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Kurumba Painting- A Celebration Of Creativity, Community, And Culture

An Overlooked And Abandoned Indian Art Form

When you think of tribal art forms, you might think of Warli, Bhil, or Gond painting. After all, these art forms have gained international recognition due to the efforts of artists and the government. However, India is a vast country with hundreds of cultures and communities, and there are still several art forms that are near extinction because not enough efforts have been made to conserve them. Creating awareness about tribal art forms like Kurumba painting is essential to ensuring their survival.

Kurumba painting is one of India’s lesser-known tribal art forms. This blog will guide you through the tools, traditions, and techniques of Kurumba painting.

The Rich History And Cultural Significance Of Kurumba Painting

Kurumba Painting
A traditional Kurumba painting (image source:

At the 3000-year-old rock site of Eluthu Paarai, we see paintings and carvings of the stories of a community’s exploits. The Kurumba community believes that their ancestors created these works of art. The murals at Eluthu Paarai show instances of honey-hunting, farming, and cooking, along with depictions of animals and plants. The Kurumbas are one of the five communities that occupy the mountainous region of the Nilgiri ranges. They are rumoured to be the descendents of the Pallavas.  The Kurumbas are a community of forest dwellers, hunter-gatherers, and practitioners of herbal medicine. They also use natural substances in the process of Kurumba painting. 

Only male priests would practise the Kurumba art form to decorate the temples. Kurumba paintings were a celebration of nature and an ode to the community’s beliefs. They were connected to nature and associated it with spiritual and supernatural elements. Now the land surrounding these communities has been turned into coffee and pepper plantations, which has changed the way they interact with the environment. This changing relationship with nature has also resulted in the newer generation’s lack of interest in Kurumba rituals and traditions.

Also read: The perception and appeal of folk and tribal Indian art globally

Tools And Materials Used

Kurumba Painting
Kurumba painting uses natural colours (image source:

Kurumba painting is frequently compared to Warli art. One of the key differences between Warli and Kurumba painting is the use of colours. The Kurumbas traditionally use four colours: red, white, black, and green. Yellow and blue pigments are harder to find in the Nilgiri hills and thus appear less frequently. They use the sap of the Vengai tree (Vijaysagar or Malabar kino) to make yellow paint. The artists crush the leaves of the Kattegada tree to create green paint. They use Bodhi mann soil for white and extract red from Semman. Karimara pattai (Diospyros candolleana) tree bark is used to make black paint. The locals also use it to make herbal medicine, which makes it difficult to obtain. The artists mix yellow and black paint to get various shades of brown.

Kurumba Painting
Image source:

Though the colour palette for Kurumba paintings is made up of mostly neutral colours, the art still creates a bright and vibrant impression. Previously, artists would use brushes made from the aerial roots of the Banyan tree (aalam vaer). According to Kurumba artist R. Krishna, these brushes were useful to paint walls, pottery, windows, etc. but were too rough and coarse to be used on paper. Creating the brushes this way is also a tedious process. Kurumba painting may look simple, but it is the work of skilled artists who have dedicated their lives to the preservation of their culture through this art form.

Kurumba Painting: Themes, Motifs And Traditions

The subject matter of Kurumba painting is similar to Warli and Saura art: it is an expression of community and daily life. The style of painting is simplistic and ritualistic. Male and female characters are drawn differently. Beliefs, rituals, and the relationship between people and nature are depicted through these paintings. Kurumba paintings depict the community’s way of life—their harvest festivals, social gatherings, agriculture, lifestyle and habits, etc.

Kurumba Painting
The Kurumba community’s ingenious technique of gathering honey (image source:

Artists include motifs like huts, animal pens, wild animals, women drying food grains, men going to the forest to collect honey, etc. The theme of honey-gathering is especially popular as it is one of the main occupations of the Kurumba community.

‘Kummi Katha’ is another central theme. It is also called the tale of two sisters, thavidu kathai, or the story of how the elephant was born. The older sister tricks the younger one, and in a fit of anger, the younger sister decides to take revenge. She instructs her brother-in-law to throw seven stones at her to turn her back into a human.

Kurumba Painting
Image source:
Kurumba Painting
Image source:

She then used plates, baskets, a pestle, and mortar to create the shape of a huge beast, and turned into an elephant. When she enters the village, her brother-in-law runs and hides in fear. Unable to think rationally in her elephant form, she attacks her older sister and then retreats to the forest. The Kurumbas say that the sighting of a lone elephant in the forest is the younger sister, who is unable to find her way home.

Also read: 5 Popular Motifs Seen In Traditional Indian Art Forms

Conservation Efforts Taken By Local Organisations

The C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation is responsible for the revival of Kurumba art today. While documenting the traditions of the four Nilgiri tribal communities, they discovered an old artist who painted in a distinct style. He had not been selling his art commercially and would only paint the walls of the local temple during their annual festival. The Ramaswami Foundation collaborated with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and funded the artist to teach Kurumba painting to his son, R. Krishnan, who then taught the art form to 20 other members of the community. 

Kurumba Painting
R. Krishnan painting (left) and one of his Kurumba paintings (right) (image source:

The artist Y. Venkatesh taught Kurumba artists to paint on paper, hold a paintbrush, and use water or poster colours. The Sree Kalaniketana School of Art, Mysuru, created awareness about Kurumba painting by introducing it to their students. More than 60 students have mastered the art form and dedicated themselves to its study and practise.

The Tribal Cooperative Marketing Development Federation of India (TRIFED) helps the artists by regularly conducting workshops on Kurumba painting. They are also working towards improving the living conditions of the community. They offer a stipend to young artists who are willing to learn this unique art form. A museum at the Tribal Research Centre in Udhagamndalam, Nilgiri district, Tamil Nadu, also functions as a centre for teaching, learning, and exhibiting Kurumba painting.

The State Of Kurumba Panting Today

Kurumba Painting
Kalpana Balasubramanian and her father (image source:

Only five artists from the community practise Kurumba painting. R. Krishnan from Velaricombai village is considered to be the last surviving specialist in Kurumba painting. P. Balasubramanian has been painting for 24 years. His daughter, Kalpana Balasubramanian, is the only female artist in this group.

Kalpana Balasubramanian, the only female Kurumba artist today (image source:

All the artists use canvas and handmade paper instead of traditional wall painting and make their own natural paints. They also paint on merchandise and utility objects such as cards, souvenirs, notepads, etc. Krishnan is currently training only five people from a community of 90. Kalpana teaches Kurumba painting to many youth but notes that they do not continue to practise it full-time and prefer to work as labourers.

Balasubramanian demonstrating the Kurumba painting process (image source:

The Keystone Foundation helped Krishnan procure art supplies and access a platform where he could sell his work online. Although he conducts workshops, participates in art exhibitions, and paints a large number of pieces, the income from art isn’t enough to sustain him. He also needs to work as a labourer and join fellow members of his community on honey-gathering trips in order to support a family of five. This shows that efforts to create awareness aren’t enough; artists must be able to earn a livable wage to motivate them in their practise of tribal and traditional art forms.

Rooftop collaborates with local artists to create awareness about traditional art forms while finding ways to support their livelihood. Download the Rooftop App from Google Play or the App Store to learn more about how you can help preserve India’s rare and dying traditional art forms.

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By Melissa D’Mello

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