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Diversity in the Stacks: Folk and Tribal Arts in South Asia

Posted on by Jef Pierce

Diversity in the Stacks aims to build library collections that represent and reflect the University’s diverse population.

In recent years, we at Penn Libraries have aimed to acquire more materials related to South Asian folk and tribal traditions, with particular interest in arts and performance. The desire for broader representation coupled with shifting scholarly research on campus necessitate more robust and inclusive collecting in this arena. Additional funding last year allowed us to pursue a directed purchase of several hundred volumes related to South Asian painting, textiles, music, and dance.  

Some of these new acquisitions offer a broad introductory overview of folk and tribal arts across South Asia. Anup Kumar Bharti’s Indian Folk and Tribal Art, for example, provides encyclopedic documentation of many artistic forms and regional expressions. One can learn about Kalamezhuthu, a ritualistic artform in Kerala which uses colored powders to create images and patterns on the floor; or basket weaving craftsmanship among the Khasi tribes of Northeast India and Bangladesh; or Gaur dances among the peoples of Madhya Pradesh. Such sweeping surveys are especially useful to anyone interested in gaining a basic understanding of the field’s extensive landscape.   

Living Traditions: Tribal and Folk Paintings of India, published by the Indian Ministry of Culture’s Centre for Cultural Resources and Training, focuses on a single medium but provides an expansive tour of tribal—or Ādivāsī— painting styles and formats. The publication includes entries on Pithora ritual wall paintings of the Bhil, Bhilala, and Rathwa tribes of Western and Central India; the bold and distinctive painting style of the Gond tribal communities of Central and Eastern India; and the pictographs of the Saura tribes from Odisha. Pithora paintings, which can vary in style and content, serve as an integral component of worship for the deity Baba Pithora in appreciation for good fortune. Gond paintings, which tend to depict the natural realm, display an especially distinctive style that employs dots, dashes, and geometric shapes to convey scenes and elaborate patterns. The Saura pictographs function as a means of worship and a medium of invocation, inviting gods and spirits to inhabit the spaces in the painting as a temporary dwelling in the living world. Living Traditions also explores the Rajasthani tradition of Kaavad, in which a mobile shrine made of wood is painted with narrative scenes as a form of storytelling. 

Respected scholar Mandakranta Bose offers a detailed investigation of another form of painted narrative expression in The Rāmāyaṇa in Bengali Folk Paintings, which focuses on the regional tradition of paṭacitra, or scroll painting. Rendered with vegetable and other indigenous dyes in a vibrant style on handmade paper, these paintings comprise sequential frames that are used as a form of visual storytelling. Bose opens with an exploration of the history and culture of the Bengali folk painters, known as paṭuās, before delving into the distinct iterations of the famed epic poem Rāmāyaṇa relayed through painted depictions. Additionally, Bose offers select lyrics from some of the accompanying songs used by storytellers to guide their audience through the painted narratives. Her exploration provides insight into the aesthetics of Bengali folk art and demonstrates how regional cultures reframe common tales to express their own distinct identities.  

Textile traditions are an underappreciated but significant form of folk and tribal aesthetic expression. A number of recent Penn Libraries acquisitions, including Textile Traditions of Northeast India, Studies in North East India: Study on Assamese Textiles, and Tribal Hand Woven Fabrics of Manipur, examine the varieties of cloth produced by communities in the eight “sister states” of Northeast India. These volumes explore the histories of these crafts, the materials, the dyes, and the techniques of fabrication. They also compare prominent designs and motifs of the varied contexts in which different fabrics are employed. The embellishment of embroidery also features prominently in volumes such as Splendors of Pahārī Embroidery, a substantive edited volume including 16 articles on the Chamba rūmāl embroidery traditions among Himalayan hill regions of North India. With a focus on these handkerchiefs of fine cloth double-stitched with silk thread, the volume explores the different figures expressed in thread, their interpretations and meanings, technical aspects of stitch styles, their history, and their conservation.  

Performance traditions feature strongly in our recent acquisitions as well. Volumes on specific forms of folk and tribal dance underscore the richness of aesthetic movement across times, regions, and communities in South Asia. Chhau Dance of Mayurbhanj guides the reader through styles, structures, and meanings of this Odishan dance form that blends martial arts, tribal and folk traditions, and classical influences to generate graceful and vigorous movements. The influences of folk and tribal aesthetics and movements on classical forms are also considered in works like Manipuri Dance: An Assessment on History and Presentation. This extensive volume compares the varieties of dance among the tribal groups of Manipur, considers how tribal religious ritual evolved with the spread of Vaiṣṇava religious expression, and offers in depth analysis of mudrās—symbolic or ritualistic poses—and related foot movements. It also introduces the instruments played to accompany these dances and analyzes the different tālas, or meters.  

A number of works offer examples and analysis of song lyrics from folk and tribal communities in South Asia, providing unique insight into peoples whose lives and histories are often overlooked. The Folk Music of Manganiyars: An Anthropological Appraisal presents a study of the Manganiyars, a folk musician community inhabiting the deserts of Rajasthan. In addition to considering how musicians and their patrons preserve traditional Rajput values of victory, sacrifice, and valor through music, the volume also explores a typology and analysis of song lyrics and instrumentation. Similarly, Popular Muslim Folksongs of Assam identifies varied musical genres expressing Islamic religious themes in Assamese. The zikir, for instance, adopts the language and style of older Assamese Vaiṣṇava poetry but adapts it for the context of Islam, creating a new form of popular devotional music that glorifies Allah and associated spiritual peace.            

Performance as a form of religious rite is a common theme across regions and community contexts. Folk Rituals of the Tuluva Region of Coastal Karnataka highlights the Tulu people’s worship of spirits through the ritual performance of būta kola. This annual rite—which involves music, dance, recital, and elaborate costumes—invokes these deities through possession as a form of recognition and worship. Annual religious performances are also examined in Festivals & Folk Theatre of Odisha, which considers folk theater in eastern India and then explores how regional forms influence distinct expressions of prominent religious performances. For example, the Rāmlīlā, a dramatic re-enactment of the epic Rāmāyaṇa popular across South Asia, can vary from one district to the next depending on regional folk aesthetics and traditions.  

Penn Libraries has long been known for its holdings on premodern temple architecture and sculpture. Now, as our collection of materials related to South Asian arts continues to modernize and to broaden, library users can expect increased representation across Indigenous groups, social strata, and forms of aesthetic expression.

Other relevant recent acquisitions: