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Shape Language And Storytelling In Indian Tribal Art

Art As A Means Of Expression

You may be familiar with the use of shape symbolism in movies and books. Characters in comics and animation are often designed using simple geometric shapes to communicate their personalities and motivations. Did you know that this is not a new concept? Ancient Indian tribal art forms used shapes and simplification to efficiently communicate stories. They conveyed complex messages through simple geometric forms and motifs.

Tribal art forms depict human beings, rituals, flora, and fauna in a stylized, non-realistic way. Analysing the shapes and designs they used can help us better understand Indian tribal art and culture. Let Rooftop guide you through the shape language used in Indian tribal art forms and how simple geographic elements and motifs are interwoven to weave a compelling narrative.

Indian Tribal Art And The Art Of Storytelling

Tribal communities make up 8% of India’s population. They live in small villages, and Indian tribal art forms often centre around rituals and the simple lifestyles of the communities. They celebrate important events and ceremonies through art. Indian tribal art is not naturalistic or realistic in nature. It uses icons, symbols, and pictorial representations to convey a message or tell a story.

Indian Tribal Art
An intricate Saura painting (image source:

Tribal communities find solace deep within the forests and hilly regions, in the belly of Mother Nature. This gives them a perspective on life that city folk cannot comprehend. We simply cannot think of anything more inconvenient than giving up our phones, the internet, and food delivery apps. But tribal communities thrive in these environments, and this has led to the development of diverse and culturally significant Indian tribal art forms.

Storytelling Through Shape Language

Shape language is a method of communicating meaning through the use of basic geometric shapes. We naturally associate certain shapes with certain attributes based on our understanding of them. For example, we will attribute the quality ‘soft’ to a circle as opposed to a square. Why? Because squares have corners and straight lines. We perceive most things that have corners, straight lines, and exist in a three-dimensional space as ‘sharp’, or ‘pointy’. Our brain makes these associations without our knowledge.

Popular meanings associated with shapes (image source:

Shapes can tell us a lot about a piece of art. It can set the mood and convey emotions without putting in a lot of effort. Some tribal art forms simplify everything into basic lines and shapes. They are decorative and elaborately patterned. Not all Indian tribal art is minimalistic, but we can see simplification and symbolism even in intricately detailed paintings.

Also read: The Role of Art in Keeping Culture of Indian Tribal Communities Alive

Indian Tribal Art And The Circle

Circular or round forms can show softness, roundness, etc. This shape does not have any edges or corners and can represent circularity, a loop, interconnection, etc.

Patua art of West Bengal (image source:

Circular Patterns In Indian Tribal Art

In the Sohrai art form, we observe a lot of organic, round forms and very few straight lines. The border is square, but the design itself does not contain any parallelograms. This can express that they do not see flora and fauna as separate beings but rather as a part of daily life. They are ‘friends’, and through the use of round shapes and curves, we can see the familiarity that the tribal community shares with them. Pithora paintings simplify complex animal shapes into circles. This Indian tribal art form depicts an elephant’s body in a square shape, but with rounded corners to symbolise its gentle nature.

Sohrai art (image source:
Indian Tribal Art
Pithora painting of an elephant (image source:

A popular motif in Warli paintings is the Tarpa dance formation, in which human figures hold hands in concentric circles. This represents their belief that life is cyclical and continuous, with no real beginning or end. Circles thus communicate joy and happiness. Technically, a dot is a circle. Some Indian tribal art forms use dots to map out an image or as decoration. Hundreds of dots curate a singular Bhil painting. Gond art uses dots, dashes, and lines to draw animals and plants. Animals are shapes with simplified outlines. They elaborately decorate and fill with the inside of these outlines with patterns. This may symbolise that just as individual dots paint a picture, human beings, animals, and plants coexist to make up a harmonious society.

Indian Tribal Art
Bhil art of tree and birds (image source:
Indian Tribal Art
Tarpa dance formation in Warli art (image source:
Gond art of tree and birds (image source:

Indian Tribal Art And Triangles

Indian tribal art forms that frequently use geometric shapes and patterns, including triangles. Borders and corners were filled with triangles. Usually, triangles depict maturity and confidence.

Indian Tribal Art
Saura art with triangle motifs(image source:

Triangle Motifs In Indian Tribal Art Forms

Saura and Warli paintings use triangles to illustrate human figures. While their art styles are extremely similar, they manage to convey different emotions through varying subject matter. The Warli art form contains some negative space as the characters are spread out. The use of somewhat rigid human figures in a relaxed composition suggests that the Warli people see life as a celebration of community. They show this through the interaction between human figures as well as with animals and nature. We see human figures in action, and fluid lines depict Warli characters running, dancing, laughing, playing, etc. Life is simple, but not mundane.

Warli art (image source:

Saura paintings have a more elegant and refined look. The designs are compact with minimal negative space. Rows of triangles are used for the outer borders. Saura art was created for religious and ritualistic purposes, and we observe this through the elaborate and tightly packed designs. We see triangle-shaped human figures in action that are static when compared to their Warli counterparts. Thus, Saura art communicates that the close-knit community is bound together by rituals and tradition.

Saura art (image source:

Also read: Warli and Saura Paintings: Differences, Similarities, and Everything in Between

Indian Tribal Art And Squares

Rather than the use of squares, it would be better to study square formations in Indian tribal art as well as the use of geometric shapes. Square borders are used to contain the art within a certain frame.

Khovar art with square borders (image source:

Square Motifs And Patterns In Indian Tribal Art

The Chaukat is a square motif and one of the central motifs of Warli art. The artist draws the Palaghat goddess inside this motif. It contains multiple square borders decorated with circles, triangles, and organic patterns. Circles are added around the edges to soften the Chaukat’s straight lines. This makes the shape less harsh and imposing. We also see this method of combining large square patterns with circles in the Indian tribal art form of Chittara. It may also suggest the interconnectedness of everything, from the rigidity of human routine to spiritual and religious beliefs.

Chittara art, Lakshmi Gademane (image source:
Wedding chowk, Warli painting(image source:
Chittara art (image source:

The Chittara art of Karnataka uses square formations as a central theme. They fill these squares with intricate patterns. We see circles connect to the square pattern at the edges. This forms a repetitive, symmetrical, interlocking pattern that uses sharp edges and circular arches together to symbolise harmony and contrast. 

The Distinction Between Folk Art And Tribal Art

Tribal art is limited to a tribal community, whereas folk art can be practised by people from all walks of life. India’s folk art is not tied to a specific time period. Tribal art is often named after the community that practices it. Sometimes several tribal communities in a specific geographical region practised a single art form. The line between tribal and folk art has become blurry, and folk art forms such as Madhubani, Mata ni Pachedi, Phad, etc. are sometimes incorrectly referred to as Indian tribal art forms.

In order to preserve tribal art forms, they are no longer kept within the community. Outsiders are allowed and encouraged to learn tribal art, as it is important to preserve the history and culture of India’s tribal communities. Rooftop collaborates with tribal artists to provide courses and workshops on Gond, Bhil, Warli, Saura, Sohrai, Pithora, Khovar, etc. These courses are perfect for those who want to explore the shapes and motifs used in Indian tribal art.

Download the Rooftop App from GooglePlay or AppStore to enrol in our Maestro courses and learn tribal and folk art forms!

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By Melissa D’Mello

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