What is “Primitive Art”?

Read this research paper by Priyanka Desai on Academia.edu >>

We not just smile, we dance, we sing, we speak – at times ruthlessly from behind the masks. In the age of social media platforms and the growing phenomenon of trolls who are appeased by the idea of hidden identity, I wish to look at the idea of masks that are moulded out of traditions; and hereby make an attempt to find out if they too bear any interpretations of hidden identity. […]

Theatrical performances and Dramatic representations of the religious and mythological stories are a commonplace for the masks to find a position of importance. Thus they have a special significance in the Tribal life. These are disguises of the face, and are worn in dramas and dances. They are used to portray forms other than human – of animals and birds, as divine intervention – of gods and goddesses; as suggesting the evil – of demons and ghosts. […]

Bohada is the celebratory event in the life of the tribals of Bharsatmet Village. It is the annual singing and dancing event of the Kokna Tribe, a festival also celebrated with equal zest by the Warli Tribes here. Though, the festivities are spread all over the tribal areas of Jawhar, Mokhada, and Peth tehsils of Thane, Nashik districts, Bharsatmet holds a place of prime importance for this festival. It is here that the most traditional songas (masks) are preserved for years together, with great fidelity. […]

Subhash Kadu and Bhagwan Kadu, the sons of Dharma Rama Kadu, belonging to the Warli Tribe, are the only living craftsmen skilled in the making of Bohada Masks. Dharma Rama Kadu who learnt the craft from Ramchandra Sonar himself, passed on the skill to his sons, who have now flourished the ‘business’ of the Bohada Masks across the country and around the globe. […]

Source: “MASKED IDENTITY OF BOHADA”, Research paper by Priyanka Desai (2014)
URL: https://www.academia.edu/34434759
Date Visited: 20 February 2023

Gauri Gill started out in her 20s, a Delhi-based photojournalist covering stories right across India. She’d drop in, drop back out, then later find herself wondering what had happened to all the people she had photographed. “In India, as across the world,” says Gill, “the rural is being written out. The city – and AI is an extreme extension of the city – leads us to think we can do everything through machines. But the actual people on the ground – the farmers, the peasants, the Adivasis [the term given to India’s indigenous peoples], the forest-dwellers, who have lived so beautifully and so sustainably on the earth and from whom we should be learning – are being crushed.” […]

As an English-speaker, says the photographer, she has a power people can tap into. “The world of English,” she says, “is the world that is seen to be the centre, the norm. But there are many, many, many other worlds.”

In Acts of Appearance, begun in 2015, Gill collaborated with papier-mache artists in a village in Maharashtra. For the annual Bohada festival, sculptors from the Adivasi communities of the Kokna and Warli tribes create extraordinary lacquered masks depicting the deities, which the villagers wear in re-enactments of myths that last several nights. Struck by how removed such a visual universe was from the day-to-day challenges the people face, she commissioned the artists to make masks of the animals and objects they treasured most, then photographed everyone wearing them.

The result is extraordinary, like a people’s mythology. Animals are a natural and symbiotic part of the Adivasi universe. We see two women, one a clock face, the other a lizard, peering out of a bashed white transit van. Elsewhere, three people with the heads of a camel, a donkey and a goat sit cross-legged at a carrom board. A hare-headed girl crouches in a cotton tent. Although no glimpse is given of the people behind the masks, Gill feels very much in their debt. “You see the name Gauri Gill on these works,” says the photographer, “but so many other people make them possible.”

Gill loves how the mask series has taken on a life of its own. She recently stood in the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, during a major retrospective of her work, marvelling at the conviction with which some visitors, not knowing who she was, were explaining her photographs to others. With a laugh, she says: “They really seemed to own the work!”

The V&A Photography Centre opens on 25 May

Source: ‘Rural life is being written out’: Gauri Gill on photographing India’s forgotten people by Dale Berning Sawa
URL: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2023/may/22/rural-life-written-out-cobra-farmers-delhi-gauri-gill-on-photographing-indias-forgotten-people
Date Visited: 23 May 2023

Tribal rights in land and forest should be respected
Jawaharlal Nehru on five principles for the policy to be pursued vis-a-vis the tribals >>
Photo © Indian Express

Masks are found in almost every culture of the world. In prehistoric times hunters knew how to dissimulate and how to transform themselves. They wore animal masks in order to approach their prey without being seen. […]

Among tribal masks, inspiration can be individual and the artist is at liberty to express his fantasy. Ingenuous freshness and instinctive expressionism are pivotal. In the second cultural type, the design and proportions of the characters are canonical and repetitive. The artist reproduces the features of a well known face that he has studied under a master. The shape and aspect are codified. For example, the Hindu god Krishna is depicted blue, and for Buddhists the proportions of the Buddha’s face has a precise geometrical pattern. The art of crafting masks is related to iconographical prescriptions and reflects a pantheon of given characters. On some rare occasions, material relating to Hindu or Buddhist masks, has already been published, but tribal masks of the Middle Hills are virtually unknown to ethnologists.

Ritual masks – of gods, clowns or local demons – originated in the remote past. They had their roots in ancestral and shamanic cults which were later dominated or eliminated by the growing influence of the dominant religions. From an aesthetic viewpoint, tribal masks are probably more intriguing. Their extraordinary variety and the freedom with which they were executed invite us to compare them with modern art, as has frequently been the case with other primitive arts.

The most obvious feature that strikes us in all of these masks, regardless of category, is the total exaggeration and caricatured traits created to impress the onlooker.  […]

We cannot always expect our western aesthetic criteria to apply to Himalayan art. Taste, and hence the notion of style, is often a cultural rather than an individual matter. A folk story illustrates this point well. A Tibetan merchant heard about a beautiful old leather mask in a mountain village and set out to find it. When he finally reached the village three days later, he discovered it was an oxygen mask with a glossy black patina, an old keepsake from a climbing expedition. Piously kept to that day by the local people who had forgotten where it came from, it was used in the festival as a joker mask.

This article has been taken from Art Kitli, a magazine from CEPT University, Ahmedabad.

Source: “Art Kitli: Primitive Art: a vanished reality?” by Eric Chazot, an expert in Himalayan masks and a professional traveller
Address : http://openspaceindia.org/blogs/art-kitli-primitive-art-a-vanished-reality.html
Date Visited: Wed Mar 14 2012 11:48:47 GMT+0100 (CET)

Video | Chhau Dance: “A major dance tradition that involves the entire community” – Jharkhand & West Bengal >>

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“Is it eccentric to live in beautiful scenery in the hills among some of the most charming people in the country, even though they may be ignorant and poor?” – Verrier Elwin quoted by G.N. Devy in The Oxford India Elwin >>

“The British established mode of forest governance imposed restrictions on local forest-dwelling communities. In 1860, the Company withdrew all access rights for using the forests (food, fuel, medicine and selling forest products) since the forests and forest-dwelling communities provided refuge to the rebels during the Sepoy Mutiny.” – Bharat Rural Livelihoods Foundation >>

“Tribal population was spread all over India and most of them occupied wild tracts, hilly and forested areas, away from more civilized centers. In 1880 their population was estimated at about seventy million. They had existed for centuries with their own social traditions and beliefs and subsisted on natural resources. They had preserved their near isolation and way of life until the British administration and policies made inroads into their territories.” – Subha Johari in Tribal Dissatisfaction Under Colonial Economy of 19th Century >>

“Tribal communities have proven that they are the best guardians of the forest and die-hard conservationists”: Illegal mining destroys the life and culture of the conservators of forests >>

“Even though they are responsible for protecting the largest part of the global forest heritage […] a third of indigenous and community lands in 64 countries are under threat due to the lack of land tenure rights.” – Pressenza Rio de Janerio in “Indigenous people are heading to CoP26: ‘There is no solution to the climate crisis, without us’” (Down To Earth, 1 November 2021) >>

Usage in legal and historical records

“Two main streams within Indian anthropology influenced the literary and visual representations of tribes by mainstream writers, artists and film-makers.” – Dr. Ivy Hansdak clarifies how they are associated with “assimilationist” and “isolationist” positions or policies >>

In Marginalised but not Defeated, Tarun Kanti Bose (a seasoned public interest journalist) “documents the hard and difficult struggle to implement the Forest Rights Act, how the oppressed adivasis have united into forest unions, how they are now entering into new thresholds of protracted struggles and victories in a non-violent manner.” | Learn more: https://countercurrents.org/2023/05/book-review-marginalised-but-not-defeated >>

“Tribal men and women mix freely, but with respect for each other [but] caste Hindu society in India is so convinced of its own superiority that it never stops to consider the nature of social organisation among tribal people. In fact it is one of the signs of the ‘educated’ barbarian of today that he cannot appreciate the qualities of people in any way different from himself – in looks or clothes, customs or rituals.” – Guest Column in India Today >>

Learn more about colonial policies, the Forest Rights Act, its importance for ecology, biodiversity, ethnobotany and nutrition, and about the usage of Adivasi (Adibasi) communities in different states of India: in legal and historical records, in textbooks, scholarly papers and the media >>

See also

Audio | Santali Traditional and Fusion Songs: Ghosaldanga Bishnubati Adibasi Trust – West Bengal

Crafts and visual arts | Masks

Cultural heritage

India’s tribal, folk and devotional music: Secular and ceremonial songs

Memory of the World Programme – Unesco


Music and dance | Musicology | Adivasi music and the public stage by Jayasri Banerjee

Performing arts

Revival of traditions

Seasons and festivals

Success story

Video | Banam lutes and fiddles of the Santal people – Jharkhand & West Bengal

Video | Celestial Dancers of Manipur

Video | Cultural traditions of the Halakki people – Karnataka

Video | Khasi musical heritage of Meghalaya

Video | Kota women’s dance: Shivaratri celebrations – Nilgiris – Tamil Nadu

Video | More than simply a theatre company, set up for a total experience: Trimukhi Platform – West Bengal

Video | Santali video album “Ale Ato” (Our Village, Part 1 of 2) – West Bengal

Video | South Gujarat tribal music documentation by Bhasha – Gujarat

Video | Tribes in Transition-III: “Indigenous Cultures in the Digital Era”

Video | Safe contents for educational use on many topics (music, visual arts and more)