Intersections: Urban and Village Art in India

By Milford-Lutzker, Mary-Ann | Art Journal, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Intersections: Urban and Village Art in India


Milford-Lutzker, Mary-Ann, Art Journal


Shilpani, works of art made by man, are imitations of divine forms; shilpa, artisans, in tune with divine rhythms, produce visual interpretations in spite of the limitations of the human personality.

-Aitareya Brahmana (6.5.27)

Indian writers and art historians such as Rabindranath Tagore, A. K. Coomaraswamy, K. G. Subramanyan, and Geeta Kapur, like their Western counterparts, have long debated the function of art.1 The divisiveness of the discourse, however, that has evolved around the hierarchical distinction between "low" folk or craft art and "high" fine art in the West has not caused the same type of rancor in India. The Indian world view is expansive and inclusive; it does not call for sameness, conformity, or even equality. There is a reason and a place for everything.

Most types of art in India have been produced for ritual functions. Since the Vedic Period, ca. 1500 B.C.E., and undoubtedly far earlier, Indians have performed sacred rituals to appease the gods. These rituals have included the recitation of Vedic hymns, the performance of dance and music, and the giving of sacrificial offerings, all of which required the ornamentation and adornment of sacred areas. Like the performances, the making of art was highly ritualized and was required to conform to silpasastras, artisans' texts, in order to fulfill its ceremonial purposes. Today, ritual art continues to be made alongside fine art without the abrasive tensions witnessed in the West, because both answer different needs. In fact, ritual art traditions, whether sacred, domestic, tribal, or village, intersect with fine art traditions in the work of many contemporary Indian artists.

Reflecting the divine rhythms of nature, ritual art is repetitive. For example, for almost two thousand years, images of the Buddha have been made in strict conformity to canons first developed during the Kushan Period (ca. 110-250 C.E.). Village women today still make terracotta fertility figures as votive offerings in a tradition dating back to the even more distant Indus Valley Period (ca. 2500-1500 B.C.E.). And women of all socio-economic levels continue to produce elaborately detailed arpanas and rangolis, rice-paste designs that hold particular guardian qualities and are placed before thresholds and on the walls of homes. Ritual art, much of which is vibrant and distinctive, is valued precisely because it is repetitive, derivative, imitative, lacking in creativity, and caters to popular tastes. Yet, such characteristics are deemed negative in discussions of modem urban art and have in fact been used to categorize and demote modem Indian art when it has been presented in international contexts. Such critical analyses posit Indian art as Other and question the temerity of Indian artists for copying and imitating Western ideals.2

Despite adherence to aesthetic and iconographic canons, Indian artists have always absorbed outside influences. Evidence for this can be found in the designs of the Indus Valley seals that date to the third millennium B.C.E., the Greco-Roman styles of the Kushan Period, ca. 110-250 C.E., the Persian styles of the Mughal Dynasty (152-1707), and the Western styles introduced by the British, Dutch, and other Europeans in the seventeenth century. In the nineteenth century, art academies based on British models were established in Calcutta, Chennai (Madras), and Mumbai (Bombay), encouraging for the first time the creativity of the individual.3 As can be seen from this brief timeline, Indian artists have embraced different modes of aesthetic expression since at least the beginning of their recorded history.

In the modern period, the power of the work of Jamini Roy ( 1877- 1972) represents the intersection of village and urban art traditions. Roy was born in the Bankura district of West Bengal, an area with a rich tradition of folk art. At the age

of sixteen he went to Calcutta, where he studied European painting at the Government School of Art and then became an accomplished portrait painter. …

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