An Inquiry into Tribal Art and the works of Jivya Soma Mashe

The tribal also called the Adivasi (adi- first vasi- inhabitant) are believed to be the original or first occupants of the Indian subcontinent. We must understand that the nomenclatures of ‘tribal and folk’ art have emerged through difference, differing from the notion of ‘fine art’ set in the West. While fine art is understood as primarily a predominant individual vision or expression which is meant to be sold or exhibited, on the other hand tribal art is the production by certain communities that bear their identity in their culture and tradition. The focus of the production of ‘tribal art’ is based on rituals, it performs a function in the performance of certain rites. They do not, indeed, indulge in skill or naturalism because of the above stated motives.

We are bound to question the ascending demand and interest in the tribal arts, because if they were meant to sustain away from urban settlements, how did they come into the picture?

The answer is not black and white, these expositions are dense in vocabulary and very pertinent, thus unavoidable. We must note that the ‘primitivizing’ began with colonial expansion and anthropology. In the case of Indian art, it was the modernist movement along with its pioneers involved, the artists and writers and critics, that played a role in the growing attention on what we now call the folk, tribal and popular arts in India. We can recall some pioneers bearing these thoughts, namely Rabindranath Tagore, Jamini Roy, and K.G. Subramanian amongst others. A notable project was Rajiv Sethi’s Golden Eye exhibition in 1986 at Cooper-Hewitt Museum.

Lagna Chauk
Warli depicting contemporary life- airplanes, covid-19, car with wings etc

Warli is undoubtedly one of the most popular and known ‘living traditions’ of India. It was in the 1970s that Warli gained a remarkable traction under the joint impetus of the Indian government. The government’s initiatives were targeted to promote its indigenous heritage. It is traditionally practiced by women at weddings to ensure stable marriages, in a number of north western cities in Maharashtra notably Palghar, Jawhar, and Dahanu. As a community involvement they sang and drew directly on the walls with bamboo sticks. Just like the tradition of making rangoli with a paste of white rice, these images are also drawn in white against a plain background (of cow dung or earth) with white rice paste that is applied on the sticks mixed with water and gum as binders. These pictograms are composed of basic geometric forms, various density of lines, and depict divinities, day to day activities such as cultivating of rice fields, celebrations and so on.

“Our history is not written, it is drawn: we tell you stories, we tell you about our life.” Jivya Soma Mashe.

Jivya Soma Mashe, acrylic and cow dung on canvas, detail

Jivya Soma Mashe is known to have taken the forms of Warli across the globe. As a child, he drew forms in the dust to express since he didn’t speak for a while due to trauma. Born in Dhamangaon village in Talasari taluka of Thane district of Maharashtra, on growing up Jivya found himself painting for painting’s sake, removed from its traditional functions and down from the cow dung walls. He drew intricate patterns and compositions that bore their affinity to its cultural origins and at the same time brought it forth to the contemporary and into the scene of fine art. He painted fishnets that appear as larger forms, like a hill from afar but as soon as you go closer, you see a densely painted pattern to resemble a fish net. His works are nothing but mesmerizing.

Jivya Soma Mashe, "The Ant" cowdung and acrylic on canvas, 136 x 176 cm (53,5 x 69,3 in),
Jivya Soma Mashe, Cauk, acrylic and cowdung on canvas, 138x230 cm, 1999

In 1975, Jivya showed his works at the Chemould Gallery and it proved to be a breakthrough for his artistic career. He visited countries such as Canada and Japan with his work and immediately became a global sensation. He was awarded the Shilp Guru in 2002 and a Padma Shri in 2011. Notable scholarships such as The Warlis: Tribal Paintings and Legends by Chemould Publications, and The Painted World of the Warlis, by Yashodhara Dalmia draw insights into his practice.

Jivya Soma Mashe, Fish men, acrylic and cowdung on canvas, 115x146 cm, 1997

Several other persons belonging to such communities that wear the traditional art forms on their sleeves and into the contemporary viewing are Jangarh Singh Shyam, Ganga Devi, and Bhajju Shyam. It becomes complex and problematic when these traditional visual languages, closely knit with their cultural specificity, are decontextualized by juxtaposing them into commodities of consumption. As viewers we must be careful of the appropriation of such arts that are threatened by commercialization and eventual extinction in its ritualistic forms. Criticisms apart, design and fashion often blur the line between inspiration and appropriation, tribal motifs have since a while been a reference for many designers such as Ragini Ahuja from Ikai, Karishma Khan from Ka-Sha,and Ujjawal Dubey of Antar Agni.

Source for Jivya Soma Mashe- Herve Perdriolle

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