Folk artists as record-keepers of the pandemic

By Avantika BhuyanonJul. 07, 2021in Health and Hygiene

For perhaps the first time, folk and tribal artists around the country have been united by a common theme: Covid-19

‘Migration In The Time Of Covid’, a Phad painting by Kalyan Joshi. The numerous panels depict the plight of migrant workers who had to undertake long and arduous journeys back to their home-towns. Photo: courtesy Minhazz Majumdar

Last year, Madhubani artist Pushpa Kumari created a series of new works, drawn from events related to the pandemic. One of the most striking of these is the Covid Bride—an intricate work layered with myriad observations. At the centre is a traditional Mithila bride, in the one-eyed profile typical of the Madhubani style. She is shown wearing a mask and holding the Earth in her hands in a bid to save it from Covid-19. One can also see an aeroplane zipping across the paper, representing people travelling and transmitting the virus, and a series of trains, ferrying migrant workers home, at the bottom of the work.

Odia Pattachitra artist Apindra Swain, based in Raghurajpur, has created a series of whimsical works based on Covid-19 safety protocols. One of the paintings, made on fabric and layered with natural gum, lime and polished with glass bottles, features the typical ornate borders and vibrant colours. But in a departure from the tradition of depicting gods and goddesses, it depicts a woman in her finery, wearing a mask and washing her hands in a basin.

Since last year, artists from different folk and tribal art traditions have been responding to the pandemic in their own unique ways, basing their work on the changes—big and small—they see around them. Weddings, childbirth, medical care, engagement with nature, and more, have all been affected in the past 15 months, and these artists have expressed their feelings about these transformations in their paintings.

Detail from the ‘Covid Scroll’ by Sonia Chitrakar, a young Pattachitra artist from West Bengal. Photo: courtesy Minhazz Majumdar

When the pandemic started, it was hard for Sonia Chitrakar, 22, living in a village in the West Midnapore district of West Bengal, to make sense of it. “The virus, and the subsequent lockdown, brought with it so many problems and so many unfamiliar things. I saw for the first time people struggling to earn, travel and access food and healthcare,” she says. “These are the observations that I brought into my work.” She and her father, Mantu, created a scroll song on safety norms that prompted the state government to ask them to travel from village to village, showcasing their Pattachitra and song to create awareness.

Minhazz Majumdar, a Delhi-based writer, designer and curator specialising in Indian traditional arts, has been working with these artists for years. Last year, she was in touch, ready to offer whatever help she could. “I realised that for each artist, creating a pandemic-related work meant different things. For some, it was therapeutic, as it offered a way to make sense of things. For others, it was a way of recording and documenting these times,” she says. She believes that while Pattachitra artists have been documenting social realities all along, this hasn’t always been true of the others, like the Phad, Gond and Madhubani artists. “But for the first time in history, folk and tribal artists across India were working on a common theme: the pandemic. Another first was that we were all working with technology. There was no other option but to send works-in-progress via WhatsApp. All of these works are so contemporary,” says Majumdar.

Today she is helping museums, such as the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia and National Museums Glasgow, Scotland, build their collections of Covid-19 art with works by Indian folk artists.

‘Covid’, by Gond artist Mahesh Shyam, is layered with observations of migrant workers falling by the wayside—and the ecological imbalance that faces society today. Photo: courtesy Minhazz Majumdar

The one event reflected in the work of nearly every artist is the plight of migrant workers leaving cities and trudging hundreds of kilometres to reach home. Take, for instance, a Phad painting by Kalyan Joshi. Using natural colours on textile, he has shown the desperation of families, carrying their possessions and children, walking back to their villages. One can see people donating food but the gesture comes too late for several migrants.

Each artist has interpreted Covid-19 differently. Some like Jaba Chitrakar, a West Bengal Pattachitra artist, have personified the virus as a demon. Warli artist Rajesh Chaitya Vangad has created multiple narratives in an intricate work, made with a bamboo nib on a specially prepared cloth. The underlying theme is about the impact of the virus on mankind. Several threads emerge from this, making their way to different parts of the canvas—issues of urban versus rural, life lessons, and how the virus doesn’t make the distinction between classes.

Gond artist Venkat Shyam has created a rather dramatic work in which the virus is shown dominating the world. The most arresting motif is that of the eye, which contains the entire world in its pupil. It shows that all of humanity needs to come together to fight this virus, he says. The artist was in Hong Kong just ahead of last year’s nationwide lockdown. He returned amid rumours of an impending lockdown—and rushed to stock up on paints, brushes and materials. “Kalakar agar nirantar kaam nahi karega, toh uski samaapti ho jaayegi (if an artist doesn’t create constantly, he will die),” he says. “My lines, brush strokes and colours are my language. And I have used those to express my feelings about this time.”

Pattachitra artist Apindra Swain’s works, such as this one showing a woman at the washbasin, are imbued with a sense of whimsy. Photo: courtesy Minhazz Majumdar

He is currently grappling with the number of deaths that the second wave of Covid-19 has brought about. “I am a diabetes patient, so I had no choice but to visit the doctor during the lockdown. From my house in Bhopal, you have to cross a cremation ground on the way to the hospital. There, daily, one would see hundreds of bodies burn—something which was unprecedented. I am trying to paint about that,” he says. The oxygen shortage is also something Shyam has been painting about. He finds it ironic that on the one hand, that governments around the world ask people to plant trees to improve the air quality, but then order felling of lakhs of trees to make way for mines. “Today, one can’t find industrial oxygen, tomorrow one will find normal air hard to breathe. So, I have shown Lord Hanuman carrying a tree in his hand, as opposed to the sanjeevani,” he adds.

Artists like Swain and Sonia Chitrakar have been hooked to the news—it has helped them unite with people across the world in their grief and keep abreast of the latest developments. “I realised that not everyone in the village has a television. So I decided to create awareness about safety updates through my paintings. Maybe someone will look at my work and remember to wear a mask,” says Swain. His quirky paintings take everyday scenes and infuse them with learnings—like a man out to buy fish being asked by a shopkeeper to first sanitise his hands and maintain 6ft distance.

‘Stay Home’, by Apindra Swain, features the ornate borders typical of the Pattachitra style but instead of depicting gods and goddesses, it features front-line workers. Photo: courtesy Minhazz Majumdar

Recently, when the Lalit Kala Akademi lent its support to a project that would see artists from Raghurajpur painting 150 homes in the area, Swain decided to create a Covid-19 mural. The same bejewelled masked lady from his Pattachitra finds her way to the wall too. “Sometimes, when my wife goes out to get water, our son runs after her with a mask. The painting has reinforced these norms,” he says.

For Majumdar, these works are powerful, proof that the artists have decided not to be weighed down by the pandemic. “They are not just observers but active participants in recording history. Instead of being defeated by the virus, they are taking their power back,” she says.

First published by LiveMint on 3rd July 2021.

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