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Celebrating the Tribal Community Spirit through Santhal Paintings

The Free-Spirited Depictions of Santhal Paintings

Art transcends rules and boundaries and refuses to be confined to a limited worldview. Anything can be art, and this is undoubtedly true for folk and tribal art forms. Tribal art forms are extremely imaginative and feature elements like symbolism and surrealism. The paintings of the Santhal tribal community show a similar artistic exuberance. Santhal paintings are an embodiment of tribal customs and folklore in a lively and visual artistic medium.

Let’s look at how the lively Santhal art form is an integral part of the tribal community’s cultural heritage and identity.

An Introduction to the Santhal Tribal Community

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The Santhals are the largest group of the Mundas and live in several states, such as Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, and West Bengal. They speak Santhali, which is an Austroasiatic language. The unique cultural practices of the Santhals, juxtaposed with their ethical origins, lead to a unique communal identity. The Santhal people live in close harmony with nature and depend on forests for their livelihood. They participate in activities such as hunting, gathering, farming, and fishing in order to survive.

The Santhals use music and dance as a form of entertainment and to relax after a long day of work. Their lives are centred around community rituals and celebrations, which is the central theme of Santhal paintings. They also derive inspiration from the folk art of Jharkhand, Bengal, and Orissa.

The Traditional Themes of Santhal Paintings

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Santhal paintings are masterful depictions of tribal existence. They show the lifestyle of the Santhal community and express their relationships with nature. Amidst leafy backgrounds and native wildlife, the Santhals dance and sing in musical processions and celebrate harvest festivals and auspicious occasions through their tribal customs. The simplified minimalist Santhal art often features the Santhal people dancing, harvesting, or celebrating. These simple joys of life form the central theme of their music, dance, folklore, and, consequently, their art.

The Medium of Santhal Paintings

Earlier, Santhal artists would create natural paints from pigments and paint on cloth. These pigments included mud, organic matter, stone, and minerals. Now most Santhal artists paint on canvas or paper scrolls and use acrylic or other synthetic paints. The artist first draws the outlines in black and then colours them with paint.

The different regions that the Santhals live in have obvious influences on their art and culture. Due to this, there are differences in the paintings of Bankura, Kalighat, and Midnapore. In Midnapore, Santhal paintings have fine lines and more intricate detail. They use a limited colour palette. One characteristic of the paintings of Midnapore is that the human figures have elongated eyes that cover a major part of the face. Kalighat Santhal paintings have a more expressive colour palette and also show the influence of the Bengal Pattachitra.

The Styles and Themes of Santhal Paintings

Image credits: indic inspirations

Santhal paintings are imaginative and surreal, whimsical in both style and colour application. A motif can be painted in unnatural colours, so in Santhal paintings, the grass can be blue and the sky can be green! Primary colours make up the most popular colour palettes. Since Santhal paintings do not have to conform to reality, they are full of vitality and mysticism. However, they contain direct representations of birds, animals, and insects.

Popular motifs include mothers with children, a pair of human lovers or animal couples, views of the village and forests, driving bullock carts, livestock, farming and cultivation, collecting and chopping firewood, hunting, gathering, fishing, and the daily chores carried out by the locals. Human figures have elongated eyes and are usually in profile. They wear rural and tribal clothing. While painting festivals and musical processions, Santhal artists include motifs like the flute and set of drums. The two drums, Tamaka and Tumdak, accompany many of their folk songs.

The Link Between Santhal Paintings and the Tribal Lifestyle

A Santhal painting by Minmoy Das. Image credits: Artmajeur

To the Santhals, painting is a form of decoration and self-expression. They paint their huts during village festivals and ceremonial occasions. Leafy backgrounds, simple shapes and borders, and artistic multicoloured interpretations of natural life forms are major features of these paintings. Nowadays, some Santhal artists also create monochromatic, modernised Santhal paintings and sell them commercially.

An interesting type of Santhal painting is called Jadu Patua. The Santhal community is one of the tribal communities that practise this art form. It is similar to Santhal painting in style but has completely different motifs, colour palettes, and subject matter.

The Modern Popularity of This Traditional Art Form

Santhal Dance by Jamini Roy. Image credits: Google Arts and Culture.

Modern Indian artists like Jamini Roy, Jagdish Swaminathan, and Jyoti Bhatt often drew inspiration from Indian folk art forms. In particular, Jamini Roy studied Kalighat painting and the Bengal Pattachitra. He studied the nature of folk art in its implementations of folklore and mythology in the art of storytelling. Jamini integrated certain stylistic elements in his paintings that are reminiscent of Santhal and Pattachitra art. He also gave Santhal traditions mainstream visibility.

Rabindranath Tagore was another famous artist who developed an interest in Santhal painting. Tagore played a huge role in the development of Shantiniketan, which greatly contributed to the field of Indian art. Rabindranath happened to stumble upon Santhal paintings when he developed an interest in their lifestyles and customs. A few Santhals lived in a hamlet close to Shantiniketan. Through Tagore, Santhal paintings were able to reach a wider audience.

Soon, Shantiniketan began incorporating folk art into its syllabus. As a result, Santhal artist Ramkinkar Baij became one of the founding members of a new artist colony that was established near Shantiniketan in 1930. This gave further exposure to Santhal painting.

Santhal Art as a Celebration of Community

Santhal painting of the Palanquin Ceremony. Image credits:

After a long day of hard work, who doesn’t like to relax and unwind? The Santhal community engages in many different occupations—fishing, farming, and hunting—for survival. At the end of the day, they sing, dance, and paint. Santhal paintings are simple paper scrolls that are immensely important to the lives and stories of the Santhals. They record their lives and accomplishments and help foster a sense of community through creativity. Just as song and dance add enjoyment to their lives, art adds meaning and a strong sense of identity.

Interested in learning more about the rich meanings and cultural associations behind tribal art forms? Download the Rooftop app from Google Play or the App Store to learn more!

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By Melissa D’Mello

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