, which is played in turns by different men. While the music plays, men and women join their hands and move in circles around the tarpa players. This circle of the dancers is also symbolic of the circle of life.
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12. Gond painting
Another tribal marvel, Gond painting is an art form practised by the Gonds, one of the the largest tribes centered in Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Odisha. The word “Gond” comes from the Dravidian expression kond, which means “the green mountain.” Historical records trace the origin of the tribe back to 1400 years ago and evidence shows that Gonds had a tradition of decorating the walls of their houses with vibrant depictions of local flora, fauna and gods such as Marahi Devi and Phulvari Devi (Goddess Kali). Traditionally made on festive occasions such as Karwa Chauth, Diwali, Ashtami and Nag Panchmi, Gond paintings capture the essence of celebrations, rituals and man’s relationship with nature. Made with natural colours derived from charcoal, coloured soil, plant sap, leaves and cow dung, this simple art form is created with dots and lines. The Gonds make these paintings as an offering to Mother Nature, and also to ward off evil.