Aboriginal Paintings

Bharat Dogra

In recent years folk paintings of several tribal communities in India have attracted attention both for their beauty and their close integration with community life. The Pithoro painting of Rathwa community in Gujarat, the somewhat similar tradition of Bhilal community in Madhya Pradesh and the art work of Worli community in Maharashtra may be mentioned in this context. Such rich traditions of art can be promoted to bring recognition and benefits to tribal communities, but this should not be at the cost of disrupting those aspects of community life which have protected and promoted these skills over several generations.

Such efforts can benefit from some interesting experiences of Australia. Recently while visiting rural areas of Ajmer district this writer came across the somewhat unexpected spectacle of an exhibition of Australian Aboriginal art. The exhibition had been put up by Monique La Fontaine, a visiting curator from Perth. She explained that this was not an isolated effort but a part of many-sided initiatives to understand and promote Aboriginal art in Australia.

The British settlement of Australia in the late 18th and 19th century was accompanied by an assault on the land, livelihoods and way of life of the Aborigines who spoke 260 different languages and had distinct cultures. To get over the rights of indigenous people, the British simply declared Aborigine areas as uninhabited areas. These wars to gain control of land claimed the lives of 80% of the Aborigines.

During the last three decades, however, struggles of Aboriginal people for land rights have led to the emergence of some independent communities with better rights in their homelands. However standards of life expectancy, health, education and income remain at low levels.

In this overall dismal situation one positive has been the establishment of some art centres owned and managed by the Aboriginal people. The art works particularly paintings created here have also become a relatively reliable and steady source of income for some Aboriginal people.

But perhaps even more important than the economic factor is the cultural aspect. These paintings are seen as an important way for elder Aboriginal people to pass on their knowledge and skills to the younger generation. Also these paintings are seen as a means of teaching non-indigenous Australians about the Aboriginal way of life, as well as their history. This way possibilities increase for artists from both communities to work together, not just in paintings but also in photography and other new art forms. Recording of oral history is given increasing importance to gain more and better understanding of Aboriginal way of life. The spiritual connections with nature and particularly water sources is particularly important to understand the Aboriginal way of life.

In this context a much-discussed project is the Canning Stock Route Project, which tells the Aboriginal history of a remote region in Western Australia through paintings, oral histories and new media.

Speaking about one of such art exhibitions, Clint Dixon wrote in 2010, "Seeing all the artists and all the elders come through the exhibition, it's just a great feeling, a great moment. You can't describe it really. When you just see the looks on their face—they were happy, smiling.... There's no words to describe it really, it's just amazing. It's something they can be proud of, telling their story. Also sharing their history and their culture and where they come from and how they live."

All these efforts have led to a better understanding of Aboriginal cultures and wisdom. As an introduction to the Canning Stock Route Project states, "However familiar we think we are with the narrative of this country and its people, time and again we are amazed and humbled by the sheer weight of experience, wisdom and knowledge that infuse the stories and protocols of Aboriginal Australia. These stories are shared through paintings, through artefacts, through dance, and through the personal testimonies of people who are conscious of the need to pass on knowledge, to keep culture alive, and simply to communicate the complexity and power of their history."

Some lessons from these experiences of Australia can be valuable for India's efforts to protect and promote the art work of various tribal artists and tribal communities. In a paper ‘Tribal, Traditional and Urban Art Practices’, Raja Mohanty and Utpal Barua commend the efforts of artists-activists like Jagdish Swaminathan who encouraged and helped the artistic expression of some of the marginalised tribal communities. He also played an important role in setting up Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal. This centre has a collection of paintings by tribal artists. This paper mentions the work of several tribal artists who migrated to Bhopal "and developed their unique vocabularies that have enriched the diversity of visual arts in India." Giving an example, Mohanty and Barua say that the 'London Jungle Book' which emerged from a collaboration between Bhajju Shyam, one of the younger tribal artists, and publishers (Gita Wolf and Sirish Rao) is "a wonderful example of a tribal artist's response to contemporary civilization."

The efforts to encourage tribal artists can also be linked to the on-going efforts for protecting the heritage of rock art sites. While inaugurating the International Conference on Rock-Art at Delhi recently the Vice President Mr Hamid Ansari said that "rock art is a valuable repository of our artistic, cognitive and cultural beginnings since the earliest days. India is fortunate to possess one of the three largest concentrations of this world heritage—the other too being Australia and South Africa where rock art is still a living pursuit".

Vol. 46, No. 45, May 18 -24, 2014