Sundari Bai is hard at work. Her concentration can't be swayed either by the sweltering April heat or the hustle-bustle around her. As she moulds figurines from clay, while supervising her assistants working on birds for a jaali, little does she know that she is a legend for most artists participating in the Tribal Workshop Conclave being held at Delhi's Lalit Kala Akademi. A skilled practitioner of the traditional bhitti chitra art of Sarguja, Chhattisgarh, she has showcased her skills all across India, and was even invited to a major exhibition of Indian tribal art at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. The conclave is part of the Akademi's 55th National Exhibition of Art.
The sprawling lawns and the open-air amphitheatre of Meghdoot II at the Akademi is playing host to 65 visual artists and 15-20 performing artists from various tribes of India. The idea behind the conclave is to acknowledge the age-old artistic traditions still simmering and bubbling away in the deep recesses of the country, which might have been kept outside of established art history. KK Chakravarty, chairman, Lalit Kala Akademi spoke about this marginalisation of tribal art during the inaugural event: "The presentation of these arts in urban festivals and formal state celebrations, rather than their celebration in their own contexts, has beggared the arts of their relevance in addressing the rhythm of life and livelihood."
One can find artists specialising in traditions such as Pithora, Gond, Warli, Rathwa, Muria Gaud, Konda, Manjuli, Maram, Mishing and Meena. It's interesting to see them interact with several contemporary artists who are sharing the same space. "The 55th National Exhibition features 168 contemporary artists. We thought it would be interesting to have the tribal conclave as a parallel event," says Gayatri Tandon, programme officer with the Akademi. Soumen Das, a painter from Baroda, has been observing the various tribal artists over the past several days. "I really like the use of line and the extent of detailing." Das has incorporated some of these elements in his painting of the Meghdoot theatre.
Some of the contemporary artists, having worked the gallery and newspaper circuits before, seem to be well-versed with the importance of PR. They give their brushes a rest to talk at length about their semi-realistic creations. It's a sharp contrast to the artists of the soil, who are oblivious to the presence of scribes at the event, their focus only on the canvas in front. Ananjaya Rabha, an artist from Goalpara, Assam, has created vibrant vignettes about the daily life in a Rabha village. "For instance, there is a scene from the shamshaan ghat where the rituals are shown. Adjacent to it is a wedding scene, where a woman is shown armed with a big wooden vessel, serving the entire village," he says, "and then there is the Baiko festival. I have shown a man pouring rice beer over a rock in a jungle with a prayer to the Gods to not let any crisis befall his village." Like Rabha, these artists draw from their immediate contexts, using simple tools to create extraordinary paintings. The age-old motifs are re-invented to reflect the perspective of each artist. As Sundari Bai says: "Main apne dimaag se banaati hoon, kisi ka seekha-sikhaya nahi (I draw from my mind, not from any set rules taught by someone)."
The Conclave is on through April 6 at Meghdoot II, Copernicus Marg, New Delhi