Cinema is one of the best mediums to tell stories. Of course, we all enjoy watching a good, entertaining film. However, there is more to films than fiction and larger-than-life sequences. Films on traditional Indian art, artistic expressions, and artists are excellent ways to educate audiences. At the same time, movies are usually marketed and reach a far wider viewership than any other medium of information. And thus, documentaries and movies on Indian folk and traditional arts have captured the imagination of several filmmakers and art connoisseurs over the years.
Art Movies & Films on Traditional Indian Art
With social media and movie streaming platforms viewing content has become far easier and more accessible. Many directors are taking upon themselves, to create both short and long formats of art films and documentaries that showcase the rich heritage of folk arts and artists in India. However, this doesn’t mean that a few decades ago, content and films around folk arts of India were not made. In fact, art and cultural enthusiasts have always stepped up to collate information, data, interviews, images, and videos of art in India, thus ensuring their spread and survival. From Doordarshan to MUBI and YouTube, films and documentaries on Indian folk art and artists have made a place of their own.
Art movies and documentaries on Indian folk arts not only throw light on the history, origin, and glorification of the art form. They also educate viewers on the challenges, skill, solutions, and everyday life of the artists and both their claim to fame, as well as, survival struggles. Also, an Indian art documentary is a truer and closer version of reality. However, art films take the liberty of glamorizing the content for a better movie-watching experience. Either way, without too much fictionalization and based on good solid research, here are some authentic and wonderful art films that you can watch when you have some free time.
Nainsukh is directed by Amit Dutta and is based on the life of Nainsukh, the official artist in the court of the Rajput Princes of Jasrota. The movie is a fantastic tribute to one of the best-known Pahari-style painters of India. Nainsukh of Guler leaves his father’s and family’s workshop to work in the court of Raja Balwant Singh. Produced by art historian Eberhard Fischer and the Museum Rietberg Zurich (where most of Nainsukh’s paintings are displayed), the film thus understandably concentrates on the time of his life when he was the official court painter.
The film successfully highlights the paintings of this 18th-century miniature painter of India through exceptional compositions and lighting. The corresponding recreation of his paintings is seen on the screen set in the background of the current ruins of the Jasrota court. Shot extensively in Jammu & Kashmir, the film is a visual delight and transports the audiences to the period of Raja Balwant Singh. In fact, the film not only brings Nainsukh’s paintings alive on screen but also, the glory of the Jasrota Fort and its inhabitants.
Though a biography, the film is a refreshing watch as it doesn’t focus too much on sequential narratives. Instead, it is the cinematographic poetry on screen that unfolds the life of Nainsukh through his paintings and showcases the artworks in real-life enactments. Special mention to also the quiet, yet astounding sound effects. With minimal dialogues, and most of them in the Pahari dialect, Nainsukh captures the little sounds with peaceful clarity. Be it the flow of water, the brush of the paint stroke, or the chirping of the birds, the audio and visual synchronization and melody is perhaps the biggest takeaway that the film offers. Additionally, the film portrays the cultural landscape of the period, depicting royalty and the close bond that the painter shared with his patron. Manish Soni and Nitin Goel play Nainshukh and Raja Balwant Singh to perfection. And Mrinal Desai’s cinematography along with the Classical background musical score keeps the audience in almost a trance-like state. Nainsukh which means ‘pleasure to the eyes’, is a fitting name for a film that is both pleasing to the eye and mind. Watch this art movie to learn about an important traditional Indian art and one of its most important exponents.
Another gem from Amit Dutta, Chitrashala is a short film, again focusing on the miniature paintings of India. However, seldom do art movies, such as Chitrashala have such a profound impact on the viewers. Chitrashala begins with shots of an old palace, now converted into a museum that houses miniature paintings on its wall. The haunting background score and the interspersed visuals from the stunning landscapes of the Himalayan region, seen outside the museum, keep the viewer on the edge of their seats, waiting in anticipation. And then not too long since, the characters and figures inside the paintings start moving, flowing seamlessly to tell a story of their own.
The mesmerizing animation of the miniature paintings that bring them to life, is a subtle dig at how paintings might react when museums are bereft and empty. King Nala and Damayanti’s story from the Mahabharata is one of the tales that are animated in the film. For historians who know the stories behind these miniature paintings, this film is nothing short of a long-awaited treat. For those who may not be too well versed in history and heritage, the sheer movement of the painted characters coalesces into a rhythmic flow of imagination and tales. Among the many films on traditional Indian art, Chitrashala has a uniquely special place because it easily dapples between imagination and reality, leaving the viewer wanting more.
Goddess of Art in Raghurajpur is an Indian art documentary directed by Ankana Pal and heads straight to the village of Raghurajpur. What is Raghurajpur known for? It is the first Heritage Village of Odisha designated so by the Indian government in 1998. Every villager in Raghurajpur is an expert in the Pattachitra paintings, a traditional art form that was originally created on scrolls of cloth.
The documentary introduces viewers to the village, panning us across its narrow lanes and highlighting its many other artistic pursuits, in the form of stone sculptures and mask paintings. Located 11km from Puri and situated on the banks of River Bhagirathi, the artists of the village are trained from childhood. Most of the paintings revolve around Lord Jagannath and are used during the iconic Rath Yatra. The film comprises interviews with artists, who explain in detail the process and method of their art. From making their own natural colours to being globally recognized this village is one of the greatest hubs of Patta Chitra art. Voiced over in Odiya with English subtitles, this short documentary gives a succinct and educative understanding of the traditional art form and its artists.
The Paintings of India is a series of 26 documentaries directed by Benoy K. Behl for Doordarshan. Each Indian art documentary is approximately 20-30 minutes in duration and showcases different traditional paintings of India. Starting from the paintings in the caves of Ajanta and Ellora, Benoy Behl and his team have done a splendid job in shooting at myriad locations and museums. The team traveled extensively across the nation, capturing on camera the regional and heritage paintings of India. Besides, the art movie is also shot in the USA and European museums that display Indian art. In fact, as Benoy recalls, they traveled to 14 countries including Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Japan, etc. that were also influenced by Indian art.
The subjects of each documentary range from Buddhist paintings, tribal paintings, Deccan paintings, Mughal paintings, miniature paintings, and much more. The individual documentaries begin with a general introduction by Behl. Thereafter, the art film delves into the history, origin, and understanding of a particular art form. With images and videos of the paintings, locations, and artists, along with interviews the ‘Paintings of India’ is undoubtedly, one of the most substantial and sizeable series dedicated to Indian paintings and traditional arts. It is a must-watch for aspiring artists for sure. However, it is also a great way to educate the younger generation about the rich cultural heritage of the land. The series can be viewed on YouTube and is a perfect source for appreciating and learning about the traditional arts and paintings of India.
Documentaries by the Films Division
The Films Division came into being in 1948 and was established by the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. The main aim of the Division was to produce documentaries and magazines related to cinema and government programs. As of January 2023, the Films Division has been transferred to the NFDC or National Film Development Corporation. However, the Films Division during its tenure, produced some great films, including documentaries and films on traditional art.
In 2020, the Films Division undertook an initiative called the Lok Virasat: A Festival of Films on Folk Art and Paintings. Under this banner, several documentaries and art movies were showcased on their website and YouTube channel. Most of these documentaries were made decades ago, but through the initiative found a common platform for collective viewing. Some of the documentaries and art films that can still be viewed on YouTube are:
Folk Paintings of Orissa (1976) – Directed by Bani Doota, this 9-minute documentary is a commentary on the rich heritage of folk paintings and artists of Odisha.
Kalighat Paintings (1981) – The Kalighat Paintings is a 16-minute documentary directed by Punendu Pattrea that highlights the origin, history, and artistry of the Kalighat Paintings of West Bengal.
Warli Paintings (1985) – This documentary on the Indian art of Warli paintings was directed by VK Wankhede. The 17-minute art film centers around Warli art, showcasing the paintings, methods, and artists of the Thane district in Maharashtra.
Madhubani Paintings (1971) – Directed by Debabrata Roy, this 14-minute art film talks about Madhubani Paintings.
Patachitra (1980) – As the name suggests, this Indian art documentary, is about the scroll painters of India. The film is directed by Purnendu Pattrea.
Pichwai (2012) – Directed by Pankaj Rishi Kumar this art movie centers around the origin and evolution of the Nathdwara School of Paintings.
Besides, the Films Division produced other films on traditional arts, including on Bundi paintings and Phad.
Art movies and films on traditional Indian art, may not be as popular as mainstream entertainment cinema. However, nonetheless, Indian art documentaries and art films are excellent mediums to educate and engage audiences. The visual interactions and storytelling narratives make it easier for viewers to learn and be aware of the art form. It is of course, imperative to know about our traditional arts and heritage, for both their spread and continuity. And thus, we hope, that we have more compelling stories and documentaries that can do their bit for the preservation and prosperity of Indian arts.
Rooftop aims to spread awareness about the traditional arts of India. Through various events, workshops, and more, we hope to do our bit to contribute to the Indian heritage and its creative art and artists.
Discover us on Instagram @rooftop_app for all things on traditional Indian art.