The Pioneering Women of Bhil Art

Along the Western and Central belts of India, the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tripura, Andhra Pradesh, and Chattisgarh are home to the Bhils, one of the largest tribes in India. Known for their incredible history, archery, and cultural practices, the Bhil tribe also preserves their rich artistic heritage. The distinctive dotted style of Bhil paintings captures the folklore, prayers, memories, and traditions of the tribe in a rhythmic symphony of patterns and vivid natural colours through skillfully crafted uniform and multi-hued dots. The dots represent the maize and raindrops—essential resources for the predominantly agricultural community of Bhils— symbolizing the tribe's ancient connection with nature and their ancestors. 


Over the years, Bhil paintings have gained recognition in the art circles of India and abroad, celebrating this ritualistic and primordial art form. Despite their significant contributions to fostering and preserving Bhil art, the groundbreaking achievements of the Bhil artists are still largely ignored by the mainstream media. Here are some of the most renowned Bhil artists and their remarkable achievements that we should know about: 

  1. Bhuri Bai 

Bhuri Bai, the pioneer of Bhil paintings and a native of the secluded Pitol village in the Jhabhua district of Madhya Pradesh, never dreamed that her childhood passion for painting mythological and folklore images in multihued dots on mud walls would earn her the Padma Shree Awardee in 2021, bringing Bhil art in the global spotlight. As a young girl, she was enchanted by the ritualistic Pithora paintings, which were solely created by men in the Bhil community, and women were not allowed to paint. However, Bhuri Bai stepped outside the ritualistic and exclusionary practices of Pithora art and began painting in uniform dots on the mud walls of her family home. 


After getting married at twelve and shifting to Bhopal with her husband to work as a labourer at Bharat Bhavan, a multi-arts complex and museum, her journey as an artist took a turn when she met artist and museum's co-founder Jagdish Swaminathan at age seventeen. Recognizing her talent as a traditional artist, he gave her poster paints, brushes, and other materials to experiment with the Bhil paintings on canvas. Her artistry soon metamorphosed from a local indigenous artist using neem twigs as brushes to a contemporary folk artist employed at Bharat Bhavan, exhibiting her works in Indian cities and abroad. 


Bhuri Bai's paintings accentuate profound autobiographical elements of nostalgia, mythological themes, local legends, and even contemporary interactions between man and nature through modern technologies. Her recent online exhibition by the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) called My Life as an Artist critically highlights the compartmentalization of folk and adivasi art in the mainstream, institutional, and commercial contexts, as traditional artists invariably adapt their traditional knowledge to the new needs and markets. Her artworks in the exhibition raise concerns regarding the moral agency and creative autonomy of marginalized artists who now use modern techniques. 


Today, Bhuri Bai captures Bhil motifs and mythography through her reinvented personal style. As a pioneer of this art form, the Madhya Pradesh government honoured her with the Shikar Samman in 1986-87. She also won the Devi Ahalya Bai Samman in 1998-99 and the Rani Durgawati National award in 2009 for her contribution to tribal art. While still practising her craft, Bhuri Bai, at present, continues to teach and train her family and community in the nuances of the Bhil paintings. 


Bhuri Bai at MeMeraki's Kathaa Festival in Hong Kong


  1. Lado Bai 

Much like the journey of Bhuri Bai, Lado bai, native to the Badi Bawadi village in the Jhabua district, was also a manual labourer building Bhopal's Bharat Bhavan. The artist Jagdish Swaminathan also discovered her talent through the paintings she had created over the floors and mud-walls of her temporary house built near the construction site, and consequently, encouraged her artistic endeavours on a professional level. Working alongside her contemporary Bhuri Bai, Lado Bai, a petite Bhil woman adorned with blue tattoos on her face, took her tribal fresco art to new heights. 


Inspired by the enduring traditions of Pithora paintings, Lado Bai's paintings portray Pithora Dev, the deity worshipped by the Bhil community. Steeped in the distinctive ethnic animism and spirituality, her art reflects folkloric themes and timeless Bhil motifs-nature, rituals, festivals, gods, and goddesses-in elongated, vividly coloured forms. She developed a contemporary language of the art form, modifying the dots in a wave-like design, thus, adding movement to her animals and humans. Departing from conventional Bhil art, Lado Bai's paintings sometimes foreground human figures rather than animals.

Additionally, she has collaborated with renowned artist Bhuri Bai on various artworks. Her work was captured in photographs by artist Jyoti Bhatt in 1983, later published in Swaminathan's book "The Perceiving Fingers" (1987). Geeta Bariya's captivating artworks have been exhibited in India and abroad. She received the Lok Rang Fellowship Award in 1996 from the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust and the Ojas Art Award in 2017 at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Currently, she continues her artistic journey as a Bhil artist at the Adivasi Lok Kala Academy, preserving the rich cultural heritage of the Bhil community.


(Source: Matter of Art/Twitter)


  1. Gangu Bai 

Allured by nature and Bhil philosophies, Gangu Bai Amliya, another native of the Jhabhua district, learned the Bhil painting tradition from her family while performing chores during rituals and festivals. She also started painting on the walls and floors of her house. Gangu Bai and her contemporaries have redefined the Bhil art on canvas for over a decade. Her subjects include the Bhil festivals, such as Gohari (cattle festival), exploring the tribal philosophies of cohabiting with sacred nature. She has also painted rituals like Gatala (memorial of the death), which celebrates 'Gatala Dev', the deity of the dead riding a horse with the sun. Gangu Bai considers Bhil art a form of prayer and healing to the tribal communities and emulates the cultural and serene agricultural tribal lifestyle in her art. She particularly enjoys painting subjects like deer, peacocks, and the indigenous marriage ceremony. Currently, Gangu Bai is based at the National Museum of Mankind in Bhopal. 




  1. Geeta Bariya 

Married into the Bhil community, Geet Bariya, a Bhil artist for over 14 years, learned traditional art from her husband's family in Bhopal. Since she was a child, Geeta held a deep fascination for colours, but due to financial constraints and a lack of educational opportunities, she could not pursue art. After marriage, her childhood desire resurfaced as her teachers, uncle-in-law, and aunt-in-law inspired her to paint the traditional Bhili environment, flora, and fauna. As she gathered the tribal philosophies of the Bhil Chitra traditions from her gurus, Geeta's artistry thrived globally with the support of her husband. Her contributions to art galleries, art forums, and painting camps in Bhopal, New Delhi, Mumbai, and many other cities all over India have created an identity for Bhil art. At the Likhandara Gallery of Madhya Pradesh State Tribal Museum, the 'Shalaka 8' exhibition features her paintings. She wishes to take Bhil art forward as she dreams of a time when Bhil artists are globally recognized for their traditional art form.


Snippet from MeMeraki's Bhil Masterclass 


Geeta Bariya has also collaborated with Memeraki to offer an exclusive masterclass where she will personally walk you through the fundamentals of this remarkable art form, providing a unique opportunity to learn directly from a renowned artist.

Inside the dotted world of Bhil art, every painting tells a tale of the Bhil land through people, animals, insects, deities, rituals, and festivals. The paintings recount the legend and lores and record the births and deaths of the community. This generational art, shaped primarily by women artists, starting from Bhuri Bai, depicts the remembrance of ancient times and ancestors. Contemporary Bhil art reshapes itself for markets and modernity, trying to seek a place in the art and institutional circles. Today, canvas has replaced clay, while natural dyes with acrylic paints and brushes are used instead of neem twigs. The fresco murals painted on mud walls are now recognized as Bhil paintings all over the world. Despite the changing form, Bhil artists are deeply committed to their identity, their art is rooted in their spiritual philosophies so much so that the change in mediums or global stature cannot contain their honesty of subjects and an openness to exploring and learning, which is both humbling and inspiring.




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