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Hasty initiation

The recently-held Savara Tribal Art exhibition showed the unpreparedness of the Savara tribe in handling new mediums like acrylic paints, brushes and cloth.


OLD TRADITION, NEW MEDIUM: The Savaras used paint on cloth. - Photos: P.V. Sivakumar

THE NOTION of tribal art instantly generates curiosity and a sensation, particularly in the minds of the urban audience who would treat it like exotica from another world. The three-day Savara Tribal Art Exhibition jointly organised by the department of tourism, government of Andhra Pradesh and Hotel Taj Krishna, indeed invoked similar expectations.

For, the Savara tribe is the least explored clan, but one which is spread out in at least six states of the country: Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and Orissa.

The mediumistic gauche was the premier aspect which demolished all promise that one must have fostered to see this exhibition. Clumsy handling of the brush, flamboyant mediums and a crowded bazaar-like activity reflected negatively of this ancient but living art of the Savaras residing in Vizianagaram, Srikakulam and partly in Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh.

The content was genuine but the rendering was utterly inadequate. Incomplete in some instances and smudgy in most areas, the display aroused a question mark in the minds of the spectators.

But for those with a little knowledge of the tribal art the flaw instantly revealed itself. For, the problem lies not with the artists but with the organisers who hazarded an early entry of an evolved wall art called edisung.

One of the most primitive tribes, the Savaras are known to have a history going back to 800 BC. Therefore, edisung is a tradition which is as old as the community itself.

Rendered as a matter of faith, this tradition of wall writing/drawing is a cultural ritual meant to appease the tribal spirits and dead ancestors. And there are two occasions when edisung is performed - once at an annual affair before the flowering of the mango crop called Mamidikotta and the other at Chukkala Panduga celebrated once in three or five years to worship the ancestors.

Using natural mediums like rice powder, coconut ash mixed in castor oil, the householder, who organises this festivity, paints portions of his house with bamboo twigs on geru (red-ochre) painted mud walls.

While the annual festival of Mamidikotta is held to appease the forest spirit which is believed to dwell in the kitchen, the drawings for the ancestors are more narratives in nature.

During the annual festival the kitchen wall is painted with motifs that would illustrate the peoples' desires to be protected and provided.


CONTEMPORARY CONTEXT: Change of configuration of `edisung'.

The Chukkala Panduga writings are executed on the entrance of the first room, generally the bedroom, which narrates the episodes of the householder's experiences.

These are excellent allusions of the Savara lifestyles which also include dream sequences and sometimes observations such as buses, guns, policemen and other such motifs.

The tribal canvas is an ingenuous interpretation of their magico-religious practices which are rich in myths and discharged with a great degree of ritualistic decorative expression.

The pictorial space as in the words of artist J. Swaminathan, the champion of tribal art is "...it has the capacity to hold us enthralled even when the representational aspect, or the content is rationally unaccepted or is mundane or even trivial and commonplace." Therefore, when one finds lapses in the Savara Art Exhibition, it is only to remind that this art form is far more refined and charming compared to the coarse display at a glossy venue.

For, some grace time should be given to the Savara artists until they master novel mediums like acrylic, brushes and cloth.

There is no issue about the content but a grave mediumistic difficulty as the Savara artist is used to painting on mud walls with rice powder and coconut ash mixed with coconut oil with bamboo twigs.

Although, the wall writings are a community art integral to folk and tribal arts, basically it is a ritualistic performance which illustrates a primitive instinct in man - to be protected and blessed.

But with new economic and political alterations, the tribal and folk artists are compelled to change and gradually translate their cultural practice for a new market situation.

Take for instance, the cases of Warli paintings or the Mithila school of art, or for that matter Cherial pattachitra or dokra metal casting, the artists/craftsmen have learnt a new trait of facing a developing contemporary culture.

In some situations like Nirmal, the degree of workmanship has certainly surpassed the limits of aesthetics and reached the pitches of manufacturing. Coming back to the Savara issue, it would be appropriate to conclude that this tribe be allotted enough time and space to be led into a harsh and finicky market.

ATIYA AMJAD

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