Passed down through generations, traditional art provides a shared experience for the entire community. With values, cultural practices, and belief systems embedded in these art forms, they often form a common language through which the different communities that fabricate the society can be engaged.

Folk art has been a part of India’s traditions for thousands of millennia. Starting from the prehistoric cave paintings in the rock shelters of Bhimbetka to intricate wall art of Madhubani from the times of Ramayana, on to the elaborate frescoes in the rock-cut artificial caves at Ajanta and Ellora, extending as late as the 10th – 12th century, every region of the country has had its own artistic traditions. Initially being simple depictions of Mother Nature — trees, birds, animals, and man, these Indian traditional paintings gradually evolved to deities, human body detailed representations of the universe— sun, moon, and other spiritual concepts.

Strongly influenced by the symbology of the divine gods, the elements of the universe, and the religious and ethnic practices these traditional art forms changed canvases from walls of caves, homes, and temples to palm leaves and later handmade paper. With time, new tools and painting technologies were created that adapted to the discoveries at the same time maintaining the ethos and traditions of folk art.

Importance of Indian Traditional Paintings

The diverse folk art traditions of this ethnically diverse country form the foundation of its rich heritage and are more than just an important part of its culture. Reflecting the unique characteristics and collective stories of communities, these folk paintings are a link to India’s rich past and diverse traditions. Hence, playing a vital role in strengthening the country’s personal and cultural identity. At the personal level, Indian traditional paintings provide a focal point to which its people can always return to — to explore their roots or simply to develop a deeper connection with the communities. Rooted in longstanding rich traditions and culture, they also have rich potential for adaptation to the present, providing a deep resource of inspiration and innovation for the development of culturally distinctive content.

These ancient Indian traditional painting and art styles can be rightly called the conductor of culture and heritage. Passed down from generation to generation, they evolved over the years, with many still untouched by modernization and practiced in their pristine form while many others have adapted to new paint, colors, techniques, and materials. However, each of them is unique, admirable, and inimitable in its own might and pass our civilization and culture to the coming generation. For example, Gond paintings, as folk art, has a rich tradition in India with its roots traced back to the pre-Aryan age. Inspired by the life and culture of the Gond tribes, these paintings depict the elements of nature like rivers, mountains, hills, streams, and forests. Made with a series of dots and dashes beautifully arranged into patterns and delicate compositions, traditionally these paintings were made on the walls, ceilings, and floor of homes during traditional customs and festivals. Though initially confined to decorating the homes of the locals, and unknown to outsiders, four decades later Gond is recognized globally for its vibrancy and is exhibited in prestigious galleries worldwide.

Depicting the symbology of the epics, the gods, cosmology, mathematics, the universe, and of Ayurveda and the human body, Indian traditional art forms have been rich in symbolism. Each deity has its own distinct form, postures, and mudras, the planets, the flora and fauna, the mandalas, the swastikas, and many more symbols made these traditional folk paintings rich and colorful. The popular symbols of Shunya, the Om, mandalas, mythological events, and the Panchatantra and Jataka Tales inspired artists to render them in their creations. For example, the tales of Goddess Durga and Kali, Mahishasura, and Krishna have been the foundation of traditional Madhubani and Pattachitra paintings. While Gond paintings evolved their own ethos of the elements of nature, the trees, animals, local deities, and customs.

The stories, customs, and traditions prevalent in the Bengal region get adapted into symbolic Santhal Paintings and Pattachitra to the Kalighat paintings characterized by bright-colored and bold outlines that were influenced by the European art school after the advent of the British in India. Later, the stories of the perceived corruption of Babu Culture began to be a part of the composition of many Kalighat paintings.

Lastly, the traditional Indian arts go beyond their personal and national impact and form a valuable cultural currency in the global economy. As global cities are distinguished not just by their state of economies but also by their cultural diversity and vibrancy, traditional arts are an important facet that helps to establish a distinctive identity of the country encompassing the different cultures practiced here.

Popular Traditional Arts of India

The folk arts of India are an embodiment of the diverse cultures within the country and without a doubt, each one is different and unique in its own way from the rest. Though many of them have adapted to the newly available technologies, materials and sensitivities of the time, they still preserve its beauty and ethos. Below are some of the most popular and thriving folk arts of India that have survived the passage of time quite well.

  • Thanjavur Art

Popularly known as Tanjore paintings, this art form originated in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, in the city of Thanjavur. Essentially religious paintings with a royal heritage, these are among the greatest traditional art forms recognized worldwide.

Thanjavur art demonstrates spirituality with its subject matter largely revolving around mythological themes from Hinduism, most popular being the figures of Lord Krishna in different poses and depictions of his life. Characterized by their hallmark gold leaf work, brilliant color schemes, precious stones, and cut glass jewelry, these paintings once adorned the royal dwellings of the rulers of Vijayanagar Rayas and Thanjavur Nayaks in the 16th century, but can now be commonly found in every Indian household.

In the early days, they used to be adorned with rubies, diamonds, and precious gemstones, but nowadays, semi-precious stones have substituted their place while the practice of using gleaning gold foil is still the same.

  • Madhubani Painting

Also known as Mithila art, Madhubani paintings are believed to be as old as the Hindu epic Ramayana. It is said to find its origin in the kingdom of Janaka, father of Sita, in the Mithila region of Bihar.

Characterized by geometric patterns, this art form mostly depicts gods, wedding scenes, religious ceremonies, flora, and fauna. These paintings are widely practiced by women to foster their spirituality and yearning to be one with the divine.

Traditionally produced using mineral pigments prepared by the artists and drawn on freshly plastered mud walls. These paintings are produced now for commercial purposes, and achieved on paper, cloth, canvas, and other media. Many families of the Mithila region still practice this art form as a tribute to the original women of the region who first developed the techniques of these wall paintings.

  • Warli Painting

One of the oldest Indian traditional art forms, Warli painting finds its origin in the tribal region on the northern outskirts of Mumbai in Western India. Though the close proximity to one of the largest metropolitan cities in India, this art form shuns all influences of urbanization.

Simple in its appearance, Warli tribal art employs geometric structures such as circles, triangles, and squares to represent the daily lives and social events of the Warli tribe. Though it bears resemblance to Madhubani paintings, the use of a red ochre or dark background and shapes in white color makes it distinct from others.

Altogether, these geometric paintings are reminiscent of prehistoric cave paintings and were traditionally produced in the homes of the Warlis to invoke the gods. Over time, they have served as a means of passing the stories and traditions to a populace who were not acquainted with the written word. Today, Warli paintings on paper and textiles have now become very popular worldwide.

  • Pattachitra Painting

Having its origin in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, Pattacchitra is one of the oldest and most admired art forms. With its name being a combination of the Sanskrit words patta meaning canvas, and chitra meaning picture, it is basically a canvas painting.

Also known as the religious paintings, the compositions of Pattachitra depict the ten avatars of Lord Vishnu, the Krishna Lila, the representation of Lord Ganesha as a five-headed deity. Like other Indian traditional paintings, Pattachitra also employs all-natural paints, cloth canvas, and materials prepared by the artists (chitrakars) themselves. Nowadays, pattachitra paintings are produced on other media including tussar silk and palm leaves, with artists also creating decorative wall hangings and showpieces.

With an expansive and rich heritage, India has one of the world’s largest collections of folk art styles but many are on the verge of extinction. The government and several agencies are working to preserve these elements and implementing a number of schemes and programs to provide financial support to individual artists, groups, and cultural organizations engaged in traditional art forms.

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Wrap Up

Though local to a particular geography, traditional art forms of India have slowly gained the stature of importance not just in the country of their origin but across the globe. Proven to be significant for cultural preservation, these Indian traditional paintings are an artistic window into understanding the ancient culture and an ideal tool to know about the past.