India’s culturally diverse life comes alive through its conventional art forms. Each region in the country boasts a rich legacy of folk and tribal arts that are now recognised the world over owing to their inherent and distinct design characteristics. Be it the human experiences entombed with stick figures and geometric spirals seen in the Warli art of Maharashtra, the usage of lines, dots, and strong visual motifs seen in the Gond art of Madhya Pradesh, or the bold dot pattern and earth colours seen in Bhil art to make their stories come alive, Indian folk art and artists are slowly making a signature uniquely their own.
With our convergence on the symbol signifying the ‘Enso’ or circle of enlightenment, we shine light on the Indian modernists who have immortalized the ‘dot’, ‘bindu’, or ‘shunya’ with their exceptional works.
The second largest community in India residing in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan, some Bhils trace their ancestry to Eklavya, while come scholars even believe Valmiki, the author of Ramayana, was a Bhil. Hailing from the village of Pitol in Madhya Pradesh, Bhuri Bai discovered th joy of painting on paper and canvas after meeting artist J. Swaminathan at the Bharat Bhavan construction site, where she was employed as a daily wage worker.
In keeping with the tradition of Bhil Art, Bhuri Bai uses bright colours and dotted patterns to enliven large and imaginative scenes featuring human and animal figures. Consisting of large, non-living shapes of everyday characters filled with an earthy palette covered with an overlay of uniform dots in several patterns and colours that stand out striking against the background, Bhil art features dot patterns that can represent anything an artist wishes to – from deities to ancestors to everyday objects. Hence, the work of every Bhil artist is unique, and the dot patterns deem their own signature to the artist.
Traditionally practiced by women in the Hazaribagh district of Jharkhand, Sohrai and Khovar art is seen decorating the hut walls, usually done at weddings or at the time of festivals. Putli Devi, Malo Devi, and Parvati Devi are painters and muralists known for championing this traditional wall art featuring exquisite depictions of flora and fauna. The three artists each specialize in Sohari and Khovar Art often painting childhood scenes from memory utilizing dots and thick lines in earthy colours. The Sohrai art is also known as harvest art as it is done one day after Diwali festival for celebrating good harvest. During the celebrations the cattle is worshipped as the Goddess of wealth. Popular Sohrai motifs are animals, birds, lizards, elephants and Pashupati (the creator of all animals), who is usually shown riding on the back of an animal. The elephant is also a symbol of paddy clan and an auspicious symbol connected with the harvest.
The first Warli artist to begin painting on canvas, Jivya Soma Mashe born in 1934 is known for bringing the art form into mainstream markets by drawing it out of its associated ritual context. He painted his life, beliefs, customs, and rituals in simple drawings with extreme attention to detail and strokes, lines, and a group of dots. The harvest season meant so much to him that he dedicated entire paintings to it. Being picked by Bhaskar Kulkarni, an artist and official of the All India Handloom Board, to participate at an exhibition of folk art in Pragati Maidan in Delhi in 1971 to staging his paintings in a solo show at Gallery Chemould in 1973 in Mumbai — then a hub for progressive artists such as M.F. Husain and S.H. Raza — Mashe emerged as a modernist of his own mind. Be it in his large-size murals or works on paper and canvas, he painted with freedom and spontaneity, welcoming harvest and monsoons even in his art. Mashe passed away in May 2018 at his residence in Dahanu, Maharashtra.
A torch-bearer for Gond art across the world, Jangarh Singh Shyam was the first Adivasi artist ever to become popular. Known for his extraordinary command over line, form, and colour, he grew up painting Gond myths and legends on the walls of village homes in dazzling details and colours, including his small forest hut which caught the eye of artist and activist J. Swaminathan, who encourage Shyam to move to the capital of Bhopal, and grow as an artist in the new-age institution, Bharat Bhavan. Jangarh would recreate the world of stories he grew up in – so distant now from the modernist art school he was a part of – and in that, created a modernist aesthetic of his own. His murals on the walls of Vidhan Bhavan, or Legislative Assembly in Madhya Pradesh, and the Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, and one of his paintings auctioned for over 30,000 USD at Sotheby’s, New York.