Tag Archives: folk art

Shadow Tales

Sunday Vijay Times, Bangalore, 20 March 2005

SHADOW puppetry is one of those ancient art forms that stands little chance of  making it through the modern era. Like the remnants of other traditional forms of entertainment, leather puppets from our region will remain ancient relics confined to tourist or museum spaces unless they are integrated into contemporary educational or art practice.

Karnataka has its own tradition of leather puppetry, and it varies from region to region.’ Togalu gombe aata’, as it is called, is traditionally performed by a community called the Killekyathas. The families of this community were nomadic and would, on invitation go to a village at harvest or festival time and perform puppet shows. It is still a belief that if the puppet show is performed, the place will get rain.

Stories like Babruvahana , Ramayana , Kurukshetra , Airavana, Mairavana etc are very popular. Although most of the stories are classical, the contentof the puppet show caters to the tastes of all villagers. Humour, crass jokes, and fighting are all part of the fare. Songs and music blend in with the tale being told; the music and singing are all done by the family themselves. Musical instruments like the tanige shruthi (tune box), and the pavali are used as accompaniments.

Killekyatha means mischievous imp, and the community earns this name because of its ability to poke fun at people by way of their art. But the Killekayathas enjoy a special status in villages; they are allowed to enter the temples although they do not belong to the uppercaste and are revered because they safeguard this tradition. One of the most famous and talented of these puppeteers was the late Hombayya who with his family had performed not just across the country but also at places abroad.

The Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath in Bangalore has a vast collection of leather puppets from various provinces all over the state. Professor M S Nanjunda Rao, its founder and his colleagues have authored a book on the art. In Chitrakala Parishath, Janardhan Raju who used to assist Professor Nanjunda Rao in finding puppeteer families says that when they arranged a puppet show in his native village, it actually rained.

A puppet show is no ordinary affair; it is an all night performance with music and drums. The tales that are being told might be traditional but do not lack in drama and make for great entertainment. These leather puppets are  visually stunning; on a light yellow surface of tempered leather complex profiles of characters in action and fine costume are drawn. These stunning puppets with their complex compositions are works of art in themselves, but animated by their puppeteers and by light, sound and narrative, the experience could be completely absorbing.

The Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath, Janapadaloka and the museum of crafts at Udupi have all done a considerable amount of work in collecting and documenting leather puppets and identifying these families. But the number of families practicing the art is fast depleting.Says T N Krishnamurthi, a lecturer of Art History at the Chitrakala Parishath, “We have documented and done our bit for preserving leather puppets through our museum at the Parishath. But to sustain these families monetarily is still a big question. And most of them are giving up their craft because of a lack of patronage.

You would find puppeteer families in Nagamangala in Mandya district, Biddi in Ramangara Taluk, and in villages bordering Andhra Pradesh. Andhra Pradesh’s leather puppetry is called Bommalata and is quite established and well known. The Crafts Council and Crafts industry have been working with puppeteers to sell puppets at their melas and utsavs. At such a mela, you canbuy small and big individual puppets, and even panels which tell traditional stories.

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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, we.ve 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.