Jamini Roy’s Art: Modernity, Politics and Reception

Debmalya Das

Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India

Download PDF Version

 “Although it is with Matisse that his [Jamini Roy’s] nature of art can be compared, from one perspective, the diversified richness of his development finds parallel only in Picasso…”1 (Bishnu Dey)

“Jamini Roy’s neo-folk painting had no valid lore to back itself with, its intentions were apparently confined to aesthetic parallelism. So it never rose to any degree of authenticity; it never had the earthiness and verve (or the sly humour) of its close prototypes, whether those of Kalighat or Puri; its linear and formal conventions—the almond-shaped eyes, the dead pan looks, the phlegmatic lines were terribly formulaistic.”2 (K.G.Subramanyan)                                                                                                            

Jamini Roy’s re-imagination of the folk art, his appropriation of pictorial idioms from other cultures and his “strategic” mode of producing paintings are the issues of seminal importance in the perception of modernity in Indian art. This paper seeks to probe into the diverse responses to the artist, thereby problematizing the notions of modernity, tradition, and the validation of the marginal folk culture in a colonial reality.

The critical reception of Jamini Roy (1887-1972) and his art oscillates between two extreme poles of profound admiration and wholesome disregard, as is apparent from the above quotes. The first group of critics sought to canonize Roy as an artist, who, all through his life, painstakingly tried to define the notion of modernity in the scenario of Indian art from an entirely new dimension, while the later group adhered to their critique of Roy’s formalistic infertility, stressing his insignificance as an Indian artist of the twentieth century.

In one of his essays, Robin Mondal trenchantly disapproves the relevance of Roy. Mondal’s points of attack are threefold. First, Mondal holds that Jamini Roy’s debt to folk art was so direct and unmediated that his uniqueness is put to question. The breach between blind appropriation and insightful assimilation rendered his art “restrictively frigid”.3 Secondly, although Roy’s attainment of unprecedented fame and recognition in his contemporary time is rarely seen, it is this mass admiration and the lure of financial stability, that compelled him to repeat the simplified structural pattern of his works ad nauseam.4 Thirdly, according to Mondal, Jamini Roy’s art was alienated from his contemporary historical reality altogether. Despite being situated in a world of socio-political turbulence, Roy’s “painting reality” never encountered any kind of conflict, which could have directed the artist to explore novel horizons. Rather, Roy’s artistic vision was “deeply immersed in a complacent existence. In this respect of accepting the wavelessness he is very close to the Bengal School.”5

The hyperbolically malign stance of Robin Mondal vis-à-vis Roy elicits some of the seminal issues regarding art, the re-imagination and appropriation of folk art, artistic mode of production and the artist’s social responsibility. What exactly was Roy trying to communicate with his viewers? How could he establish a unique approach to Indian art different altogether from that of the Bengal School and made it popular single handedly? Was his artistic vision a politicized one or whether he conjured up the folk idiom only to dehistoricize it? Interspersed with these questions are the notions of modernity and tradition. By contextualizing Jamini Roy in his contemporary history, this paper tries to probe into such questions by problematizing the varied responses to the painter regarding the question of art and modernity.

It would be useful for us to briefly chalk out the time and the condition of art, in which Jamini Roy worked. Ratnabali Chatterjee views that during this period, the middleclass intelligentsia was oscillating between two extremes: “a colonial hangover and a feeling of nationalism bordering on chauvinism.”6 The works of Roy provided three possible way-outs to this intellectual stasis. The incorporation of folk tradition revived the lost cultural bond, that somehow worked as an antidote to the prevalent colonial hangover. The bold lines of Roy’s paintings were compared with the contemporary European artists like Leger, resulting in the expansion of outlook of Indian art in the realm of the international during the late 1930s. Thirdly, for the young artists Roy’s art offered a “rescue route from the stylistic conventions of the Bengal School, which acted as a constraint on the depiction of contemporary eventsthe war and the famine.” Further, “Jamini Roy offered after a long time a backbone of drawing and an anatomical framework to Indian art.”

Jamini Roy was born and lived for a number of years at Beliatore, a village in the Bankura district, which had a rich tradition of terracotta sculptures and folk art. Bishnu Dey holds that this isolated, idyllic backdrop contributed in Roy’s search of the life in art and the dream of attaining self-completeness in the social life. “This is the memory that did not let him forget the fakely constructed bourgeois space of Calcutta, and its fascination with morbid western naturalism in art, although it reached an indisputable height of success in his hand.”8

As a child Roy’s first encounter with the Santals here left a permanent impression in his art. He received his formal training at the Government Art College in the then Calcutta, where he got rigorous training in the European mode of art. But soon, he became dissatisfied with the limitation of expression that this mode presupposes. His search for alternative artistic forms began. Roy’s reputation as one of the best portrait painters and his brief but fascinating post-impressionist period did not thwart this search. He was called to the school run by the Oriental Society of Art. Here also he was quite discontent:

The reason why I want to discard European painting is not because I wish to be “Swadeshi” or Indian but because even the best European artists including Raphael drew forms like Mary carrying infant Jesus standing among clouds in the sky, but with the use of light and shade made to appear like a full human being  how is this possible?9

The illusion of the European naturalist art tradition was thus thoroughly discarded by Roy. Inspite of his close acquaintance with Abanindranath, he could not but critique the art of the Bengal School. Roy was critical of the soft lines and paleness of this school, which was disseminated as “Indian art” from an essentialist / generalized stance. He found support of his personal views in the paintings of Rabindranath Tagore:

While observing the man painted by Rabindranath, I do not feel that it will droop for a moment, or swing with the wind. I clearly see that the man has weight and a strong backbone. That Rabindranath’s painting is powerful, is because of this power of the bone, and for his ability to create rhythm. I think Rabindranath wants to protest against the lack that had been increasing in the paintings of our country for the past two-hundred years, since the Rajput dynasty to the present…his protest is against everything including the entire tradition of the sophisticated Indian art, and the orientalist art.10

In 1923, while reading Rabindranath’s essay “Tapoban”, that advocated the restitution of India’s rural heritage and critiqued the naive imitation of Western civilization, Roy had a realization: “Today I have read what was there in my mind. Just before eight months I realised this.”11 Thus his personal search of artistic form gets related to the dialogic discourses of colonialism and those that countered it. At this point of time his familiarity with Sunayani Devi’s paintings and with Kalighat pata reshaped his artistic perception. The influence of Kalighat pata was soon to be discarded by him, since he found that the Kalighat artists were alienated from their traditional rural ideal, as they had moved to Calcutta to serve an urban population. Roy turned back to the villages of Bengal in search of the “traditional” pata paintings. The terracotta-reliefs of his native village also introduced in his works the simplified, thick outlines, providing his art with such a verve that was unseen at that time. Roy tried to incorporate the immensely expressive power of the village artisans by emphasizing the “lines at the expense of colours, using black outlines painted with a brush on white paper. He forsook oils for tempera and concentrated on primary colours.”12 This yearning for formalistic simplicity also took him to the wooden puppets of Bankura and later to child-art. He was a collector of paintings made by children and took great interest in them: “not because of my affection for them, but because they are vitally important for me.”13

Roy tried to transcreate the folk idiom to communicate in a symbolic, yet recognizable language that possessed universal validity. The technical virtuosity of his academic training combined with his newly acquired simplistic formalism enhanced the volume, the rhythm, the decorative clarity and monumentality in his work.14 Even his mode of artistic production also transformed significantly. Abandoning the medium of oil, he started to use the seven basic colours made from organic matters such as rock-dust, tamarind seeds, mercury powder, lamp black etc., and painted with them on his canvas of home-made fabric. The enormous unreality of the metropolitan Calcutta, laden with hypocrisy and a non-spiritualistic world-view (finding its apt expression through the Western naturalistic convention of art) could be easily juxtaposed by him against the down-to-earth honesty of the folk artist. This honesty, according to Jamini Roy, was the most essential thing for a painter’s artistic integrity. Partha Mitter holds that Roy’s idea of transforming the homely sphere of North Calcutta into a permanent exhibition was no less than a “political manifesto.”15 The exhibition space was converted into a traditional Bengali environment. Shanta Devi, who saw the exhibition held:

The artist gives evidence of consummate stage management, embellishing three rooms with his paintings emulating village pats…Actual village pats are on display in an adjacent room…Little lamps are lit and incense burnt. Floors are covered in traditional Bengali alpona patterns. In this room decorated in a Bengali style indigenous seats take the place of chairs, which are of European origin.16

In an extreme phase of nationalism in India, that was essentialist by its nature, Roy’s persistent emphasis on the local was, according to Partha Mitter, a well-thought ideological move to counter the onslaught of colonialist capitalism.

Critics like Ratnabali Chatterjee, although deduce some conclusions, that are entirely opposite to what Mitter holds regarding Jamini Roy’s transcreation of folk art. She finds that the dynamism with which Saheb Pata and Santhal Bidroha Pata writes back to the new problem of colonialism, is lacking in Jamini Roy’s “conditioning” of the form. The ironic depiction of contemporary city-life, that we find in Kalighat Pata has also been intentionally erase from Roy’s picture frame.17  Roy creates a series of binaries vis-à-vis the urban and the rural values and morality. As has been discussed earlier, his conservative approach regarding the Kalighat patuas actually delinked him from his own times:

The Patuas who came to Calcutta moved from the ethics of their vocation. They were rural people, their themes were also rural. When they came to the town, they expressed the ideals of urban life and they fell from their vocation (swadharma).18

Unable to grasp the inherent dynamism within tradition, his paintings turned out to be static, where the pattern of narration was broken altogether. There was no referentiality that could be time specific, and the notion of time itself attained a fixation on the frame. The adopted form was diluted into mere decorative mannerism, through which the stereotyping of folk art was achieved. In his attempt of subduing the chaotic with his sense of artistic ordering, was Jamini Roy ultimately catering to the increasing demand of such “popular” stereotypes among his metropolitan admirers? Did the peripheral folk art turn into a culturally conditioned commodity in his canvas, appropriating ultimately the colonial grid against which his village and tribal subjects were made visible and normalized as the authentic members of the pre-modern India? Regarding the popular stereotype of woman in Roy’s paintings Ratnabali Chatterjee holds:

The concept of the unchangeable village society was still popular among both the Marxists and the liberals…The artist and his patrons located it in Beliatore. It reinforced the notion that woman’s place was at home. It denied the torments and insecurities, that resulted from a woman’s total dependence on a male-dominated society. Yet paradoxically this was put forward as the symbol of general security shutting war, famine and death.19      

The importance of the local in Roy’s work, which Mitter observes as posing resistance against the grand discourse of nationalism, is to Chatterjee yet another generalized topos, where truncated stereotypes are created to feed the metropolitan centre. Ashok Mitra, too in this respect holds, “He has no hesitation to regard the life and the Bengal that have permanently disappeared and will never return, as truth.”20   Thus, Roy’s false perception regarding tradition led him to abandon the socio-political basis of modernity.

Interestingly, despite his dehistoricized perception, among Roy’s admirers were some eminent Marxists and intellectuals of Bengal like Bishnu Dey, Sudhindranath Dutta respectively, who were also the leading avant-garde poets writing in Bengali. Roy’s championing of the popular art (which had a social basic, as it was created in a mode of communitarian participation, thereby subverting the capitalist notion of the lone genius), was hailed by this group of intellectuals. A debate was generated by this group regarding the role of folk art and that of the artist in the modern class-society, in which Jamini Roy was posed as a model in the centre. In his essay “Lokashilpa O Babusamaj” Bishnu Dey observes:

We, the unfortunate inheritors of chaos and exploitation of a number of centuries can still save ourselves by participating in the reawakening of our indigenous mass. The folk culture will get a new life in the mass culture.21    

In another essay Dey observes that Jamini Roy has not only emancipated our art, but he also has modified the urban way of seeing by making us perceive through the eyes of the marginal people.22 Discarding the immense subversive potential in the works of the folk artisans, Dey admiringly appropriates the way in which Jamini Roy artistically manoeuvres rural art into the urban middle-class Marxist thought:

He is an extremely capable selector: a conscientious artist. His taste has not for a moment abandoned his brush. On the other hand, the folk artists are craftsmen by habit. Devoid of conscience, it is natural for them not to possess the degree of good taste that Roy has.23

It is important to note that Dey prefers the conditioned form of art, rather than the raw. This disregard for the art of the mass indicates the intellectual elitism, in which the Marxist thinking of this phase of Bengali politics was restricted. Jamini Roy’s art not only provided them with a model to follow, but it also participated tacitly in the politics of “modernization” and “reality” to be expressed in art. The aristocratic / exclusivist bourgeois art that the Marxists perceived as “unreal” was thus substituted by the art of Jamini Roy with all its peripheral associations, yet tampered by a sophisticated artistry. Robin Mondal holds that the support of these intellectuals was influential in giving Roy the acceptability to the wider section of art lovers. Foreigners like John Irwin, Mary Milford, Maie Casey came to visit Roy primarily as the friends of these intellectuals and from the 1940s, Roy’s international reputation began to grow. In 1945, Roy’s first exhibition in the foreign was held at the Arcade Gallery in London, which was inaugurated by the novelist E. M. Forster. An attempt was made by these foreigners to appropriate Jamini Roy’s obsession with pure form into the prevalent discourse of modernism. Mary Milford’s essay “A Modern Primitive” in the influential literary magazine Horizon introduced him to the modernist intellectual milieu in London.

 Interestingly, Partha Mitter finds an indigenized version of the notion of primitivism in Jamini Roy and goes on to perceive a “structural affinity” between Roy and the German expressionists / primitivists like Carl Einstein and Oskar Schlemmer. Moderism is generally perceived as an ahistorical phenomenon. Yet the Western avant-garde has been historically situated with its own set of conventions. Mitter observes that, in contextualizing Roy, to the modernist enterprise we cannot just add him to an existing narrative of modern art forgetting Roy’s regional specificities. He perceives Roy’s contemporary Calcutta as a hybrid metropolis, which as a locus of colonial modernity, experienced a hybrid intellectual encounter “underpinned by a dialogic relation between the colonial language, and the modernized vernacular.”24 The opening up of the window to the West, according to Mitter, was instrumental in giving rise to a globally “imagined community”based on print capitalism. Its membership being anonymous, there was no need for direct communication between one another. But still the members of the community shared a corpus of ideas regarding modernity.

The Bengali intelligentsia admirably demonstrates the negotiation of the wider cosmopolitan modernity through the print medium. To explain this community’s critical engagement with modern thought, I put forward the notion of “virtual cosmopolis” here. This was a hybrid city of imagination, which engendered elective affinities between the elites of the centre and the periphery on the level of intellectual creativity.25

Mitter feels that on an intellectual level virtual cosmopolitanism enables the periphery to contribute to the project of modernity in Jamini Roy’s empowering concept of primitivism. It is in this manner, that the resistance to urban industrial capitalism and the ideology of progress: the two cornerstones of the colonial empire, is articulated through the very ambiguities, instabilities, and fractures within primitivism itself.26 Thus, the notion of ahistoricality that we perceive in Roy’s art appears to Mitter as a counter-modern strategy against the notion of teleological certainty that modernity provides.

His [Roy’s] world-view consisted in restoring through his art the pre-colonial community that had been severed from national life during the Raj, causing the alienation of the urban elite from its cultural roots…His communitarian primitivism…[is] an iteration of “critical modernity.”27

Mitter emphasizes the importance of a coherent mythological tradition revived by Roy through his paintings. It is through the revival of this pre-colonial, sacred world view that Roy could generate a synchronic critique of the nationalist grand narrative. The sacred Byzantine art attracted Roy for this reason. He even tried to adopt the texture of the Byzantine mosaic in the Bengali folk medium, when he painted Christ on a palm-leaf-mat. But his famous series of painting depicting Christian icons was not direct imitation. Rather, he was assimilating the motif of Christ’s Western iconography within his own pictorial idiom by giving Christ the face of a Santhal peasant. In doing so, he was building a bridge between traditions by highlighting the underlying humanity of the motif. Ratnabali Chatterjee, however, views:

In the paintings of Jamini Roy, the myths undergo a change, they become private myths, divorced from the economic order which supported them. The artist however made no conscious efforts to rework the myths, to reflect or sustain the anti-colonial struggle; the major task then confronting the Indian bourgeoisie.28 

The non-naturalist treatment of subject, the importance of symbols and myths to restore the collective urban conscience from crisis, close acquaintance with the communitarian folk cultures and the emphasis on political heterogeneity are, according to Mitter, some areas where the ideology of the German primitivists and that of Jamini Roy converge to create structural affinities in a virtually global community.29 But there are points of difference too.

While Western primitivists aimed at merging art with life in a disavowal of the aesthetics of autonomy, they never ceased to believe in the unique quality of aesthetic experience. Roy sought to erase it, deliberately seeking to subvert the distinction between individual and collaborative contribution in a work of art.30

Mitter holds that in Roy’s artistic perception traditional village art was a collective aesthetic experience, opposed to the individualist aesthetics of urban colonial art. Roy tried to subvert the later by producing paintings, that were done in collaboration with his son. The so called artist’s studio was converted into a workshop, where on the finished paintings Roy used to put his own signature; whether they were primarily done by his son did not ever matter to him and sometimes he even left them unsigned.31 Referring to Walter Benjamin’s notion of the decline of “aura” in the modern milieu Mitter holds:

Roy’s objective of making the signature meaningless was his playful way of subverting what Walter Benjamin calls the aura of a masterpiece. In addition, he turned his studio into a workshop to produce his works cheaply. This was art for the community, cheaply produced and anonymous, inexpensive enough to be afforded by the humblest.32

Thus Roy sought to dismantle the attribute of uniqueness in colonial art by making the signature insignificant and reproducing paintings cheaply in a rapid succession. He was severely criticized for this mode of production, as is explicit from the remark of Venkatachalam:

This I know is very much used against him. He is strongly condemned for this mechanical craftsmanship, for this soulless repetition of an original idea for the sake of money and popularity. Truth to tell, there is something to be said in favour of this criticism.33

Geeta Kapur, however, problematizes Mitter’s perception regarding Roy’s attempt to demystify and subvert the notion of the colonial high art. While Roy tries to make signature meaningless, it is his synthetic signature style that sustains legitimizing a middle-class sensibility.34 The process of canonization, that started during his lifetime was further strengthened within five years after his death. The price of his paintings was doubled.35 Jamini Roy was appropriated as a brand in the market of art, whose paintings, divested of any politicized aesthetics, remained merely as the remnants of a lost cultural ethos, the imprint of which made the paintings “auratic”. The hunt for the “original” Jamini Roy still goes on among the connoisseurs.

Jamini Roy, the person, thus emerges as a site laden with various mystifying anecdotes, that operates as a focal point in which many pertinent voices regarding Indian art is vocalized. “The Jamini Roy phenomenon” thus seeks to problematize the notions of tradition, modernity, indigenous art, artist’s social commitment, and the complex encounter between the centre and the periphery.




1  Bishnu Dey, “Jamini Roy”, in Dhruba Kumar Mukhopadhyay, ed. Bishnu Dey Prabandha   Sangraha, Vol.1 (Kolkata: Dey’s, 1997), p. 117. Translations are mine.

2 K.G.Subramanyan, “The Indian Art Tradition and the Modern Indian Artist”, in Visva-Bharati Fellowship Lecture (Kolkata: Visva-Bharati, 1978), p. 5.

3 Robin Mondal, “Jamini Roy”, in Shilpabhavana (Kolkata: Banishilpa, 2007), pp. 181-182.  Translation is mine.

4 Ibid., p.182.

5 Ibid., p.182. Translations are mine.

6 Ratnabali Chatterjee, “‘The Original Jamini Roy’: A Study in the Consumerism of Art”, in Social Scientist 15.1 (January, 1987), p. 5.

7 Ibid., p. 6.

8  Dey, “Jamini Roy”, p. 117. Translations are mine.

9 As quoted in Chatterjee, p. 7.

10 Dey, “Srijukto Jamini Rayer Rabindrakatha”, in Mukhopadhyay, Vol. 2 (Kolkata: Dey’s, 1998), p. 107. Translations are mine.

11 Dey, “Bideshir Chokhe Jamini Roy O Tar Chhobi”, in Ibid., p. 114. Translations are mine.

12 Partha Mitter, “Jamini Roy and Art for the Community”, in The Triumph of Modernism: India’s Artists and the Avant-Garde, 1922-1947 (London: Reaktion Books, 2007), p. 106.

13 As quoted in Ibid., p. 112.

14 Ibid., p. 113.

15 Ibid., p. 105.

16 Shanta Devi, “Shilpi Srijukta Jamini Ranjan Rayer Pradarshani”, in Prabasi 1 (April, 1932), p. 25. Translations are done by Partha Mitter.

17 Chatterjee, pp. 11-12.

18 As quoted in Chatterjee, p. 11.

19 Ibid., p. 16.

20 Ashok Mitra, Bharater Chitrakala, Vol. 2 (Kolkata: Ananda, 1996), p. 136. Translations are mine.

21 Dey, “Lokashilpa O Babusamaj”, in Mukhopadhyay, Vol. 1, p. 227. Translations are mine.

22 Dey, “Jamini Roy”, p. 122.

23 Ibid., p. 119. Translations are mine.

24 Mitter, “Interventions: Decentering Modernism: Art History and Avant-Garde Art from the Periphery”, in The Art Bulletin 90.4 (December, 2008), p. 541.

25 Ibid., p. 542.

26 Ibid., p. 543.

27 Mitter, “Jamini Roy and Art for the Community”, p. 114.

28 Chatterjee, p. 11.

29 Mitter, “Jamini Roy and Art for the Community”, pp. 117-119.

30 Ibid., p. 119.

31 Ibid., p. 119.

32 Ibid., p. 119.

33 G. Venkatachalam, Contemporary Indian Painters (Bombay: The National books, 1927), p. 91.

34 Geeta Kapur, “Jamini Roy”, In Six Indian Painters, exh. cat. (London: Tate Gattery, 1982), p. 22.

35 Chatterjee, p. 17.


Debmalya Das is a research scholar at the Department of English and OMEL, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan, India. He is also working as a Part-time Lecturer in Suri Vidyasagar College, Suri, Birbhum, (W.B.), India. Email: malya.hat@gmail

Kherwal Tukou: a Confluence of Indigenous Artistic Traditions in Bankura

Subhamay Kisku

Vidyasagar University, Midnapore, West Bengal, India


Download PDF version


In Indian society cultural festivals hold immense importance, they create opportunity for people to exchange their cultural heritage and showcase their talent in front of others. India is a country where multi-ethnic groups are living together possessing diverse cultural traditions for ages. Each state of India in terms of cultural attributes differs greatly from other states. Indian culture is like a mosaic and represents the coexistence of unity in diversity of cultural traditions among the ethnic groups of India. Tribal ethnic groups are the autochthones of this country and have been carrying on their age old cultural legacy even today, in the age of globalization.

The festival of Kherwal Tukou at Siulibona

Bankura of West Bengal, one of the districts of Jangal Mahal, is a cradle of multi-cultural heritage. Tribal cultural heritage has been wielding at the central part of this district. Tribals of this district have been continuing with plural cultural traditions through their day-to-day ritualistic cultural activities. In the era of globalization this indigenous cultural tradition is no more limited within the ritual performances of the tribals only. Siulibona village of Bankura is one such example of a global village where tribal cultural tradition is thriving under the sponsorship of Geetha Ashram1, a Hindu religious organization. This organization has been playing a nodal role in terms of organizing a tribal cultural festival at Siulibona village under the name of Kherwal Tukou. This uncommon name of the festival was derived from the Santali language, which means the ‘nest of Kherwal ethnic group’. For the last twenty years on 1st January this tribal cultural festival has been organizing by the Geetha Ashram authority in this village. Gradually the festival has increased its size and glory. Now the festival has reached the stature of national festival where various traditional folk cultural dances of India are performed including Bankura’s own cultural arts. Many spectators and performers have been coming from all over India and even sometimes outside the India. On the occasion of that day many eminent guests like district administrative officers and reputed folk poets are invited to chair the opening ceremony of the festival. Therefore, the Siulibona village gets the prime importance to perform their traditional cultural performances in front of the spectators of diverse origin. Thus, the villagers get enthusiasm for flourishing their cultural beauty. Moreover, they get invitations for performing their cultural dances from many eminent guests at their own place. Thus a process of cultural exchange has been spontaneously exercising at the Siulibona village through the festival of Kherwal Tukou.

The village Siulibona

The geographical location of the Siulibona village is 23°24’224” North in latitudes and 86°59’826” East in longitudes. The Siulibona village is inhabited by Santals (a Scheduled Tribe of India) comprising 374 individuals living in 67 households. It comes under the Susunia Gram Panchayat and Block Chhatna of the Bankura district of West Bengal. The Siulibona village is very close to Susunia hill, a well known tourist spot in Bankura district for rock climbers in winter season. The Siulibona village is accessible from the district town Bankura (the administrative Headquarters of the district) through two different routes. The most hectic but economic route is to board on a  Bankura-Durgapur  bus from Gobindanagar bus stand and getting down at Hapania bus stop and then walking down to about one and half kilometer of rural, non-metal, serpentine, dusty road across the undulating agricultural land. It took us about one and half hours of journey.  The other less hectic and expensive route is to make a train journey from Bankura railway station on the Howrah-Adra South Eastern Railway track to Chhatna railway station and then one has to hire a private car from Masjidgarha bus stop to reach Siulibona village by covering about fourteen kilometers which takes only forty-five minutes.

The making of Kherwal Tukou: a brief history

If we look back at the history of this village, it will be convenient to understand the background story behind the initiation of the Kherwal Tukou festival. The Siulibona village is located almost on the bank of Gandheswari river. According to the local villagers, the village was established by felling the forest on the slope of Susunia hill. The villagers narrated that about hundred years ago, two Santal brothers Ram and Raghu came to this place as land grantees of the Raja of Kashipur of the adjoining Purulia district. The descendants of Ram and Raghu are regarded as the founder of the village. The founders of the village are called ‘Ram Haram’ and ‘Raghu Haram’. In Santali language, the word ‘Haram’ is used as a suffix to show reverence to a particular person. Subsequently, the heirs of Ram Haram and Raghu Haram have been using their surname as ‘Hembram’. During the time of one Kamal Kanta Hembram, a direct descendant of Ram Haram at Siulibona, the community had come in touch with a Hindu religious organization, named Geetha Ashram about 20 years ago. The founder of the aforesaid religious organization named Prabhuji (a devotee of Lord Shiva) was a resident of Bankura district who established a charitable homeopathy clinic in a village named Rajamela about five kilometers from Siulibona. The villagers of Siulibona used to visit the free clinic for the treatment of their ailments. Gradually, a cordial and friendly relation developed between the voluntary workers and the villagers and the former used to visit Siulibona to render medical services to the villagers. At a later stage, the health workers of Geetha Ashram built up a health and social service centre at Siulibona village and a free health clinic began to function in the village primary school. A few years after this event, Prabhuji came to Siulibona on 1st January, 1995 and organized a communal feast with the villagers. Though he has been coming in this festival for six consecutive times since 1995, thereafter the festival has been organizing in absence of the Prabhuji by the Geetha Ashram activists and the Siulibona youth association named Atwadeep Foundation. A day-long programme took place in which the villagers performed tribal dances and songs. Since then the feast and the tribal cultural performance are being observed every year on the same day and the participation of the villagers of the region as well as the variety of cultural performances have been expanding every year.

The festival has now become a great cultural event for the villagers, particularly, the Santals, and they call it Kherwal Tukou. More interestingly, Prabhuji, the spiritual guru of Geetha Ashram is being called by the Santals of Siulibona as Dharti Baba (Father of earth) and the name has become very popular among the inhabitants of the region. About ten years ago, Kamal Kanta Hembram donated about 1.5 acres of agricultural land for holding the aforesaid communal feast and festival organized by Geetha Ashram. The organization has built up a permanent building on 0.5 acres and the rest area is being used for holding the communal feast and festival in January.  The Geetha Ashram has developed its own infrastructure on this land, which is named as Milan Mela. In a more recent period, the Geetha Ashram expanded its activities in various developmental works of the village in collaboration with the governmental bodies, like statutory panchayat. Geetha Ashram has been providing various other developmental inputs for the Siulibona villagers in different sectors like development of infrastructure, agriculture, human resource, income generation, women empowerment, entrepreneurship and so on. At present, the opening ceremony of this festival is inaugurated by Rshiriddha Anahata Maa, the spiritual mother of Shamayita Math, on behalf of Prabhuji. Shamayita Math is a women’s spiritual and religious centre of Geetha Ashram.

A brief description of the Festival

Every year on 1st January this festival has been taking place at Siulibona village although; the preparation for the festival starts prior to 1st January. Because events like tribal sports, for example tribal indigenous archery competition, shot put, sprinter, stick fighting is held earlier. On the eve of 1st January all the tribal dancing competitions are completed.  On the festive day, name of the winners of different competitions are announced and rewarded with trophy. The following description is based on my personal observation made on 1st January, 2009 and interviews of the organizers and the performers of the festival.

For the purpose of this festival a welcome gate was prepared on the village entry road with the material of bamboo slice and paddy straw like a Hindu temple gate. The gate was  decorated with thermocol inscribed with the Santali words Jahar Dharti Baba (meaning in Santali ‘respect to Dharti Baba’) in Bengali script and the gate is festooned with the welcome address in Bengali, i.e. Swagatam. The main stage of the festival was structured on an arable land given by Kamal Kanta Hembram. The main stage was also prepared with bamboo slices and paddy straws making a marvelous structure of Hindu temple with Shikhara (the rising crown roof) and both sides of the main stage were prepared for the spectators. Another temporary shrine structure in the boundary of the Milan Mela was made just like a rural hut with the same materials used for making the temple structure and a Trishul (a traditional trident weapon used by the Hindu Lord Shiva) shape, made up of the same raw material, embedded on the roof of the hut. This hut structure is exclusively kept for the spiritual guru Prabhuji.

Village procession

The festival started with the village procession which is known as Gram Pradhakhin by the villagers and the Geetha ashram activists. In the procession they carried a garlanded standing portrait of the Prabhuji on their shoulders, which symbolizes the presence of the Prabhuji. The procession was guarded by the village youths wearing their traditional attire and holding ancestral swords, spears and fire torch. They were followed by the village girls and women wearing red bordered white Sharee. After them rest of the other devotees of neighbouring villages joined them. At the time of procession women chanted a devotional song in the name of the Prabhuji which is generally chanted at the time of morning and evening worship of the Prabhuji at the Geetha ashram. The entire event was quite symbolic in nature which repeatedly tries to establish the fact that in spite the absence of the Prabhuji, he was all the time from beginning to the end of the festival present there with them. After the completion of the village procession the portrait of the Prabhuji was taken to shrine hut and enshrined on an altar. Then everybody who present there bowed one by one in front of the hurt by bending their head, some of them lay with the face and body downwards. This gesture is known in Bengali Astanga Pranam. Then a big cake was cut by Rshiriddha Anahata Maa on behalf of the Prabhuji at the central part of the Milan Mela by surrounding all the devotees. During then exultation was expressed by the participants chanting the name of the Prabhuji. Then the cake was distributed among all as a grace of the Prabhuji. The whole event was depicted in such a way that an impression is created among the villagers about the Prabhuji as incarnated living God.

Opening ceremony

Thereafter the auspicious festival was inaugurated by Rshiriddha Anahata Maa igniting a lamp surrounded by tribal girls in front of the main stage. The inaugural song was sung by Amarnath Murmu, a Santal resident of the Siulibona village. After that the inaugural speech was presented by Rshiriddha Anahata Maa appealing in front of the epicurean sensual society to stand beside the tribal community to restore and preserve the tribal cultural heritage. The inaugural song was followed by the performance of the Siulibona dancers. They performed a traditional Santali dance known as Dansai2. When performers performed their performances one by one a section of festival volunteers, mainly the Siulibona villagers, headed by the Geetha Ashram activists were engaged in reception of the guest like administrative officers and spectators who came from others part of Bankura and Kolkata. Among the distinct eminent guests like the Zilla Parishad Sabhadhipati, the Additional District Magistrate and the Sub-division Officer of Bankura are presented their speeches on the rich traditional tribal cultural heritages and they emphasized upon the necessity of festivals like the Kherwal Tukou so that these ancient Indian cultural heritages can be preserved.

Tribal performances

The Santal traditional dance like Dansai was not only performed by the local Santal communities but also by the Santal performers who had come from distant places like Dumka of Jharkhand district. A clear difference in the way of presentation of Dansai was seen between two groups of Santal dancers mainly because of their discrete geographical differences. This highly rich variety of dance performances increased the opportunity to the interior villagers like Siulibona villagers to share their own cultural nuances through their first hand contact. Apart from Santal traditional dance like Dansai many other Santal traditional dances (which are generally performed in diverse occasions of the Santal cultural rituals) were performed one by one. Santal dances like Baha3, Saharai4, Langre5, Natua6, Karam7, Dang8, Rinza9 etc were presented by the Bankura and Dumaka performers in the festival. The presentation of these different Santal dance forms on a single platform not only makes the spectators from non-tribal community to get the idea about tribal culture but also makes the opportunity to extract the charms of the highly energetic group dances. The performances were not only limited to the experienced mature performers, a group of Santal school children aged within ten years from Marang Buru Chanch Marshal Ashram performed  traditional Santal dances with Santali songs. This kind of traditional performances from the younger performers encourages the younger generation of their own community to carry out their cultural bequest.

Non-tribal performances

Apart from traditional Santal dances some local traditional indigenous dance forms and songs were presented by a group of artists. They came from Purulia district and performed Ranpa10 dance, Chhou11 dance and Jumur12 songs. All these dances and songs are the identity of Purulia district for their unique art forms and styles.

Folk performances from out-side West Bengal

The festival not only creates chances to the spectators of Bankura to be familiar with their own indigenous cultural heritage but also creates opportunity to be acquainted with classical and traditional dance forms of others states of India. Performers from Assam and Orissa performed Bihu13 and Gutipoa14 dances respectively. These two dance forms are quite popular art forms of both the states of India. The Bihu dancers of Assam performed in a group in which girls were dressed with their traditional red Sharee and propped with caps and bronze plates. They were accompanied by the boys dressed with Dhoti, Kurta and scurf and equipped with drum, flute and cymbals. On the other hand girl dancers from Orissa performed the act Dasavatar. The girls were dressed with yellow Sharee in a unique way and hair-plaited with white flowers. They were accompanied by a group of male singers and musicians, who explained the act of Dasavatar through singing in Oriya and playing percussion instruments.

Blessed meal

The festival organizers made an arrangement of providing a lunch meal for all the devotee-cum-spectators as a grace of Prabhuji. In that meal they provided Khichuri (a popular Indian vegetarian cuisine prepared with rice and cereal) and a mixed curry. Peoples sat on the post-harvested agricultural land and they were served Khichuri by the festival volunteers on leaf plates. While taking their meals with cheer the devotees chanted the name of Prabhuji with respect as ‘Dharti Baba ki, jai’.

Stalls at the festive ground

On the occasion of the festival many local artisans set up stalls for exhibition and sale. These artisans brought different interior decorative items like flowers, basket, mat prepared from natural ingredients like palm leaves, and also statues prepared with baked pottery. Many itinerant traders came to sell their items. Apart from these, many food stalls were also there. Therefore, the festival not only had the cultural values but economic values as well. Peoples purchase their necessary items besides having the entertaining flavour of the festival.

Stage performances

At the end of the day after sunset two stage performances were organized. The first performance was a social awareness drama in Santali by the Siulibona villagers. The drama was titled Aven Sankoa (the literal meaning of the words is ‘conches of prosperity’), in which an endeavour was made to revamp the tribal cultural heritage by means of not blindly following the non-tribal cultural traits, which will ultimately supersede the tribal cultural richness and put them into oblivion. The Santali drama was followed by another stage performance which was a puppetry to spread a message of social harmony. The puppetry was presented by the puppetry artists of Bankura who are internationally famous for their art. They scripted the act where the performance was being acted by the puppetry of wild animals to extend the message that if wild animals can show the way of harmony then why can’t the human walk on the way of communal harmony.

Closing ceremony

The festival ended with the display of fireworks through the hand of local manufacturers and presenters of those fireworks crackers. Different forms of fireworks illuminated the darkness of the night sky. Some of those were sound makers and some of them were light makers. This entire fireworks presentation was transformed into happiness in the mind of the tribal villagers, because few of them probably were watched this kind of fireworks for the first time in their life. At the end of the fireworks the heart of the villagers were brewed up with grief and with the expectation of another Kherwal Tukou in the next year.


            Depending upon the religious and spiritual consciousness cultural rituals and practices have evolved in our society. Folk dances and arts are the part of such cultural rituals and practices as an expression of ecstasy, melancholy and so on. Cultural festivals have emerged and developed as a platform of cultural milieu of various cultural practices. Here is the necessity of folk festivals in the rural villages of India as a platform of folk arts to thrive in the era of globalization. This is a single shed under which vibrant pluralistic indigenous cultural talents can be demonstrated and shared with rest of the outer world. The indigenous culture of Bankura is the amalgamation of folk art since the period of ancient India. In Bankura the heritages of such indigenous folk culture are being cultured during diverse occasion. The Kherwal Tukou is one such occasion when the effervescent indigenous culture is exhibited. The Kherwal Tukou has been advancing with the endeavour of preservation and prosperity of indigenous culture of India. Though, this endeavour may have religious flavour which in turn has been influencing material and religious life of indigenous tribal culture. However, in spite of that the importance of indigenous festivals like Kherwal Tukou is inevitable. Therefore, more and more initiatives should be taken from either side of state and civil society to encourage those folk people to engage themselves actively in the preservation and perpetuation of the heritage of folk culture with urban way of behaviour simultaneously.




1 Geetha Ashram is being operated from Ranbahal of Bankura District, headed and founded by Prabhuji for the downtrodden poor people, for more than 20 years in Bankura and many other districts of West Bengal. This non-governmental organization is especially working among the tribals for the betterment of their society, economic empowerment, educational and infrastructural development. The Geetha ashram has its other sub-branches in the form of devoted temples at Howrah and Burdwan districts. In Jhargram, Paschim Medinipur, the organization has a publication centre which distributes mainly the devotional books. Geetha Ashram has one branch, in the name of the Shamayita Math for women only. The Geetha Ashram provides vocational training for agriculture and helps the farmers by providing the service of soil test, good high yielding seeds and sapling of different fruit trees. It has its own infrastructure for the accommodation and canteen for the daily visitors and devotees of Prabhuji in lieu of a nominal charge. Geetha Ashram has also established a convent school for girl children from nursery to higher secondary standards by keeping them in a hostel at Ranbahal, the Headquarter of the organization. Recently, it has taken an upcoming project for the schooling of physically challenged children.

2 Dansai is a kind of Santal dance form in which only male dancers perform in the disguise of women during the month of Aswin (September-October) in the Bengali calendar. It is known among the Santal society that Santals were the descendants of Rav ana (non-Ariya leader), who was attacked by Rama (Ariya leader). So, Dansai is a symbolic hide and seek dance of the descendants of Ravana to escape from Rama.

3 Baha is a traditional religious festival of Santal community. It is held during the month of Falgun (February-March) in the Bengali calendar. It is performed both by the male and female dancers. The purpose of this festival is to offer the newly grown flowers, leaves and trees in front of the God Marang Buru. Santals never use any newly grown natural products without offering them to the God Marang Buru through Baha.

4 Saharai is a big traditional Santal festival held during the month of Kartik (October-November) in the Bengali calendar. In few places it is held during the month of Poush (December-January). This festival is celebrated during the post-harvesting period with hope of better agricultural prosperity for the coming season.

5 Langre is a popular dance form among the Santal community performs any time of a year for the celebration of merrymaking at the Majhi Than (a place of Santal traditional village council meeting). Generally women dance in a group forming a row by interlocking their hands and male counterparts accompany them with traditional musical instruments.      

6 Natua is also a popular Santal dance form performed as a symbolic representation of warfare during the period of traditional Santal marriage. It is believed in the Santal society that at the time of Santal marriage when groom’s party reaches at the door of the bride’s home they confront each other through this dance form to obtain the bride. This dance is performed only by the male dancers with swords and shields.

7 Karam is a traditional Santal festival celebrated on the eighth day of the month of Aswin (September-October) in the Bengali calendar. The purpose of this festival is to pray for ameliorating the future life of the community. During the Karam festival Karam tree (Nauclea parvifolia) is worshiped and the Karam guru chants for the whole night about the origin of earth as per the Santal mythology with traditional Karam songs. At that time Karam dance is also performed

8 Dang is a kind of Santal dance form which is performs during traditional marriage ceremony both by the men and women.  

9 Rinza is also a kind of Santali dance form performed during the Karam festival.

10 Ranpa is a kind of exhaustive dance form performed by the rural people in which performers ride on two bamboo poles and dance with the rhythm of drums, flutes, cymbals. It is known that previously it was an art of dacoits of Bengal to run quickly. Now it has become a folk dance observed in the districts like Purulia of West Bengal.

11 Chhou is another dance form popular in Eastern part of India. In this dance form performers take indigenous mask of many Hindu God, Goddesses and animals to act on mythological tales. Chhou performers dance with the rhythm of indigenous musical instruments like dhamsa, madal, sanai, kansi etc. This dance is performed mainly by the members of Kurmi and Mahato communities. The Purulia district of West Bengal is characterized by the popularity of this dance form.   

12 Jhumur is also a dance form of rural folk of eastern India. This dance is performed by young girls and accompanied by their male counterparts. In Jhumur dance girls dance in a group by holding their own hands and waist. Whereas male dancers play musical instruments like drum, flute, etc. During this dance performance duet Jhumur songs are sung.

13 Bihu is a grand festival of Assam. The festival is performed to offer their first yielded crops in the name of their God Brai Shibrai or Father Shibrai for the prosperity and peace. During this festival both young male and female perform Bihu dance. This dance is characterized by typical dance movement of waist and hands rapidly.

14 Gutipoa is a traditional dance form of Orissa in which adolescent boy dancers, dressed like girls, perform critical acrobatic steps on Hindu mythological themes. Here in the Kherwal Tukou festival this dance was performed by adolescent girls.



I am grateful to my teacher and Ph.D. supervisor Dr Abhijit Guha, for inspiring me to write this paper in its present form. I am also thankful to maternal brother Mr. Swarupananda Hansda for his expertise in taking the snaps.  Last but not the least, I express my heartiest gratitude to the Geetha ashram members and the Siulibona villagers for providing me immense help and cooperation to conduct my fieldwork.  


Subhamay Kisku is Research Scholar, Department of Anthropology, Vidyasagar University, Paschim Medinipur, West Bengal, India. E-mail ID: uksikyamahbus@gmail.com


Editorial, Vol 1, No 1

Finally the inaugural issue of Chitrolekha International Magazine on Art and Design is online. A long cherished dream of mine, fostered somewhere in an unknown tract of mind, has become a reality on the virtual space. It is now ready for readers/viewers, writers, critics and the enthusiasts in art and design to read and respond. I know it is just a humble beginning; but this kind of collaborative venture always holds promise for future.

Theologically speaking design precedes human existence or even the creation of the world. The birth of cosmos out of chaos (which may well be fictional) seems to me the most miraculous event. The point is that our life is in one sense a continuous journey of negotiating with designs, with the unique combinations of lines, shapes and colours, with the symbols and signs which determine the significance of our existence. But above all, designs and arts have always provided us with the highest thing in the world—pure delight or Ananda as the Upanishads termed it.

This century has also seen revolution in communication with the advent of digital technologies, and this has certain favourable consequences for the global visual culture. Chitrolekha has been conceived of as an online magazine with a conscious effort to utilize the online medium towards functioning as [a] a platform for readers, writers, artists and designers globally, [b] as documentary of traditional arts, crafts and architecture, [c] as a comfortable space for budding artists and designers to boldly showcase their works, and [d] as a forum for discussing exciting new ideas and innovations.

For the inaugural issue, we received warm responses from many persons and organizations. We could not accommodate all the submitted works because of the scheme, which demanded variety, colours and originality. So, finally the selection features a cover story by Swarup Dutta, a scholarly survey of the art of earth decoration in India. The selection also includes a unique discussion of a traditional dance mask, story of an architectural grandeur of a thousand year old temple, the making of the lush green vegetation on the walls, the story of an exquisite specimen of a regional saree, the joy of designing in festivity, some selected artworks of a renowned artist from Thailand, some works of an ambitious designer from Bangalore, a special article on Elvis Presley as a fashion icon and finally a report on using glass bangles as superb design material. I thank all the contributors for sharing their views and works.

Finally with a heart full of good wishes on the auspicious occasion of ‘Nabo Barsho’ (Bengali New Year) I would invite all to join and enjoy together the hues of Chitrolekha and make it a happy destination.

Gomira Dance Mask

Tulip Sinha

 Founder, FolkUs Design Interventions, Bangalore

The craft of Gomira dance masks is practiced in a specific area in North Dinajpur district of West Bengal, in and around the village of Mahisbathan (Khunia Danga) located approximately 50km south-east of Raiganj, the district headquarter. North Dinajpur district lies in the Gangetic plain.

Origin and Tradition

The word Gomira is a colloquial form of the root word Gram-Chandi, a female deity. The Gomira masks are inexorably linked to the Gomira mask dance prevalent in this area. The exact origins of this craft and the dance are not exactly traceable and lie somewhere in the hoary past. One of the craftsmen claims it is at least as old as the beginning of Kaliyug, which does seem unlikely.

Gomira Dance

The Gomira dances are organized to propitiate the deity to usher in the ‘good forces’ and drive out the ‘evil forces’. It is usually organized within the months of Baisakh-Jyestha-Asarh, corresponding to mid-April to mid-July. There are no fixed dates for organizing these dances, but each village organizes at least one Gomira dance during this period according to their convenience, at a central location.

Another occasion for arranging Gomira dance is during the puja of Amat Kali, which coincides with the harvesting of mangoes, usually in the month of Jyestha. Such dances are also organized during puja of Smasan Kali, which does not have a fixed time.

Amat Kali and Smasan Kali are local deities, closely related to and derived from the Goddess Kali, basically a form of Shakti. The traditions are an amalgam of animist traditions, which have been absorbed in the Shakti cult, with its predominant female deity. The Shakti cult is deeply entrenched and every village has its own small temple devoted to Shakti, in her many forms, as the guardian deity of that village.

Every village of reasonable size, say a thousand inhabitants, has its own Gomira dance troupe. The dancers usually perform dances during the ‘season’, to supplement their income, but have other vocations relating to agriculture and business or crafts such as smithy, carpentry. The dancers are all male, without exception, and portray one or may characters, male, female or animal.

The Gomira dances have two distinct forms. One is the Gomira format, which has characters with strong links to the animist tradition. The characters are Buro-Buri (Old man-Old woman), Smasan Kali, Masan Kali, Dakini Bishwal, Signi Bishwal, Bagh (Tiger), Nar-Rakhas and Narsingha Avatar. The other format is the Ram-Vanwas, which derives its characters from Ramayana, with special reference to the Van-Kand. The characters are Ram, Sita, Lakshman, King Dasarath, Kaushalya, Kaikeyi, Sumitra, Angad, Jatayu, Hanuman, Sugriv, Jambavan, Surya-Bhanu (Sun) and Ravana. Some animist characters have also crept in to this format – Yamdoot and Kaaldoot! Interestingly, the Ram-Vanwas dance is not linked to any season and is actually organized year-round, but is more popular during October- November, closely matching the times for Durga Puja and Kali Puja.

Traditionally, the Gomira dance starts with the entry of two characters Buro-Buri, who are actually the human forms of Shiva and Parvati.

According to the Gomira tradition, these gods took human shape and descended on earth so that they may bless the humans and help them to fight the forces of evil and establish a righteous way of life. They appear in the dreams of people and remind them to worship Gomira and lead a righteous life. In the dance proper, they dance to the accompaniment of Dhak (percussion drum ethnic to rural Bengal) and Kansar (bell-metal disk used as cymbal). After the initial round of dancing, characters are called on to the arena or stage. The last and perhaps the most powerful character is Narsingha-Avatar, symbolically showing the ultimate triumph of good over evil.

The interesting aspect is that the total absence of any vocal or oral part in the dance. There are no songs or chants. The dancers choose their own movements, which include gyrations and hops. An interesting feature of these dance performances are the trances, probably due to autosuggestion. Some particular members of the troupe are entrusted with the job of restraining the member in the frenzy and breaking the trance by sprinkling water consecrated with tulsi leaves and white togore flowers.

Gomira Masks

Villagers pledge a certain type and number of masks to their favoured deity when they put forward a wish to be fulfilled. Thus the craft of Gomira mask-making, in its pristine form, catered to the needs of the dancers and any villager wishing to give a mask as an offering to the village deity. A villager makes a ‘promise’- called ‘manat’, to offer a mask to a deity if his or her wish is fulfilled.

The wood crafted Gomira masks represent the characters of the two distinct forms of dance – the Gomira and the Ram-Vanwas. Most Gomira face masks have subsidiary characters crafted along the periphery of the main character. So, the mask is a composite of a principal character, surrounded by the subsidiary characters, both of which always have a mythical link between them. For example, the character of Dasarath always accompanies the mask of Jatayu. This can be seen in the fourth photograph; on the left Jatayu carries a middle-aged Dasrath on his head while on the right a young Dasarath. The friendship of Jatayu with King Dasarath is well documented in Ramayana.

Masks from Ram-Vanwas pantheon are not given to deities as offering.


Photograph 1 above depicts Jambuban (L) and Hanuman (R). The vivid colours are due to the use of modern enamel paints.

Photograph 2 has two characters, Hanuman (L), with the subsidiary character, seated his head, which is Adyashakti (Tilottama). The mask on the right is that of Naro-rakhsha with two incarnations of Kali- Smasan Kali and Masan Kali on his earlobes.

Photograph 3 shows three unpainted masks,from the left, Bishal, Hanuman and Signi Bishal. In this mask of Hanuman, the subsidiary character Bhanu can be seen placed on the head of Hanuman.

The interesting point to note is the portrayal of the same mythical character of Hanuman in so many ways with such radically different features.

The Gomira craftsmen do not belong to any particular caste, although they might be followers of either the Vaishnav cult or the Shakti cult. Their tribal or original family surnames have been lost and most of them use Sarkar as their family name. The women folk have never been a part of mask-making, but they do practice natural fibre-weaving on simple home-made looms and these naturally dyed mats, called ‘dhokra’ are sold in the local ‘haats’.

The portrayal of characters through the mask depends upon the craftsman and the tradition he has inherited. The Gomira masks are crafted from wood, but any villager who cannot afford a wooden mask, usually offers a mask made from shola pith, which is a cheaper alternative.


The contrast between the traditional style and the current, evolved style is evident in the picture below, one from a Kolkata-based artist and connosiuer and the other a  ‘Modern Mask: Mahishbathan’. Both the masks portray the character Bishal. The finesse of the facial features and the vivid palette, seen in the modern mask is entirely missing in the traditional mask, even though they both portray the same mythical character.

The craft itself is evolving. The exposure to the outside world influences the craftsman and is later reflected in his work. Their visits to trade-fairs and handicraft-fairs bring them in contact with other art forms and artists of other traditions and regions.


Materials & Process

Historically the masks were made from ‘pure woods’ such as neem, as per Hindu mythology. Later locally available and cheaper wood such as mango, pakur, kadam, gamhar and teak came to be used. The craftsmen choose the appropriate wood depending upon the ability of the customer to afford them.

The wood is usually purchased from a nearby sawmill or sometimes cut from a tree by the craftsman himself. The village craftsmen are very conscious of the environment and always plant one tree for trees cut down, usually of the same species.

Originally the Gomira masks were painted with natural dyes. Red dye was made from segun, green from seem (a form of bean), violet from jamun, and black from jia tree.

However, these dyes were not permanent and tended to fade with time and were very time consuming. The craftsman had to gather the material, grind it, and mix with water and strain through cloth before use. Slowly the use of chemical dyes and even enamel paints have gained acceptance mainly because of ready availability and permanence, which is not very appealing to traditionalists.

The other important raw material is varnish. Many customers want the pristine shape with only varnish. The performers however use coloured masks. The mask making begins with cutting the log of wood, given the sizes of masks, the initial piece of wood is about 18? to 24? long. This is then immersed in water for seasoning, which renders the wood soft and thus, subsequent cutting and crafting becomes easier. The basic form emerges first with the use of the adze, followed by emphasis on facial features. Once the basic shape has emerged, they use the broad chisel and heaviest hammer to bring out the final shape. As the work progresses, the narrower chisels and lighter hammers are used. Once the front of the mask is complete except for finer finishing, the reverse side of the mask, where the face of the wearer is expected to fit, is scooped out very carefully. The router chisels are used to gouge out cavities such as the opening of the mouth and eyes. If the mask is to be used for the purpose of dancing, only then the eyes, mouth etc are hollowed out.

The final procedure involves fine chiseling of the entire mask. This whole process takes about 4-5 days, or more depending upon the complexity of the mask. Once the mask is complete, then comes finishing; the first step to which is smoothening of the mask, which is done by using sand papers of various grades. Next, the mask gets a coat or two of varnish, which provides smoothness to the mask and ensures durability. Many a times the masks are sold in this condition itself. In case the masks are to be sold to the Gomira dance performers, they need to be hand-painted, in colours particular to the characters to be portrayed. For example, the character of Jambuban is always painted in deep violet.

Current Practice

The craft was studied at the Mahisbathan Gramin Hasta Shilpa Samabay Samiti Limited. This center operates as a cooperative of craftsmen and artisans who live in the nearby villages and are devoted to this craft of Gomira mask making. The center is trying to resurrect this art, which is on the verge of extinction, by giving the craftsmen a place to work, ensuring payments for work done and promoting the sale of masks and other artifacts. The masks are made at the center from wood and material purchased centrally. The center pays the member-artisans based on the quality and quantity of masks produced and mutually decided rates. For most of the artisans, mask making is a supplementary source of income, since they share their time with other vocations such as agriculture, animal husbandry or running of small shops in their villages.

A notable exception is the master craftsman, Mr. Shankar Sarkar who has devoted his life to the craft of making Gomira masks and this is the only source of income for him. Individual craftsmen are able to produce about 6 to 7 masks per month and are paid according to the size, complexity and time taken. On an average, the Samiti is able to deliver 90 to 100 masks per month, where the selling price varies from Rs. 700/- all the way upto Rs. 3000/-, depending on the complexity.

In recent times however, to augment their product range, newer products have been adopted from the adivasi culture, which include the bas relief decorative panels or chodol and the ektaras. Chodols are fabricated palanquins, an art which strangely, the adivasis have themselves forgotten and buy them from the Samiti or such craftsmen instead, for their marriages and ceremonies. With the increasing efforts from some artists and connoiseurs, this craft has found meaning with some discerning buyers. Hope these endeavours pave a judicious way forward for this rich performing art !!


[Documented in the year 2004 with the support of Mahisbathan Gramin Hasta Shilpa Samabay Samiti Limited and Mr. Abhijit Gupta.]


Tulip Sinha, Founder, FolkUs Design Interventions, Bangalore.  Email:  tulip.del@gmail.com

Brihadeeswara Temple: “Dakshina Meru”

Sudha Jagannath

Brihannayika Culture Resource, New Delhi

The Brihadeesvara Temple stands as a supreme example of Chola architecture. Built on a scale appropriate enough to house the presiding deity, Sri Brihadeesvara, or the Lord of the Universe, the temple continues to excite wonder at its many unique architectural features and living presence as a centre of Saiva devotion. During the period when Chola power was in the ascendant, (around 850-1350 AD) architecture in the Tamil country went through dramatic changes. Indeed before the time of the most famous Chola king, Rajaraja I, gopurams in temple complexes were not built on a very grand scale. During the reign of Rajaraja I, the temple at Tanjore was built not only as a monument to the sway of Chola power over many southern lands but as a living sign of Saiva concepts and beliefs. It was called ‘Dakdhina Meru’ as a complement to the ‘Uttara Meru’ or the sacred mount of Kailasa, thought of as the spine of the universe. The Dakshina Meru was thought to be a centre of divine power analogous to the northern centre of Sri Kailas. Many inscriptions of Rajaraja I (A D 985-1012) reveal him to be a great warrior and an ardent devotee of Shiva. It is this spirit of ardent devotion that visualizes the entire temple complex itself as a visible symbol of the divine presence. Over the centuries the successive powers of the Nayakas and the Marathas added smaller shrines and other embellishments to the temple complex in a manner that is a tribute to the original founder as well as the spirit of Saivism.

The Mystery of Indian Floor Paintings

Swarup Dutta

Dean Academics, Indian Institute of Crafts and Design

 As a child one of my fondest memories is of Lakshmi Puja. The whole household seemed transformed. There was activity all around the household. I could sense a joyous mood in everyone. But the most remarkable reminder of this day to me was alpona – the beautiful floor decorations which my mother and sisters made on the threshold of our household, on the doorsteps leading to the prayer alter…”, remembers Narayan Sinha, a renowned sculptor, who has spent his childhood in rural Bengal.

Vertical Garden: Living Walls, Living Green

Sourish Bhattacharya, Freelance Writer

Vertical garden has gathered around itself a number of significant dimensions in the wake of the environmental crisis and growing awareness for sustainable development. Human beings have been witnessing wonderful vegetative spectacle of the greeneries on hillside, the vertical rocks and the mossy cliffs, but the vertical garden as a designing practice has come into being with the exclusive initiatives of Patrick Blanc with his spectacular design projects like first green wall made at Museum of Science and Industry in Paris, Garden festival of Chaumont-sur-Loire, Green wall at the aquarium in Genoa, Italy and many more.

In the hectic schedule of urban life and the dearth of open space leave a little scope for the people to grow a garden at home. In this situation living walls are the best option for creating a splash of nature inside a home which needs only a vertical wall for plant cultivation and minimum maintenance. Living wall not only provides a chance to create garden, but also reduces the heat of the building and purifies the grey water (slightly polluted water) by absorbing the dissolved nutrients in it.

Vertical gardens are generally grown on three types of medium. The first one is on the loose soil kept in a bag and installed into a wall structure.

The second one is a mat-like medium where the plant is cultivated in a mat like structure of coir or felt mat. This process is useful for seismic areas.

The third kind is of an architectural structure which survives for a long time.

The vertical gardening in architectural medium can be carried out in three ways. One is trellising, the second one is tumbling and the last one is terracing.

In trellising an architectural frame is required as an aid to the creepers so that the plants can climb up with the help of the structure. Ivy, Pea bean, Snow peas, Pole beans are apt examples of this kind of plants.

In process of tumbling hanging planters are used to cultivate the plants so that the leaves of the plants like tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberry, thyme etc. can sprawl towards the ground and create vertical vegetation process.

In terracing the plants are stacked in a stair step like sequence in containers. Hydroponic system, though a kind of somewhat terracing process, has some different aspects of itself. Instead of stacked planters a PVC pipe is permanently mounted on the wall and the plants grow up outside the pipe horizontally through the holes instead of growing vertically upward.

Hydroponic system is a much adored process among the gardeners for its numerous advantages:

a) No soil is required here for plantation and the roots float directly on the water and suck the dissolved nutrients from it. There are no such arduous jobs like tilling, digging and other soil maintenance process.

b) The soil of a large piece of land contributes nutrients, minerals, clay contents in different proportions to the plants in different areas. But in Hydroponics the nutrients are easily distributed to every plant uniformly and quickly. In watery medium it is easier to add lost nutrients in it, where as in soil it is a tough task of crop rotation for making the soil regenerative or to wait till the land naturally gets back its fertility.

c) The weeds those grow up in this system are easy to remove as a whole as the roots are suspended only in the water and not entangled firmly with anything, anywhere.

d) In hydroponic system the application of animal and human waste can cause no harm to the plant leaves. But in the soil the applications of fertilizers and animal or human waste may affect the low lying plants like lettuce or strawberry which can cause dysentery unless it is properly sterilized. But in Hydroponic system fertilizer is used in a particular location that does not come into contact with the fruiting body or leaves of the plant and also can diffuse easily through the entire system.

These are all advantages of the hydroponic system which are affecting the contemporary horticulturists to opt for more and more of this process.

Sunlight is an essential part of vertical gardening. The plants generally need a 6-8 hours of sun exposure. Different plants require different shades of sun light. Tomatoes and cucumbers need a full sun exposure where as the bean and peas can do with a full to partial sunlight. Root vegetables like radishes and potatoes can do with a lighter sun beam. Leafy greens like spinach and chard can deal with very little sun. Mature bulbs of onions are fond of full light where as scallions or baby onions can grow in less sun lights.

The home gardeners, specially the beginners should choose a variety of succulents or cactus in a spot of high sun exposure. In shaded areas they should opt for a variety of fern from a wide range of collection. They should go for varieties of grasses, flowers, herbs and vegetables in partly shaded areas. In interior they should opt for tropical plants that like to thrive in low light and warm atmosphere.

Apart from choosing the right plants the selection of planters are too essential today. Many beautiful planters are also available in the market in different materials like wood, metal, terracotta and many more. For mat base the flora frames or flora cells are good options for creating vertical gardens in seismic or other areas.

Thus with a good drainage system, a proper light and shade management, a stylish  medium of planters or a hydroponic system have encouraged a lot of people to experiment with awesome vertical gardens.




  1. 1.    We are grateful to Fytogreen, Australia’s leading provider of roof gardens, vertical gardens and green facades, for giving us permission to use the images liberally.
  1. We are also grateful to the designer of the planter (www.twentyonestudio.com) for giving us permission to use the image.



Sourish Bhattacharya is a freelance writer.

Baluchari Sarees of Bishnupur

Gautam Patel

Working in Gujarat in social development


Baluchari sarees are hand-woven in richly dyed silk, depicting stories from ancient India, including from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.  The famous characters of Ram, Sita, Krishna and Gopis are displayed exuberantly along the borders, and whole scenes are presented on the large pallus.  Some designs include kings, noblemen and graceful dancing girls with celebratory scenes and ceremonies.

The tradition of Baluchari Sarees originates from a village called Baluchar in Murshidabad District in West Bengal.  Over two hundred years ago Murshidkuli Khan, the Nawab of Bengal patronized this weaving tradition and the Baluchari art flourished.  Over the years there was decline in Baluchar and many weavers gave up the profession.  In the twentieth century, Subho Tagore, a famous artist, made efforts to revitalise the rich tradition of Baluchari weaving. He showed Akshay Kumar Das, a weaver of Bishnupur, the technique of jacquard machine weaving.  Akshay Kumar Das then began using the Baluchari designs to weave sarees in Bishnupur with jacquard looms.

Baluchari styles are now part of the weaving tradition of the town Bishnupur.  Bishnupur was the capital of the Malla dynasty and different kinds of crafts flourished under the patronage of the Kings.  Bishnupur is also famous for the terracotta temples of the Malla Kings.  The temples are covered in detailed scenes that are a major influence for the designs and motifs of Baluchari sarees.


The Baluchari saree designs are first sketched and then copied on to punching cards which are used in the jacquard loom to weave the pattern.  The cards have punched holes which correspond to the design. Thousands of punched cards are required for one saree design. Where there is a hole punched this raises a hook carrying the warp thread to be woven with the weft thread.  These hooks can be connected to more than one thread, allowing multiple weaving of a repeat of a pattern.

The vivid colours, intricate fine silk designs and deep traditions combine to create the elegant beauty of the unique Baluchari Sarees.



Photographs by the author.



Gautam Patel graduated from London School of Economics in Development Management, which included a study of local governance in rural West Bengal. Currently working in Gujarat in social development. Email gaukhnh@gmail.com

Saraswati Puja Decoration

Debasmita Goswami, Freelance Writer


Saraswati Puja in Eastern India has a broad impact on young minds. This is not just a ‘Puja’ (worshipping ceremony) to please the Goddess, but is also a scope to relish together the mirth and cheer of early spring. Devi Saraswati is probably worshipped in many countries in Asia but with different acquaintances. In Burma she is Thurathadi, in China she is Biancaitian, in Thailand she is known as Surasawadee and in Japanese as Benzaiten. As the country differs the appearance of the image changes, but the purpose of her worship remains the same, to please the deity of knowledge and wisdom. Again, Devi Saraswati combines in her single embodiment all the qualities of the nine Muses of the Hellenic tradition.

In India Devi Saraswati is depicted as a beautiful woman attired in a pure white saari and seated on a white lotus that symbolizes the absolute truth. There always remains a swan just next to her feet which is considered as a vehicle of the goddess. For this reason she is also named as ‘Hangsha vahini’ or ‘Maral bahana’ (someone who travels by swan). Devi saraswati holds a ‘Veena’ (a musical instrument) in her hands symbolizing her sway over art and technology together. An all over white appearance of the idol including the swan represents the purity of knowledge.

In Eastern India, mainly in state of Orissa, Bihar and West Bengal Devi Saraswati is mostly worshipped by the students. They feel much enthusiastic to decorate the arena around the idol where that is placed. They are not artists, nor are they superb craft-persons, but they all enjoy working together in a team to do something precious. Apart from decorations they participate in drawing exhibitions, some other cultural programs, or some sort of charitable works.

Students of schools and colleges get involved in creating numerous decorative items on this occasion. A few years back the decoration used to be only of colourful paper crafts. But now the students are experimenting with newer thoughts within a moderate amount of budget.

In the process of decoration first and foremost comes the item of ‘Rangoli’ or ‘Alpona. The floor decoration in Saraswati Puja festival is almost an inevitable part in India. Working with ‘aabir’ (coloured powder) brings out colourful rangolis, where as paint, brush and chalk paste are used to draw alponas. Swans in Alpona make it more appropriate to put before the idol.

The decoration with pottery is a common practice all over the India. Decoration with earthen bowl, earthen lamp, lamp stand, wooden spoons, stuck on a mat base provides decorative yet cool look. The style and color of the statue complement the whole arrangement.

Sometimes the students try to think something bigger. Students of a college have tried to create a homely atmosphere of a village.  One of the house women is seen lifting up water from a well, one is busy in worshipping on the ‘Tulshi  Mancha’ (basil plant),and  another is busy in singing  who the Devi is herself.

Devi Saraswati in all over ‘Daaker saaj’ (a variety of paper craft) looks much graceful.

People also try their experimentations with the pandals.  Some have tried it only with the news paper rolls which are technically simple, but conceptually awesome.

In another place total structure of the temple is made of cow dung which itself is considered as an auspicious element in India.

The invitation cards of the schools and colleges are also worth mentioning as each one is a specimen of art. If one is from folk culture another is in a form of fine art. No one can be considered inferior to other.

This Puja festival is not only significant for its decorations, but it has some other aspects that give it a different identity.

Often the parents of their little children get a sacramental attempt to begin their studies before the Goddess. The children are taught to write down the initial letters of their alphabet to begin the lessons with her blessings.

As Devi saraswati is the Goddess of Knowledge, keeping an ink-pot is a compulsory process in this Puja. Generally an earthen inkpot is kept before the Goddess that is filled with milk instead of ink. A pen or ‘Khager Kalam’ (a reed of a tree) is placed there which is used to write down the ‘pronam mantra’ (worshipping words) with the milk on the leaves of wood apple. This is almost a must-do task for every student to please the Goddess.

In this occasion the girls are often seen in yellow saris, which is a symbolic colour of the mustard flower that blooms in this spring season. It also resembles the marigold that blooms in this time in abundance. With a rejuvenating spring, with an essence of love, with an energy for creativity, with an atmosphere of festivity the Saraswati Puja gets its greatest height to be enjoyed by the charming young boys and girls throughout the day.



All the photos (except the first one) by Debasmita Goswami.


Debasmita Goswami is a freelance writer. She loves documenting various Indian festivals.

Artist’s Space: Sarawut Chutiwongpeti

Independent Artist, Thailand


About the Artist

Sarawut Chutiwongpeti graduated from the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, in 1996. Since then, he has been working as a media artist with Cyber Lab at the Center of Academic Resources, Chulalongkorn University. He works in the area of contemporary art and likes to reveal the unexplored facets of experience. In 1998, he secured funding and travelled as a visiting artist/researcher to several countries such as Canada, the United States of America, Denmark, Finland, France, Norway, Sweden, Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Austria, Italy, Germany, United Kingdom, Egypt, Singapore, Malaysia, Korea and Japan. He contributes to the development of the media arts through his artistic and research practice. He is associated with a number of international organisations and centre and actively participated at the Banff Centre for the Arts (Canada), ImaginAsia Project,

Smithsonian Institution (The Freer Gallery of Art and The Arthur M.Sackler Gallery, United State of America), ZKM Project, (Institute for Visual Media, Germany), Designskolen; Biennial Theatre Festival -Sight ‘n Vision, Nordic Theatre Union (Denmark), Fukuoka Asian Art Museum; Collaboration Art Network In-Between; Waseda University; Kobe University of Design (Japan),

Central European University (Hungary), International Cultural Centre Jeunesses Musicales Croatia Groznjan (Croatia), The TOU SCENE Contemporary Centre of Art, The Nordland Kunst 0g Filmskole, The Trondheim Electronic Arts Centre, The Kunstakademiet Trondheim (Norway), Luleå Winter Biennial, The Beeoff/Splintermind, The Ricklundgården and The Royal University College of Fine Arts (Sweden), Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, The Pro Artibus Foundation and Art Centre Saksala ArtRadius (Finland), Galleria Civica di Arte Contemporanea and Drodesera Centrale fies (Italy), MAAPMultimedia Art Asia Pacific, Nanyang Technological University (Singapore), Rimbun Dahan and ABN AMRO-Malihom (Malaysia), Designing Your Future, Berlinale Talent Campus 2005, Haus der Kulturen der Welt (Germany) and Biennale Bibliotheca Alexandrina 2005, Arts Center, Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Egypt), Gyeonggido Museum of Modern Art, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Danwon Arts Museum, Arko Museum, Songsan Art Hall, Alternative Space Loop, Soeul Art Museum, Hankuk Art Museum , Korea International Art Fair (Korea) , ADCNI Biennale 2009 (Reunion, France) and Flaxart Studios (United Kingdom). Sarawut has organised many international solo and group exhibitions of his works. He has won many national and international awards for his original works.

He has directed his energies towards exploring the phenomena of interdisciplinary of art and culture and “searching for answers that can help reverse the subordination and objective materialism, which are prevalent in today’s society. What are the thoughts, doubts, fears, uncertainties, and reflections that we have and experience as we head towards the new material and immaterial territories, which we are to inhabit in the future?”

The Artist’s Statement

     “The project works, selected here, focus on the mechanisms of perception and dreams, the private world of the world of fantasy and unconscious, the conditions underlying the system by which mind and spirit operates. At the same time, the (in)-visibility of the structure creates a confusion on the viewers’ perception of the work and of the space where it is placed, thus provoking and ambiguous relationship between the object, its function and its appearance. Thus a mysterious force field is generated on the border of truth and lie, a force that is able to create unexpected angles of approach which in turn force the viewer to take up a new position in the observation of the surrounding world.”


Selected Works by Sarawut Chutiwongpeti