Understanding Folk and Fine Art

I began seriously thinking about the differences between fine and folk art earlier this year while visiting Danda Sahi, a pattachitra painting school based outside of Puri, Orissa. The artists I interacted with were incredibly well trained and remarkably skilled—but all of the art that they created conscribed to a certain set of guidelines. Most of the art was based on mythological stories and devotional figures—there were many paintings that were extremely similar to each other, differing only in color, line, or value. There were a few pieces outside this norm—for instance one piece (that I purchased) depicted an array of musical instruments.

I asked a few of the artists if they ever experimented with other imagery—they said no. I asked if women ever participated in the process—they told me that some of their mothers and wives helped make the paper that they paint on. (Not exactly the active role I was hoping to hear) When I asked more about why things were done in this particular fashion, they replied that it was the way it had always been.

My experience at Danda Sahi is typical of life surrounding the folk arts—it is a community effort, there is an assumed anonymity (there are rarely signatures on the pieces since several people are involved in the creation), it is steeped in tradition, and there is limited scope for innovation. This is not to say that there is no innovation in folk art—there definitely is. It just occurs at a slower rate than in popular art where we prioritize innovation and individuality (a symptom of self-branding that comes with capitalism).

I asked my advisor why the folk arts aren’t experimental. He asked me whether identity is something to experiment with? Can a Vaishnava experiment with how he wears his tilak? How then—why then—do we expect or prod folk artists to be experimental when the art depends on its derivative nature? Folk and fine arts occupy different spheres so to speak and conform to different social values.

I originally came to India to look for examples of self-portraiture and self-representation in women’s crafts. I am fast realizing that this is rare if not completely unheard of. (There is one case where Madhubani painter Ganga Devi did depict herself going through cancer treatment—but this set of paintings came about after being exposed to American art and travelling widely around the world.) The idea of portraiture and self-portraiture rests on this idea of individuality—the idea that one is important enough to depict. In the western world, we don’t see portraits until the Renaissance—in South Asia, it is several centuries later, with the Mughals. The folk arts don’t include self-depiction because the practice is not about the individual—it is about ritualistic value, the continuity of tradition, and catering to popular taste.

I have decided to change the crux of my research, away from women’s self-narratives in folk art and toward more identity politics in modern art. However, I am taking a class on folk and functional art as I do really appreciate learning more about traditional techniques—and the people who engage in them.

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