The Pandemic Shows up in India's Folk Art

The Pandemic Shows up in India's Folk Art
A rural woman painting handicrafts in Kolkata , Photo Credit: DewDrops Images /

Traditional artists of India, especially folk artists, are recording the pandemic through their paintings and narratives

Uttara Gangopadhyay
July 30 , 2020
07 Min Read

Back in April this year, when, along with the rest of the world, India too was learning to adhere to COVID-19 virus containment protocols, finding ways and means to entertain themselves at home, Swarna Chitrakar, a housewife in Pingla, a remote village in West Bengal, was busy preparing a painted scroll.

It was not a fancy on her part but a reiteration of what the ‘chitrakar’ community has been practising for generations, the making of ‘jorano pot’ or the story-telling painted scrolls. But this was not the traditional scroll depicting stories from Indian mythologies and epics. It was about the new disease that had turned into a pandemic.

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A post shared by Joi Hok! (@joi.hok) on Dec 1, 2019 at 5:23am PST

Traditionally, the ‘jorano pot’ are long scrolls which consist of small divisions of painted scenes that tell stories from Indian epics and mythologies. The artist composes a lyrical narrative around the scenes. At fairs and other public gatherings, the artist unfolds the scroll, scene by scene, and sings along with it. Occasionally, they also drew inspiration from contemporary happenings.

Swarna Chitrakar thought of using her skill to build a narrative about the deadly virus, how it spread, the dos and don’ts, how to cooperate with doctors and healthcare workers, etc. Although the itinerant ‘chitrakar’ was stuck at home, she hoped the health workers would be able to make use of the scroll in their awareness drives.

Traditional artists, especially folk artists across India, have been similarly reflecting the pandemic situation through their art. The element of storytelling inherent in most Indian traditional art, has allowed modern artists to explore the idea of the pandemic. Artist Anwar Chitrakar, also from Pingla, decided to add humour to his paintings, executed in the style of ‘Kalighat Patachitra’. In one of his paintings, he displays a flummoxed father waiting to catch her daughter who is out with her boyfriend against his wish but cannot recognise the culprits because everyone is wearing a mask these days.

You may catch some of the other interpretations of the current situation at the virtual art exhibition called ‘Tales of Our Time’ being hosted by Emami Art, a part of the Kolkata Centre for Creativity.

Raconteurs by profession, the Bhat community of Rajasthan travel from village to village, narrating tales with the help of their ‘kavad’, a painted box-like story telling tool. Some of them have incorporated social awareness messages into their narratives with appropriate paintings on their kavad. Artist Kalyan Joshi, from Bhilwara in Rajasthan, has used the state’s traditional ‘phad’ painting to convey messages of social awareness to contain the pandemic.

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A post shared by Kalyan Joshi (@joshi.kalyan) on May 10, 2020 at 10:02pm PDT

Patachitra paintings by Apindra Swain from Odisha’s famous artists’ village Raghurajpur, scale back the timeline and depict how traditional lifestyle of yore would have looked with the modern pandemic containment rules in place. In one of the images, when the husband returns from the market, a fish in hand, the wife gives him a sanitiser instead of offering take the fish and his bag.

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A post shared by Meeta Mastani (@meeta.mastani) on May 2, 2020 at 6:33am PDT

Madhubani painting, which takes its name from the eponymous village in Bihar, is known for its simple yet graphic style. Mostly executed by women, it too contains elements of storytelling in a single frame. Ambika Devi, a popular artist from the village, integrated the use of masks and sanitisers into her representation of life in rural India.

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A post shared by Dastkari Haat Samiti (@dastkarihaatsamiti) on Jun 29, 2020 at 5:00am PDT

From building social awareness to humorous interpretations, artists from nearly every genre have come up with their own view of the pandemic and its protocols. Dastkari Haat Samiti, a non-government organisation, which works with rural artists to promote their art and craft on the global market, has posted many of these drawings on their Instagram handle. Go check it out.

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