Introduction To Indian Folk Arts Cultural Studies Essay

The somewhat lesser-known traditions of Indian painting are the so-called “folk” paintings dating back to a period that may be referred to as “timeless”. These are living traditions, intrinsically linked with the regional historic-cultural settings from which they arise. It has an age-old heritage that can be traced back to the beginning of civilization on this subcontinent [1]. It began with cave paintings, with the natural dyes so strong that they can still be seen today on the walls of the caves after centuries. The folk and tribal painting come from the remote rural and tribal regions. Sometimes the artists of these rustic works are not even educated. They lack the basic means to attend schools, and as they are gifted with such beautiful mean of expression by nature. The various painting forms coming from these regions began not just as a painting but also as a religious and social ritual performed daily. It began with painting the walls and floor of mud houses. They hide the belief that this purified the ambience and pleased the deities. Various religious and symbols were therefore seen within the painting.

The term ‘folk paintings’ here encompasses pictures made in Indian villages by both men and women, for ornamentation of their abodes, portrayals of their gods and for their various rituals; and, by local professional painters or artisans for use of the local people. All these paintings were produced in a variety of styles and themes. History, sociology and geography infused the painting of each region with local flavor. Their style and quality depended on the materials available in the place in which they were executed, these very factors that helps to identify the region.

Folk art may be defined as the art created among groups that exist within the framework of existing society, but, for geographical and cultural reasons, are largely separated from the sophisticated and cultural reasons, and the developments of their time. As a result, they produce distinctive styles and objects for local needs and tastes.

In folk tradition, art is nourishment to the daily life of the people. Whether he is a TAMILNADU (an Indian state) [2] potter who creates a massive terracotta “AIYANAR” (example in Appendix. Pic.1) or a MADHYA PRADESH (an Indian state) [2] tribal who creates “PITHORA” painting (example in Appendix. Pic.2), at the moment of creation, the poverty-stricken, illiterate folk, becomes a master-crafts-man who can create marvelous plastic and visual forms with a creative genius handed over to him by generations. Topography and geography too have control over the medium of art. In the case of UTTAR PRADESH (an Indian state) [2], we can find folk paintings on the walls of the houses. Whereas in ASSAM (an Indian state) [2], one cannot find wall paintings because most of the walls of the house are built with cane or bamboo. The folk and tribal traditions, consider all materials available in day-to-day life are worthy of serving as a medium of expression. In this regard, artist-writer, HAKU SHAH writes, “When a tribal touches a blade of grass, gourd or bead, fiber, twig, grain, pin, plastic button, conch shell, feather, leaf of flower, he sees through it, smells it, hears it, and therein starts the ritual of being with it [3].” Each part of the country with it’s own trees and plants, birds and animals, hills and dales has inspired Indian folk artists to have multiple metaphors, series of symbols and innumerable images to build a rich treasure-house of art.

The following are the common stylistic characters in folk-art:

– Preference for simple outline and choice of typically representational lines;

– A simplification of colors and volumes so that shading is eliminated;

– Stylization of motifs to create decorative elements; and

– Repetition of lines, of entire figures, of dots for intensive or rhythmical purposes.

Following is the list of some of the main folk arts from different parts of India

Madhubani Painting

Folk art of Madhubani from the Mithila region [2] of north India. There are different styles developed by different castes of the region. (Examples in Appendix Pic.16a – 16h)

Thanka Painting

Combining the magnificent beauty with spiritual vision, Tankha is painting solely dedicated to Buddha and his teachings. These represent how the Buddhists see the universe. It is generally in eight layers with the upper most layers or part depicting a deity. The rest seven are the various elements of the universe like, fire, earth, space, water and air. Colorful and geometrical, these are many a time seen as the basis of temple architecture. These paintings are done with dedication, concentration, and passion and also with the deep religious feeling of doing something directly related with the supreme power. (Example in Appendix Pic.3a, 3b)

Patachitra Painting

Indian art Patachitra is a pre-Islamic form of religious art. It comes from the eastern Indian state Orissa [2]. Hindu gods and goddesses and other mythological scenes are painted on a leather-like surface made of several layers of old cotton glued together. (Example in Appendix Pic.4a, 4b)

Kalamkari Painting

Kalamkari Literally meaning ‘pen-work’, it is the religious painting on cloth with blocks and wax resist, from the temple town of KALAHASTHI in southeast ANDHRA PRADESH [2]. (Example in Appendix Pic.5a, 5b)

Warli Painting

Warli is a tribal community from MAHARASHTRA, India [2]. They have made a significant contribution to the heritage of Indian tribal art. Done by both men and women, these art works show their dedication to the nature and the superpower. (Example in Appendix Pic.6a, 6b)

Gond Painting

Tribal painting, Gond is a freehand expression of the Gond tribes of MADHYA PRADESH, India [2]. Painted freehand, these two dimensional paintings reflect their perception of life. The third dimension, the depth is always lacking in these paintings reflecting the simplicity of the artist. Sometimes these paintings also tell how colorful their imagination can be. They put colors to the blandest creations of the nature at times. (Example in Appendix Pic.7a, 7b)

Batik Painting

Batik, wax resist painting from WEST BENGAL, India [2]. Meaning ‘wax-painting’ in Javanese, it originated in Indonesia and later revived in WEST BENGAL, India. The creativity of the talented dyers has given it a fresh new definition. The principle of batik is a simple one, wax or a similarly resistant substance such as rice paste is used to create patterns or motifs on cloth before it is dyed or colored in some way. When the wax is finally ready to be removed, the untouched cloth beneath it stands out as the original color of the cloth. (Example in Appendix Pic.8a, 8b)

Miniature Painting

Folk art miniature paintings inspired by the graceful romantic life style of the Mughals [4]. These paintings show one moment at a time and in minute details. The love scenes, the court scenes, various solitary women, animals, flowers all were closely observed and reproduced simultaneously. (Example in Appendix Pic.9a, 9b)

Santhal Art

The Santhal tribe, one of the famous tribes belonging to the Bihar state of India [2], has a typical style of painting, known as Santhal paintings. The bodies of the various forms that they paint are seldom or perhaps never in one shade, they are always striped, dotted or filled with any other geometrical pattern. They are done on a handmade paper with poster colors. The topics are selected from the natural surroundings or just from the happenings of their day-to-day lives. (Example in Appendix Pic.10a, 10b)

Phad Art

RAJASHTAN, an Indian state [2], the land of colors is known for Phad painting, which is done on cloth. This type of painting is mainly found in the BHILWARA district. The main theme of these paintings is the depiction of local deities and their stories, and legends of erstwhile local rulers. Phad is a type of scroll painting. These paintings are created while using bright and subtle colors. (Example in Appendix Pic.11a, 11b)


Tantra art or yantra is used as an instrument or medium of focus on a deity while meditating. It is used while performing religious ceremonies. It is a graphical representation of geometrical or abstract images such as triangles, squares, pentagons, hexagons or circles. (Example in Appendix Pic.12a, 12b)


Chittara, meaning ‘picture’ is an expression of the village artists of KARNATAKA India [2]. Chittara is done on handmade paper. This paper is coated with mud first and then the desired color of the background is given to it by various colors extracted from the natural objects. The color red is procured by grinding a special red stone, the color black is procured by grinding burnt rice and soaking it in water for few days, mud and rice paste gives white. (Example in Appendix Pic.13a, 13b)

Introduction to MADHUBANI Paintings

Painting is generally done by folk artists or classical artists in three ways: wall-painting (BHITTI-CITRA), canvas-painting (PATA-CHITRA) and floor-painting (ARIPANA). Of these the wall-painting and the floor-painting are very popular in MITHILA region [2]. The Wall-painting or mural paintings, popularly known as MITHILA painting or MADHUBANI painting.

MADHUBANI, literally meaning ‘from the forest of honey’ is the name of the village from where comes the MADHUBANI paintings. Situated in the interior of northern India, this art is the expression of creativity in the day-to-day life of the local people. Done mainly by the females of the family, this art is regarded as a part of daily ritual. Initially all vegetable dyes were used for the paintings but today they have access to the variety of poster colors to cater to their needs and to enable them for more experiments with colors. The estimated date can’t be traced back to the actual era that brought MADHUBANI art in to existence. It is however centuries old art that is associated with the normal lives of the villagers. In that region it is believed that every morning the worshipped deity comes invisibly to the household to bless the members of the family and also to bring more prosperity. So this art started as a welcome painting for deities. It started from the entrance floor and the exterior of the house. Passed from mothers to their daughters, the art of MADHUBANI has constantly been improving in its quality. As this tradition was initialized with a purpose of decorating the exterior of the house, the walls and the floor always served as the canvas.

Floor-painting (ARIPANA)

The art of ARIPANA or floor-painting has been handed down from generation to generation. There is not a single house in MITHILA in which ceremonies are held without ARIPANA. The women of MITHILA specialize in drawing circular patterns of designs with a white liquid paste made of ground rice mixed with water. Sometimes vermilion is also applied, besides white, red, green, yellow and black colors. In various ARIPANA designs, they have the images of gods and goddess painted on different shapes and forms with multiple colors, reflecting the artist’s originality and imagination. ARIPANA is an indigenous word, which means “the art of drawing embankment or wall.” The word is derived from ALIMPANA or ALEPANA (of Sanskrit origin) and though grammatically correct, it falsifies the real origin of the word [5].

(Example of ARIPANA art in Appendix. Pic.14a, 14b)

The land and people

North of the river Ganges, in the state of BIHAR [2] lies a land called MITHILA, shaded by old mango groves and watered by melt water rivers of NEPAL [2] (Indian neighbor country) and the Himalayas. MITHILA has played a noteworthy part in the political and cultural life of ancient India. It is a land full of the beauty of landscape in sharp contrast to the ugliness of poverty in which its people, most of whom are talented painters, live, who accept their fate, good or bad, and paint for painting sake.

It is said that altogether MITHILA was the home where the enlightened and the learned might always find a generous patron, peace and safety, where courts were devoted to learning and culture and where poets and philosophers lived in honor and affluence. Even though women in the villages around MADHUBANI have been practicing their folk art for centuries, the world at large has come to know about these women and to consider them to be “artists” only in the last forty years. Even now, most of their work remains anonymous. The women, most of them illiterate, are reluctant to consider themselves individual producers of “works of art” and only a few of them mark the paintings with their own name.

Among the first modern outsiders to document the tradition of MADHUBANI painting were William and Mildred Archer. Mr. Archer was a British civil servant assigned to the district during the colonial era (till 1947). The Archers obtained some drawings on paper that the women painters were using as aids to memory. Works that the Archers collected went to the India Records Office in London (now part of the British Library) where a small number of specialists could study them as creative instances of India’s folk art [6].

The women painters in MADHUBANI lived in a closed society and were unwilling to paint openly. Eventually due to a drought (1966-68) in the surrounding areas of MITHILA that resulted in severe economic crisis women began to commercialize their art. The All India Handicrafts Board [7] encouraged the women artists to produce their paintings on handmade paper for commercial sale. The government of India, the state government of Bihar and the regional craft guilds has all come in together to initiate the productions and marketing for these women painters. This sudden change in the form of art and its presentation has enabled the world to discover a new form of art with an enviable linkage to the lives of women [8].

The Style of painting

This style of painting belongs to North Bihar. In keeping with the tradition under which it began, the style is replete with symbols of fertility like the lotus plant, the bamboo grove, birds, fish, etc. in union. The art shifted to drawing paper in the 1960s, and this brought with it a new freedom and creativity. Paper is movable and economically feasible too. Figures from nature & mythology are adapted to suit this style. The themes & designs widely painted are the worship of Hindu deities such as KRISHNA, RAMA, SIVA, DURGA, LAKSHMI, SARASWATI, Sun and Moon, TULSI (basil) plant, court scenes, wedding scenes, social happenings around them, etc. Floral, animal and bird motifs, geometrical designs are used to fill up all the gaps. There is hardly any empty space in this style. The skill is handed down the generations, and hence the traditional designs and patterns are widely maintained. One of the main features of MITHILA paintings is simplicity. All that is required for the artist is a suitable surface, ordinary paints, and local brushes. Preliminary sketching is hardly required in MITHILA paintings because the outlines are developed in a single sweep of the brush.

Tools Used

No sophisticated tools are needed in MADHUBANI paintings. Artists are still unacquainted with the modern brush. The traditional brush is made from a bamboo-twig by wrapping the twig up with a piece of cloth or by having its end frayed in such a way that the fiber looks like a bundle of hair.

Color Scheme

The artists prepare the colors. Black is obtained by mixing soot with cow dung; yellow from turmeric or pollen or lime and the milk of banyan leaves; blue from indigo; red from the KUSUM flower juice or red sandalwood; green from the leaves of the wood apple tree; white from rice powder; orange from PALASHA flowers. The raw materials were mixed with goat’s milk and juice from bean plants. Today green, blue, red and orange have been added to these colors. The colors are applied flat with no shading. There is normally a double line drawn for the outlines, with the gap between the lines filled by cross or straight tiny lines. In the linear painting, no colors are applied. Only the outlines are drawn. Some villages only produce black ink drawings. Other villages use pink, yellow, blue, red and parrot green, each paint mixed with the traditional goat’s milk.

Impact of Hindu religion and mythology in Indian folk arts

Hinduism Religion has been a definitive influence on Indian Art. Hindu Paintings featuring Hindu gods, Hindu goddesses, and the various Hindu pantheons are one of the most prominent symbols of Indian and Hindu Art.

Hindu god/goddess in branding

In India, manufacturers try to affect the psyche of consumer, by branding an item with the names and images of Hindu deities. They bring the premium image of a God and His virtues and associate them to their product, thus exploiting the mass recognition of well-established imagery of the God to boost product branding. The beauty of this strategy lies in the fact that the companies using God’s images do not have to be concerned about any kind of intellectual property issues like copyright, thus enjoying an immense credibility just by virtue of having connected their name to a venerated name. This kind of branding shows the popularity of god/goddess images in India and the corporate/legal freedom of their use. Manufacturers use images and names of Hindu Gods on product labels and promotion materials to attract buyer’s attention. Even in America some of the phone card companies like MCI, which target Indian consumers, print God’s images on its international phone cards and sometimes even the phone card itself is named after a God. In India the largest group of advertisers are the food marketers, followed by marketers of drugs and cosmetics, soaps, automobiles, tobacco, appliances, and oil products. All of these companies somehow associate their products’ virtues with the virtues of a God and try to sell it to the consumer, who can very well relate to the image presented. For instance, Indian jewelers use image and name of Goddess LAXMI, who is considered the ruler of all material wealth extensively. One of the most famous names among jewelry shops in India is: “Maha Laxmi Jewelers”. (Examples of some Ads and products in Appendix. Pic.17a – 17j)

Forms and symbols in MADHUBANI Paintings

The motifs of the designs include conventionalized flora and fauna, circles in series, spiral or curvilinear devices, series of short lines, foot-points of fragmentary (imaginative) pictures illustrating legends and stories, giving glimpses of environmental and natural life. While the religious paintings include various gods and goddess, the secular and decorative paintings contain various symbols of prosperity and fertility such as elephant, horse, fish, lion, parrot, turtle, bamboo, lotus, flower, PURAINA leaves, PANA, creepers, SWASTIKA etc. Besides, we also come across in these paintings aspects of agricultural animal life, which plays an important role in the rural economy of MITHILA. The animal, in fact, is a duplicate representation of energy and character of God. Thus, the subject matter generally falls into two groups:

(1) A series of heavenly forms.

(2) A series of strictly selected vegetables and animal forms.

For different occasions, they have different forms and symbols attached to these paintings.

Wedding Paintings

At weddings, the following objects – the sun and moon, a bamboo-tree, a circle of lotuses, parrots, turtle and fish come into prominence. These paintings draw their themes mostly from the PURANAS and epics. The most prominent image looming largest on the walls are the bamboo-tree and the ring of lotus, the KAMALAVANA or PURAINA. The focus is on fertility, and the marvelously intricate diagrams of the KAMALAVANA, the PURAINA and the forest of bamboos are, as pointed out by Archer, MANDALAS and diagrams of the generative organs. The lotus circle is not only a lotus but also the symbol of the bride’s sex, while the bamboo-tree is a bamboo, it also represents the phallus. (Although sometimes it is said that the women artists iconize the husband’s patrilineage as a stand of bamboo.) In other words, lotus is a female and bamboo is a male. According to Archer, “the latent symbolism reaches its height in the many paintings in which the bamboo-tree is depicted not as aloof and apart but as driven through the center of a clinging circle” [9].

There are also minor symbols of parrots, turtles, fish, sun and the moon. In Indian context, the parrots symbolize the lovebirds and they feature constantly as images of the bride and bridegroom in folk songs and poetry. Turtles also have a significant place because they associate water with all its beneficent power with marriage, their strange shape being diagrammatic of the lovers union and their head and tail emerging from the shell looks like the exact counterparts of the bamboo plunging in the lotus. Then, there are fishes which are emblems of fertility and, finally we have sun and moon who are inserted because of their life-giving qualities.

(Example of marriage art known as KOHBAR in Appendix. Pic.16a – 16h)

About the MADHUBANI painting Artists: Baua Devi

Baua Devi is one of the most respected artists in the MITHILA community, and certainly the most successful. She lives in JITWARPUR, the village where she was born. Her work has been exhibited widely throughout India as well as the Center Georges Pompidou in Paris and at the MITHILA Museum in Tokamachi, Japan [10]. Also, at the MATRIX show at UC Berkeley Art Museum, 1997 [11] included two mural-scale paintings by Baua Devi, one depicting the life of KRISHNA, the other, a festival around a pond in a Mithila village.

The scope of MADHUBANI paintings, its popularity in India and in other parts of the world

MADHUBANI Painting has lately received much attention and popularity. There are quite a few websites devoted to MADHUBANI painting. I simply would like to add that the credit for bringing recent and massive popularity to this art form goes, in large measure, to the Lalit Narayan Mishra. In his capacity as the Minister for Railways in Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s cabinet, reproductions of these paintings adorned the coaches of many fast and super-fast trains. [12] Copies of the paintings became a hot-selling item for both native and foreign travelers. The reproductions could be found in plenty, for instance, among the hawkers in the bustling street side market along the JANPATH in New Delhi, India – a must for the foreign tourist! Credit is due also to Mr. Bhaskar Kulkarni, erstwhile member of the Indian Handicrafts Federation. He was the first to organize an exhibition of this school of paintings at New Delhi in 1967 [13]. This brought instant international recognition. Folk art is having a treasure house of symbolic language to contribute as a gift to Modern art. “Folk in a sense carries the connotation of anonymity, collective wisdom, spontaneity and simplicity. With the development of Anthropology a new awareness has come into understanding the primitive and folk traditions. Anthropology has proved that regionalism in art is not against internationalism. [14]”


MADHUBANI paintings are popular because of their tribal motifs and use of bright earthy colors. I would like to explore how these unique features of folk art could be successfully translated into the form of Animation.

Based on my research I have these findings about MADHUBANI PAINTINGS characteristics:

-The figures are recognizable by a face in profile while the rest of the body faces the front.

-The face has one very large eye and a bumpy sort of nose coming out of the forehead.

-The figure outlines are drawn as a double line with diagonal hatching between them.

-The borders are highly decorated – either geometrically or with ornate floral patterns.

-Clothing also is highly decorated with geometrical, floral or even animal patterns.

-The drawings of animals are easily recognized for what they are, but again tend to be very stylized.

-The forms and symbols in these paintings have their own significance and different forms and symbols are used on different occasions.

-There could be different interpretations of symbols and its uses.

-These paintings have a limited number of colors and each color has its own meaning. Artists prepare the colors applied.

-The artist uses traditional brushes (made from a bamboo-twig) for drawing.

With time medium has changed. Originally these paintings were done on walls in villages. Later, the artists successfully transferred their techniques of wall painting to the medium of paper. Now most of the artists use watercolors and handmade papers. At the same time they maintain the characteristics and style of paintings although the medium has changed. In order to create a new source of non-agricultural income, different organizations encourages the artists to produce their traditional paintings on handmade paper for commercial sale. This way now it also widely spread. Even in the more recent work on paper, the themes are normally the Hindu Gods and Goddesses and stories from Hindu mythology. They exhibit their paintings throughout India as well as different parts of the world. Now with the advent of digital tools like Macromedia Flash, which can produce the similar kind of drawings using different combinations of pencil and brush strokes. Use of digital tools also makes these drawings faster and more effectively as these paintings has lots of repetitive patterns.

So we can say, transferring the techniques of wall painting to the medium of paper gained these paintings more popularity and recognition. Same way I strongly feel that when these styles and characteristics of MADHUBANI paintings will be transformed into digital medium, such as animation, it will take the paintings to the next level, where these folk art styles will be used by more and more digital artists from India and all over the world.

End Notes

[1] Based on the art history timeline the art produced on the Indian subcontinent from about the 3rd millennium BC . However based on the recent findings, An archaeological site off India’s western coast may be up to 9,000 years old. The revelation comes about 18 months after acoustic images from the sea-bed suggested the presence of built-up structures resembling the ancient Harappan civilization, which dates back around 4,000 years. <>.

[2] States from India. Map of India – Appendix Pic.15

[3] Thakur, Upendra, MADHUBANI Painting. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1982.

[4] Roy, The Bratas of Bengal, ” The RANGOLI or ARIPANA, KOLAM or MURGGY, as it is known in Bombay (now Mumbai), TAMILNADU and ANDHRA, is a pleasing decoration of the ground.”

[5] The Mughals ruled in India from 1526 to 1857. The Mughal period can be called a classical age in northern India. In this cultural development, the Indian traditions were amalgamated with the Turko-Iranian culture, brought to the country by the Mughals.

[6] Gene R. Thursby, University of Florida .

[7] Ministry of Textiles (Govt of India)

[8] Madhubani Painting Workshop Brochure. <>.

[9] Archer, W.G., MADHUBANI Paintings. Mumbai, 1998.

[10] The Mithila Museum in Tokamachi, Japan. .

[The Mithila Museum is housed in a converted schoolhouse in Tokamachi, Niigata Prefecture, situated in Japan’s snow country. Here approximately 850 Mithila paintings, more than 300 paintings that the Mithila artists created in Japan, Warli paintings by an aboriginal group in India, and Indian teracotta statues and figurines, are exhibited on a permanent basis.]

[11] Baua Devi and the Art of Mithila. .

MATRIX: August 15 through October 26, 1997 at the UC Berkeley Art Museum.

[This is the first United States exhibition of paintings on paper by the Indian artist Baua Devi. The exhibition also includes a selection of works by other artists from the Mithila region of northeastern India. Baua Devi’s paintings explore an array of personal and mythological themes. An image, which she has come to adopt as her own is the nag kanya, or snake maiden, a creature with the torso and head of a beautiful woman and the lower body of a snake. The nag kanya resembles the snake goddess Manasa, whose attributes echo those of the key Hindu god Shiva. The nag kanya also derives from the real snakes that occupy the watery region where Baua Devi lives.]

[12] Railways in North Bihar. .

[13] Mr. Bhaskar Kulkarni. .

[14] The Art of Folk Tradition. .


Thakur, Upendra, MADHUBANI Painting. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, n.d.

Thakur, Upendra, History of MITHILA. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, n.d.

Jain, Jyotindra, Ganga Devi: Tradition and Expression in Mithila Painting. Ahmedabad, India: Mapin Publishing Pvt Ltd., 1997.

[A fine book on a leading artist who practiced what is sometimes called the Kayastha style of MADHUBANI painting.]

Vequaud, Yves, The Women Painters of Mithila. London: Thames and Hudson, 1977.

[A book that contributed to and then reflected the worldwide popularity of MADHUBANI painting.]

Osaki, Norio, MADHUBANI Paintings. Kyoto Shoin, 1998.

Shearer, Alistair. The Hindu Vision: Forms of the Formless. Thames & Hudson, 1993.

Aldred, Gavin. Indian Firework Art. Trafalgar Square, 2000

Prakash, K. Authentic Folk Designs from India. New Delhi: Dover Pubns, 1995.

Dawson, Barry. Street Graphics India. Thames & Hudson, 2001.

Archer, W.G., MADHUBANI Paintings. Mumbai, 1998.

Anand, Mulk Raj, MADHUBANI Painting. New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1984.

Online exhibit of MADHUBANI Paintings. .

About an Artist..

The MAITHILI BRAHMANS: An Online Ethnography..

Marketing God: About religious content on Indian television. .

Indian God in Advertising. .

Mudra Communications: A leading advertising agency from India .

Mithila Museaum in Japan. .

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