FOLK PAINTINGS OF ASSAM : TRADITION AND CHANGE
Assam has a fairly rich heritage of painting dating back at least four hundred years as is evidenced by the large number of old illuminated manuscripts which have been collected from all over the State. Some of these manuscripts like the Chaitra Bhagavata1 and the Hastividyaranya2 have been published in book form with reproduction of the paintings. These have drawn the attention of art lovers and specialists. Scholars like Dr. Maheshwar Neog and Dr. Rajatnanda Das Gupta have made excellent studies of most of the available manuscript paintings of this area3. However, the style and execution of the paitings of the manuscripts like the two named above, are on the whole a little too sophisticated and refined for the work to be classed as folk paintings, although they do betray some folk elements. There are, however, many other illuminated manuscripts in which the paintings are less sophisticated andreveal a greater degree of folk connection. Thus there are strong indications thatthere existed in Assam for a long tiem more than one style of folk painting. These styles seem to have grown and attained different degrees of sophistication along with the growth of manuscript literature. In all, it sems quite clear, that these different painting styles have grown from earlier folk styles.
There are frequent references in medieval Assamese literature to paintings called pats and to a class of painters called patuas. But patuas are no longer to be found in Assam. In the Kamrup dialect of Assamese there is an expression still current, which points to the practice of painting associated with another community, the nats or professional singers and dancers. The expression, natather pat, means a painting of thehouse of the nats. However, nats as a professional class also do nto exist in Assam today.
There was another class of artists -- not a caste, though - called khanikars who were versatile in doing all sorts of artistic work: make-up and stage-setting for theatrical performances. At one time they seem to have received court patronage and were organized into some sort of guilds (khel). However, the most enduring inspiration of the khanikars had been from the most enduring inspiration of the khanikars had been from the new-Vaisnava artistic effervescence, and because of this connection the bulk of the work done by the khanikars had centered around the sattras (monasteries) and nam-ghars (prayer halls). There are some excellent khanikars even today, particularly in upper Asam villages; but as indicated above, the khanikars do not specialize in painting. Whatever painting they do is done to decorate the carved panels, masks, votive structures or pedestals, book-stands, and so on. Practically, no independent painting on a flat surface is done by them.
In fact, in most parts of Assam today, the local traditions of folk painting are as good as dead except in the particular form mentioned above. But fortunately in the lower Assam districts of Kamrup and Goalpara - particularly I the latter - a good and forceful tradition of folk painting still survives. The medium of the painting - sheets of pith or the Indian cord (Aeschvnomene aspera) - of this tradition is rather unusual. Some artistic work on pith is done in other parts of the country, but nowhere else, perhaps, do the pith artists produce such a large variety of articles including paintings, which are so intimately connected with local folk life. Dr. Verrier Elwin was of the opinion that work of pith had originated in this region where the reed grows abundantly in many marshes, and it was the genius of the local artisans that put the local material into such good use4.
The markers of pith articles of these regions are popularly called mali or phumali (and malakar when oeis formal). Mali or malakar literally means a gardener or maker of garlands. But these particular malis or malakars are associated not with real flowers (phul) but with artificial flowers made of pith. However, the pith workers, particularly those of Goalpara, turn out not only with flowers but a variety of articles such as decorative head-gears, toys, images, and so on. They are also painters, in that they not only decorate the produced images and other objects skillfully with the most colourful application of paint but also paint independent pictures on flat surfaces made of pith sheets. The mannerin which the pith articles are shaped and the brushes wielded speaks for the artistic skill and sensitivity of the pith artists. It may be mentioned here that although there is a caste called Mali or Malakar throughout Assam, and in the West Goalpara region this caste is primarily associated with the making of pith articles, the craft is not exclusively practiced by members of this caste in all of Assam. People belonging to other castes can, and do, practice thecraft, and, in fact, in some areas all the pith artists belong to other castes5.
Traditionally, the great majority of the pith articles made by the malis have been intimately connected with local a large number of images of gods and goddesses of the local pantheon as well as toys and headgears are made. Among ritualistic articles, images and other items connected with the local Manasa cult (Marai) predominate in nuber and variety. However, in all areas where malis are active, whether they make images and toys of pith or not, they design temporary votive structures of pith and decorate them with delightful traditional paintings. Known by such names as maju, manjush, mandisha and tepari (the name varies fro area to area), these structures vary greatly in height and size and the pictures on them represent various local styles. The themes depicted in these pictures are almost always associated with the local Manasa cult and very frequently with the popular Beula legend of the cult. Brahma, Siva, Manasa, the merchant Chando on his boat, the floating raft with Beula and her dead husband, etc. are some of the mythic characters one most frequently notices in these paintings.
There also exist paintings independent of those votive structure, i.e., paintings which do not form part of a own stake. Such paintings are called pats; the bulk of them known as Bishohori pats, Bishohari [<bisahari>] being a particular form of Manasa.
On the north bank of the Brahmaputra in Goalpara district the work of thepith artists has traditionally been more or less a community effort. This, however, does not mean that individual artistic skill and excellence do not count. The products created as a result of this community effort ar greatly conventionalized. On the other hand, on the south bank, where most of the artists belong to theRabha tribal community and some of the Ganak (astrologer) caste, the art is less of a community affair and less institutionalized. The artistic efforts here have more individual print. This also indicates that although the practice of painting on pith has a long tradition in this area, as a living tradition, the art of painting has somehow avoided conventionalization.
However, one thing is certain: until recently all the folk artists in various areas had normally confined themselves to materials, themes and styles that were primarily the product of the local tradition. Now and then, of course, individual artists had ventured outside this local tradition. There were, for example, pats, or paintings, drawn on themes borrowed from the epics. Occasionally an artist of the Rabha tribal community, for whom drinking of rice beer is an essential, would depict a drinking scene, but by and large thescenes depicted on paintings centred around the myths of the local Manasa cult which is widely popular in the lower Assam region and forms the substance of a number of very popular folk entertainment institutions6.
In recent years, due to various factors such as changes in the socio-economic situation, and gradual decline of the hold of the traditional folk beliefs on the village population and the spread of mass culture, many significant changes have occurred in the pith paintings. The most obvious change has been in theuse of the materials. As pith is progressively becoming neither the devotees nor the artisans now care muc about the accuracy of the tradition - white paper is very frequently being used in place of pith sheets. Even ordinary newspaper sheets are being used at times. Change from locally made colors to bazaar colors, is something that had been taking place even earlier. Information which I could gather indicates this kind of change in folk painting is not confined to Assam onlyu but seems a pan-Indian trait.
There have also been changes in the themes themselves. Paintings based on the themes borrowed from the epics have been, as said earlier, occasionally produced over a long time, but in recent years pith artists have taken to making non-traditional articles using images of Saraswati and Durga and "fashionable" toys. Along with these changes some other inevitable changes in the traditional color schemes have also taken place in this traditional art.
Some notable changes have taken lace in the field of flat-surfaced paintings, too. We can cite some interesting examples. Some years back, a well-known modern commercial artists, who happens to hail from the Gauripur region of Goalpara, decided to use folk paintings to project the idea of space in an exhibition high-lighting space travel. Some pith artists were commissioned to create representations of the nine planets (navagraha) which, when placed side by side, would conjure up the idea of space. The pith artists obviously, had not had a tradition of doing navagraha paintings. But after thecharacteristic attributes of the grahas were explained to them and some initial suggestions given, they produced remarkable paintings representing thenine planets, making full use of the traditional technique and style. Although the navagraha idea is not so strongly linked up with traditional folk beliefs and customs of the area, some pith artists are now regularly turning out the navagraha series, as they find that it has a good commercial market backed up by governmental support.
It will be interesting to cite two more examples of change in the paintings on manjus. Both examples are form South Coalpara.
As we have already pointed out, in the traditional maju paintings of this region there had already existed some degree of individual freedom for the artist to deviate from the strictly traditional ritualistic themes, as for instance the drinking scene we talked about above. Butin two majus produced in more recent years we have noticed two striking changes. In one, the materials remain the same. The use of brush and colour follow more or less faithfully the traditional styles. But strangely, the traditional themes are missing. In place of gods and goddesses and scenes from the Beula legend, we have boys and girls dressed in modern trousers and frocks. Even the two legendary boats, drawn in paintings perhaps as a concession to tradition, do not seem to represent perhaps a scene from the themes are very much traditiona. Gods and goddesses connected with the local Manasa cult and scenes from the above legend are all there. But the materials are different. In place of pith sheets we have paper. In place of the bazaar colours that have been less harmoniously adapted to this traditional art form, we have a generous use of enamel paints. And, what is more significant, is the fact that little concern is shown toward the traditional style in most of the pictures. Some of these paintings clearly exhibit the influence of modern calendar art. All these changes represent the influence of mass culture on folk culture: in the first example highlighting a change in the life-style of the people and the second a change in the attitude toward materials of the artists themselves.
Chaudhuri, P.C. (ed.).
Das Gupta, R.
1972 Eastern Indian Manuscript Painting
Datta Barua, Harinarayan (ed.)
1949 "Folk Paintings of Assam" in Folk Paintings of India.
1959 The Art of Painting in Assam.