India’s cultural diversity is unparalleled. Each state has distinct arts and crafts, costumes, cuisines and festivals. Within each state, every region has its unique culture. Within every region, various communities have different means of expressing their values, beliefs, and ethos. This representation of community life through crafts, dance, music, paintings and other art forms folk culture. India’s folk culture is vibrant and goes back many centuries.
One aspect of it is folk paintings, which vary in style, colour, texture, shapes, lines, and tones from one place to another within a state as well.
For example, Rajasthan is home to many folk painting traditions including Pichwai, Phad, Kishangarh School of Art (Bani Thani) and Sanjhya. Similarly, West Bengal has Patachitra, Santhali, and Kalighat paintings while Maharashtra is home to Warli, Chitrakathi and other painting forms.
Made by village painters, folk art is based on epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata, Puranas, Mother Nature and daily life in the village. As villages expanded to towns and towns became cities, these folk paintings began to lose their identity and relevance amid the bright city lights.
Amid this, some folk painters, whose families have been practising the art for centuries, took it upon themselves to contemporize the paintings and make them accessible to art connoisseurs across the world.
These art entrepreneurs took the risk of deviating from the traditional folk themes while adhering to the basic rules and art forms.
By transferring their folk paintings from canvas to objects of daily use, they have found a large market for them and also ensured the tradition’s continuity by training the younger generation.
If more and more painters develop entrepreneurial skills of ideation, contemporisation and marketing, India’s folk paintings will never wane into obscurity.
Here are five painter-entrepreneurs who have given a new lease of life to centuries-old folk paintings:
1. Kalyan Joshi (Phad Painting of Rajasthan)
A renowned Phad painter, he has taken traditional art to a global audience. The Phad art form traces its roots to Pur village in Rajasthan's Bhilwara district. Phad means to fold and these paintings measuring 20-30 feet in length were mobile temples that were rolled or folded and carried from village to village by Bhopas, the local bards belonging to the cattle herder Rabari tribe. The Joshi family has kept alive the Phad tradition for over 1,000 years.
Kalyan, now 55, has spent over three-and-a-half decades expanding Phad beyond its scroll format of folk epic narratives onto decorative items, smaller-sized paintings, furnishings and clothing. His canvas also includes Phad posters depicting government schemes on the empowerment of women, awareness about water conservation, and motivating people to cast their electoral vote.
“I did a set of three paintings showing life during the COVID lockdown, the plight of migrant workers and life after the lockdown. The British Museum bought the paintings for Rs2.15 lakh,” he says.
His son Anuj, a graphic designer, uses Phad on cards, posters and T-shirt prints. His daughter Kritika, who has studied textile design, is doing Phad painting on bags, dresses, masks and accessories.
Read more about his work here: How Kalyan Joshi has made Rajasthan’s 1,000-year-old Phad paintings trendy
2. Parshuram Atmaram Gangavane (Chitrakathi Painting of Maharashtra)
This 17th-century folk art of the Thakar tribe has been kept alive by Parshuram in the Pinguli village in Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra.Chitrakathi combines ‘chitra’ meaning painting and ‘kathi’, which means story. Artisans narrate the stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata through paintings and folk songs.
Parshuram has been instrumental in revitalising the folk art for which he received Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian award. As his works received recognition, many Thakar families in Pinguli have again started making Chitrakathi paintings.
Parshuram has trained over 100 students so far. He has also set up a museum to ensure that the art gains visibility and is not lost. The Thakar Adivasi Kala Aangan (TAKA) museum and art gallery, set up in 2006, showcases folk arts including paintings, puppets and musical instruments. Visitors from across the world visit the museum.
Parshuram has expanded the range of paintings to social and environmental issues and sells them at Rs1,000 to Rs12,000 per piece depending on the size.
More about Chitrakathi and Parshuram here: Maharashtra’s Chitrakathi painting: keeping alive the legacy of Chhatrapati Shivaji’s spies
3. Bhuri Bai (Pithora art of Madhya Pradesh)
In every household of Bhil and Rathwa tribes, who reside mostly in central Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, one can find paintings with animals, huts, people doing their daily chores and a man seated on a horse. He is the main character of the painting and is revered as Pithora Baba, the chief God of these communities.
Women were forbidden from painting him or his horse until Bhuri Bai, from the Bhil tribe in Madhya Pradesh, broke the taboo. Her paintings are much in demand in India and abroad. Her journey from being a child labourer and child bride to Padma Shri (in 2021) is one of hard work and determination.
She took Pithora art from mud walls to canvas, cloth etc. to suit the growing global demands. Her Pithora paintings on paper range from Rs1,000 to Rs10,000 while canvas paintings are priced between Rs5,000 and Rs1 lakh.
She has taught this art to four of her sons, their wives and two daughters besides people of her community. She says women from her community must take time out from their daily chores and learn this art to preserve this rich heritage and financially empower themselves.
4. Kalam Patua (Kalighat Paintings of West Bengal)
For 40 years, Kalam was a postmaster by the day and painter by the night. He spent two years researching Kalighat paintings after hearing about them in 1987.
Kalighat paintings were made by Patua artists between the mid-19th and early 20th century around Calcutta’s (now Kolkata) Kalighat temple. Idol makers living near the temple made these paintings as souvenirs for devotees visiting the Kali temple. The rising popularity of imported printing technology and photography made Kalighat paintings less interesting for visitors. The art died out by the 1930s.
Kalam brought Kalighat paintings back. Thanks to his work, many Patua and Chitrakar artisans are making Kalighat paintings once again.
Now, after retirement, he is fully focused on making Kalighat paintings. He sells his works directly to people who contact him with their specifications besides through exhibitions. His work is also part of the permanent collections at the Crafts Museum and National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London as well as private collections in India and around the world.
Here's his story: Kalam Patua: The postmaster who revived Bengal’s Kalighat paintings
5. D Vaikuntam Nakash (Cheriyal Paintings of Telangana)
Vaikuntam Nakash is the 15th generation in his family continuing to make the centuries-old Cheriyal (or Cheiral) scroll paintings. Now made by only seven families, these paintings are done on khadi cloth treated with tamarind seeds paste, chalk powder, gum and starch. From scrolls of up to 30 feet, Vaikuntam has taken Cherial to smaller-size paintings, masks and other home décor items and popularised the art.
While the folk paintings were mostly based on epic themes (of Ramayana, Mahabharata, Sri Krishna Bhagavatam), village life or festivals, Vaikuntam and his sons are also making educational and social scrolls, which are used by the state government, NGOs and corporates to spread awareness about issues like child marriage or farm insurance.
He gets orders from corporate clients across India to make paintings that are presented as mementoes to dignitaries or as festival gifts. His clients include art lovers and big hotels, which buy the bigger scroll paintings for upwards of Rs1 lakh.
By training the younger generation, Vaikuntam has ensured the continuity of a craft and an enterprise.
(US Anu is a Madurai-based writer. She specialises in stories around human interest, environment and art and culture.)