The land of a million different traditions and vibrant communities, India speaks a language of diversity even in its artistry. Visual culture and performance art take into account the daily life of individuals, challenges faced by them and issues of social interest such as education, domestic violence, and unemployment. Illustrated in unique styles or communicated through lyricism and dramatics, these folk tales transcend the boundaries of art by becoming important methods of storytelling.
Historically, tribal communities would paint on walls or cloth using natural dyes, initiating the exploration of self expression. An example of this includes the art of the Gond community, who utilised the medium to record history through distinct, repetitive patterns of dots, dashes and waves, that added intricate detailing to the flora and fauna. Tribal communities often live in unison with nature and hence it becomes a central figure in the art as well.
Similarly, Patuas from West Bengal inculcate mythical themes following the stories of gods and goddesses that often explore social issues. The practitioners of this art painted stories on scrolls made of cloth or paper of different sizes sewn together. They travelled from one village to another singing their stories in return for money or food. Presently, these artists use the craft to address social and political issues to create awareness among people.
While we seek out similar experiences through the medium of cinema, books and TV shows, it is important to note that such expressions have been widely prevalent in South Asian cultures before the advent of contemporary storytelling. They often bring communities together and emphasise the importance of interpersonal relationships by inculcating fantasy, mysticism, and humour in the mix as well.
One such performative folk art illustrating social messages through humour and wordplay is Villupattu or Bow Song. According to the Logical Indian, it is conducted in a format similar to that of ballads and was earlier used to convey mythological themes. These performances were commonly observed during temple festivals and their narratives flowed along the lines of supernatural and historical themes sung in rural dialects.
Madras Documentaries explored the contemporary context of these profermances wherein the craft further evolved to illustrate important social messages and indulged in interactions with the audience. Sometimes the performers would divide themselves into two groups and have a face-off kind of ‘musical debate’ that often played with humour and wordplays easily capturing people's attention by conveying messages relevant to different ages.
Folk art acted as a mode of entertainment before the advent of media. It channelled a similar energy that brought people together to attend the retelling of narrative stories that touched social issues. By blending the visual with performance, traditional art and artists played a vital role as a source of communication. Scroll paintings, puppetry, miniatures, beautiful combinations of art, music, and dance acted as the main source of information and entertainment for people.
Scroll painting resembles a present day comic strip as it reaches the masses through an interactive medium complemented with lively illustrations. Constituting an audio-visual mode of storytelling, the entire story is painted on a long scroll and the narrator then uses the scroll to relate the story through interesting songs along with music. This folk art takes different forms around India, as Patachitra from Bengal, Chitrakathi from Maharashtra and Cheriyal scroll painting from Telangana.
Similarly, the art of puppetry is intrinsically woven into India’s cultural fabric. Puppetry shows from Rajasthan are also where different social messages are narrated through songs and instruments playing in the background. The art of Tholu Bomalatta, from Andhra Pradesh translates simplistic social issues into the dance of the leather puppets. The puppeteer regales the audiences with his hand-made characters through dance and live-action that make ordinary everyday subjects more entertaining.
It is interesting to see how each part of India gives their own unique twist to the art of storytelling yet still manages to retain a unifying folk identity. Acting as an important part of rural communities, they frame the artists and craftspeople as change-makers who can initiate real difference. Sharing local tales with a special focus towards social and political narratives makes the entire experience entertaining but also informative. As these folk art forms are being reintroduced in urban cities they are once again starting important conversations, all through the simple yet salient art of storytelling.