’art & soul
B. N. Goswamy
Craft from the heartland
In the hands of modern-day practitioners, tribal art has moved away from the intensity of faith from which it originally sprang

Crafts make us feel rooted, give us a sense of belonging and connect us with our history. Our ancestors used to create these crafts out of necessity, and now we do them for fun, to make money. — Phyllis George

Just the other day I received, as part of its periodic announcements, a flyer from the Museum Rietberg in Zurich, speaking of “A Street Parade of the Gods” that they have planned. Intrigued, but not surprised, since I am always struck by the innovative things they keep thinking of, I looked at the flyer with care. There was mention in it of an exhibition of a collection of “highly stylised works of art from rural India”. The works being put up on show, it went on to say, “were created for ritual purposes by local metal founders in the early 20th century in the Bastar region of central India, an area the size of Switzerland.”

The people who made these were “the so-called adivasis, the first settlers in the region” Currently, I might add, two other terms are also in use in this context: vanavasis, meaning dwellers of the forest, or bhumiputras denoting sons of the soil and the show is going to consist of as many as 300 cast figures: ‘priests in the state of trance as well as riders on elephants and horses’.

The objects were given to the museum as a donation by three different donors and, knowing the Rietberg as one does, I am certain it will all make for a spectacular event, accompanied as it will be by film footage of processions and dancers in trance, lectures by experts in the field, and a practical demonstration of the actual casting of a richly decorated animal figure by a craftsman on the spot.
Rider on horseback;
Rider on horseback; 
iron Bastar; 20th century Collection: Museum Rietberg, Zurich

I have naturally not seen these in flesh but judging from the visuals, it will be quite a gathering: heroic figures standing tall and firm, with clenched fists and small shields, shamans with implements of worship in one hand and a bowl in the other, warriors in what appear to be battle-dress, elephants capable of moving on wheels with magnificent-looking howdahs, lovers idling in swings. There is a superb figure of a rider on horseback, the energy of the animal matched by that of a man as he sits astride, back bolt upright, spurring the horse on. The image pulsates with sheer raw power. The question, however, is what do these figures represent, what divine energies? Can we, standing outside that primitive but complex culture, even begin to understand what all these figures stood for in their original context or the rituals they formed part of? I am sure the catalogue, which will accompany the show, will address these questions and more: there will be talk about Danteshwari, the tutelary goddess of the region, of Mavli Mata and Bhimadeva and Bhairam; the relationship between classical Hinduism and these autochthonous deities will form a theme; the different lifestyles of the Maria and Muria Gonds will be in focus; the views of different groups doing anthropological research in the region will receive attention; points will be made about the Nagavanshi dynasty and Kakatiya style temples; there will even be a discussion about what is truly tribal, what caste is, and what the interface between them could be. But I am equally sure that something will keep eluding us, for the veil of time, and of esoteric faith, will stay.

Meanwhile, even shorn of their context, the objects will continue to charm and speak to us in audible whispers. Stories will continue to be told about them, different versions claimed by different groups. Histories will be invoked and techniques analysed. What concerns me personally, however, is how fast the craft is changing in the hands of modern-day practitioners — all still ‘tribals’ perhaps — and how far it has moved away from that intensity of faith from which, originally, they sprang.

(L) A group of figures in brass with a hero in front Bastar; 20th century
Collection: Museum Rietberg, Zurich

(R) Another group of figures in brass Bastar; mid-20th century Collection: Museum Rietberg, Zurich

Each time one goes to that lively place, the crafts museum in Delhi — technically, the National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum — and walks through the demonstration courtyard where craftsmen sit, work and display their wares, one is greeted by at least one stand showcasing metalware. The objects are scattered over the brick floor in no given order; one can see that brass or iron or gun-metal is the material they are made of: tall lissome figures of men and women, riders on horseback and princes on elephants, preening birds and elegant deer, little figurines of workers going about the business of life, vaguely sacred-looking icons. The plaque indicating where the craftsperson comes from almost always gives some ‘tribal’ location, mostly in Chhattisgarh. It could also be any other place from the neighbourhood: Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh. But when you ask the person minding the stand any questions about meaning or faith or ritual, not much comes out. It has all, not surprisingly, perhaps, turned into a matter of commerce. What will sell? Figures apart, candlesticks? Napkin holders? Ash trays? Striding Giacometti-like walkers? Marino Marini horses?

I have no real quarrel with all this. I am not even competent to enter the arena of debate in this regard, I might add. But I do know that I have a problem when these artefacts are sold to me as “authentic tribal” products. At the same time, I would not deny that I like some of these. I have a few iron deer at home: resting, leaping, scratching their noses. And I do remember having picked up once a charming little brass sculpture of a modern-looking woman lying, lower part of the body in full stretch, torso raised with head resting on one hand and the other holding a book from which she seems to be reading. It is still with me.