Indian Tribal Art Forms: Exploring Indigenous Legacies

India’s rich cultural diversity often translates into its lavish and extraordinary artistic heritage. One of the most significant components of this artistic heritage is the art forms originating from the indigenous tribes of the country. 

Over 2500 tribal communities are known to reside in India, each living with their distinct cultures and beliefs. The tribal artworks are a way through which one can peek into the world of the tribal communities and understand their traditions, religious beliefs, lifestyle, and various practices. While many tribal communities use their native artistic skills to adorn their homes, many also use this skill as a mode of sustaining their livelihoods. 

Learning about the exceptional tribal art of India not only helps us study the beauty of India’s cultural potpourri but also helps in preserving these incredible and unique traditions.

Let's have a look at a few of the many tribal art forms of India: 

Bhil Art 


 The Deer, Bhil Art by Geeta Bariya 


Bhil art is practised by the second largest tribal community of India, the Bhils, hailing from the present-day states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Chattisgarh. They are known to be an agrarian society which resonates with the nature encompassing them. The tribe believes that everything has a soul, hence consider everything around them, plants, animals and even non-living things to have power and a soul. This is translated into their art as well. 

Traditionally made on the walls of the houses of the tribe’s people, the main themes include pastoral imagery of harvest, changing seasons, and rituals for worshipping various gods. They use materials such as clay, oils, vegetables and spices to create their highly creative artworks.  

Due to their deep connection with Mother Earth, the tribe strongly believes that all the natural elements possess divine powers equating them to various gods. These divine powers are worshiped by the tribe. An extension of this concept is the ‘Pithora Dev’ (god of all things) who is a highly revered deity of the Bhil tribe. 

The dotted patterns are a unique and outstanding feature of this art and are used in intricate ways to add to its exquisite beauty. Inspired by the maize kernels, a staple crop for the Bhils, each dot in the painting is a universe in itself, symbolic of their ancestors or deities. Each artist creates a signature dot pattern, not visible to the untrained eye. 

Gond Art


Wings and Waves: Gond Art Odes by Kailash Pradhan


Gonds are the largest tribe of India. They largely reside in the present-day states of Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Chattisgarh. The word ‘Gond’ is derived from the word Kond, meaning Green Mountains in the Dravidian idiom. Alternatively, the Pradhan tribe of Mandla are also known to practice this art form.

A typical Gond painting includes themes of flora and fauna but can also depict images of deities such as Lord Kirshna, some village deities such as Phulvari Devi and Marahi Devi, scenes of festivals as well as stories of folklore. Striking and bold images of humans, horses, tigers and birds are made with intricate dots, fine lines and dashes painted with various colors, highlighting a harmonious relationship between man and nature. The colors used in these paintings are naturally derived from soil and other organic components. Typically these paintings are used to decorate the walls and floors of the tribal people’s houses and encompass their beliefs, fears and aspirations. One of the most recurring theme of the Gond paintings is the depiction of interconnectedness of the natural world.

Santhal Pattachitra Art 


Santhal Tribal Dance in Santhal-Tribal Pattachitra by Manoranjan Chitrakar


The Santhal tribe of India is one of the oldest tribes in the country. They are spread across the present-day states of Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Odisha. This tribe is known to be deeply connected with the natural world and today leads an agrarian lifestyle. 

This naturalist culture of the tribe is aesthetically expressed in their art as well. The main themes of Santhal Pattachitra  include scenes of hunting, farming, deities, festivals, and flora-fauna. 

This art heavily focuses on images of animals characterized by prominent and colorful sketches of animals such as birds, tigers, mongoose and fish. It also incorporates scenes of people celebrating festivals. Every artwork incorporates these figures in a profile angle with wide eyes made for both humans and animals. 

Typically this form of art is practiced on the mud-walls of their huts. The walls are initially coated with clay and then a rough sketch of the painting is etched on the walls, with fingertips while the clay is still damp. This is accompanied by locally made dyes to add to the spectacular designs.  After the clay dries, striking and beautiful designs are revealed on the surface of the walls. This is primarily done by the womenfolk of the tribe. 

Alternatively, this artwork is also made on patas (scrolls) by highly skilled artists and the resulting art is called Pattachitra (painting on scrolls) art. Although some artists still prefer using naturally obtained dyes for the colors, many artists have also begun using commercial paint products. 

Saura Art


Grandeur of Saura: Celebrating Colorful Tribal Village Life by Apindra Swain


Saura art is a form of pictographic art done by the Saura (also known as Sora, Sabara and Sour) tribal community hailing from the Rayagada, Prajapati and Koraput districts of Odisha.The Saura tribal community is known to be highly superstitious and believes in the existence of gods, ghosts, spirits of nature as well as that of their ancestors. This is also why the people of this tribe believe their paintings to be a site of interim dwellings for gods and spirits. The community was known to be great at astrology and magic. Saura is painted with splayed twigs and materials that are locally available for various colors. The layout of the paintings usually consists of a rectangular or square house, with various figures and elements filled into the spaces. 

While Saura art predominantly consists of images of hunting and riding, it also includes scenes of celebration, dance, animals, the Sun, the New Moon and trees. Sometimes images of gods associated with the elements of nature are also painted and revered. Traditionally, the Sauras were known to make art on occasions of adversity, festivals, agricultural activities, birth and death (in honour of the recently departed souls). This is one of the reasons why a central theme in the Saura artworks is that of the Saura deity–Ittal. The imagery of this deity is accompanied by various signs and symbols, serving both as a means of worship as well as invocation. The technique of making Saura art is linked with a sense of sanctity. The artist or Ittal Maran (creator of Ittal) is believed to have been instructed by the divine to create the paintings in the traditional manner. 

Warli Art


The Tarpa Dance, Warli Art by Dilip Bahotha 


Warli paintings are customarily made by the indigenous tribe called the ‘Warlis’, living in the Thane district of Maharashtra. An artform usually done during marriage and harvest seasons, it is a form of wall art and is seldom done as a floor art. The term ‘Warli’ is derived from the word ‘warla’, which translates to a small piece of tilled land. This simplistic yet captivating art style incorporates monochromatic colour schemes, with geru (red mud) as the background of the wall and rice paste being used to draw slender human figures, deities, and elements of nature in predominantly geometrical designs. 

The paintings traditionally harbour a narrative tone with scenes of social life and activities like farming, fishing, hunting, rural life and festivities. One of the highlighting features of this art is concentric designs coupled with a spiral formation of men and women performing the traditional Tarpa dance of the Warli tribe.

Sohrai-Khovar Paintings


Sohari painting


The word “Sohrai” is derived from the Mundari word “Soroi”, which refers to “to lash with a stick”. The primary agriculturalist nature of the Sohrai tribes can also be seen in their paintings which are filled with flora and fauna, often in close connection with each other. The Sohrai tribe of Hazaribagh plateau practises the Sohrai-Khovar painting tradition, traditionally done as mural paintings. These paintings are done during festivals such as Diwali, or after the harvest. Made using local soil in shades of red, yellow, black and white, these paintings use fingers, twigs or wooden combs to scrape through the soil and create artworks. The paintings are matriarchal, hence there is a stylistic difference in the paintings made by the tribal women in different villages, even though the overall structure remains the same. 




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