The lure of folk arts

Sunday Vijay Times, Bangalore, 20 February 2005

MAKING craft and other forms of folk art is the second largest occupation of Indians after agriculture. There is some form of folk art in every province of India, from pottery to weaving, textiles, toys or wall painting. Women in villages are chief producers of art like the Madhubani paintings.Embroidery or paintings are all tied up with rituals in life.

Folk art is generally sold in melas and utsavs through co-operatives and the work of non-governmental organisations and government run emporiums and stores. A very huge percentage is exported abroad because Indian handicrafts and textiles are highly valued and priced abroad for their skill, and sheer diversity. With the intervention of important people like Kamaladevi Chattopadhay, Pupul Jayakar, K G Subramanyan and many others in sourcing, documenting and establishing the craft industry, seen a revival of interest in Indian Craft and folk traditions in the post Independence decades. Historians and critics like Ananda Coomaraswamy, W G Archer, Ajit Ghose have all contributed greatly to the understanding and development of knowledge with regard to Indian crafts.

The art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy typified Indian art into two streams broadly based on style, the Margi, or mainstream, more or less solidified and institutionalised, and Desi which is the lesser tradition or that of the living arts, like arts in utility. Folk art like the Patachitras and Warli paintings would be Desi while Chola bronzes and Mughal miniatures that received court patronage would be Margi. The major difference between folk and contemporary art is in the way that we look at these works. The contemporary artist may deal with his buyers through a gallery and the folk artist usually sells through a dealer. The largest difference is that of the economics and class.Contemporary art is brought and sold amongst the elite and is usually accessed by the upper class, unless the artist is making public art or takes it out of gallery spaces.Folk art, on the other hand exists in a rural milieu and might find elite buyers if there is a link or an intervention that allows this, but otherwise exists in guilds or groups with a mostly assembly line type of production and output. The handicrafts you buy at Safina Plaza, Bangalore would have been made by women working in workshops in remote Rajasthan. ‘We pay them two or three rupees for every piece. They make about a twenty to thirty of these a day,” said a Rajasthan handicraft emporium dealer when asked about the wages they are paid for the making of embroidered cushion covers. The product that reaches us  goes through the hands of two or three dealers before it gets to the shop.

Although they seem impervious categories, there are a lot of contemporary artists who draw from folk art in their paintings.One can easily notice similarities in the sensibility,treatment of subjects and themes.Some paintings of painters like Madhvi Parekh, J Swaminathan,G R Santosh, and Ved Nayar all look like urban or subjective interpretations of folk art.

While with the opening outof the craft markets in terms of exports and the handicrafts boom supported and promoted by the government is that, there is a positive impact in preservation of the forms, but this seems to be  is giving way for very little evolution. Crafts are being seen as just crafts and the craftsman is therefore chained to making only his sellable commodity because that is the only way he has for survival.

In this area, the crucial intervention is that of designers and design institutions because the rural craft needs to adapt stylistically to changing environments. While something exquisite from the past is priceless and needs to be protected, which is the function of  a museum of folk art, the art itself needs to get out of the time warp and evolve to changes in material and use.

Folk art can be seen as an investment in collecting masterpieces but is also a great way to liven up your living space. Madhubani and Warli painting have a great market and make interesting buys. The lure of folk art is that it could bring the colour and vitality of rural folk into an otherwise staid urban space.

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