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The Search For Self Discovery: Dissecting the Folk Art Influence On Modern Art

The Undeniable Folk Art Influence on Modern Art

Folk art holds a unique place in the world of art. Its transformative power can shape artistic narratives and completely change the course of an artist’s life. While fine art has its merits, it is not hard to see why people often find folk art to be more reflective of human emotion and more authentic to an artists’s lived experiences.

Often, artists look for new experiences and art forms to refine their artistic outlook. This also boosts creativity and motivates them to perform better. It is no surprise then that many artists, while experimenting with shapes, colours, and mediums, inevitably turn to the unrefined, the very antithesis of fine art.

Embarking on a journey of self-discovery, artists throughout history have found inspiration in various forms, each reflecting their unique perspectives. Join us as we look at the stories of three distinguished artists—Jagdish Swaminathan, Jyoti Bhatt, and Jamini Roy—and how their encounters with folk art transformed their outlook towards art.

Jagdish Swaminathan: Embracing the Folk Art Influence on Modern Art

Portrait of J. Swaminathan. Image credit: The Indian Portrait

In the 1960s, Jagdish Swaminathan made a radical shift in his artistic journey. He chose to quit journalism and pursue art as a full-time career. He studied the colour palettes in Pahari Miniature paintings and began an exploration of colour and space through his ‘Colour Geometry of space’ series. After this, he began the bird, the mountain, and the tree series, which was a reflection of shadows and tribal motifs.

Folk Art Influence on Modern Art
Untitled, Bird and Mountain Series by J. Swaminathan. Image credit: Bid & Hammer

His encounter with tribal cultures in Madhya Pradesh during the eighties marked a turning point in his journey, and prompted a profound connection with the primaeval. Swaminathan’s dedication to bringing tribal art into contemporary focus is seen through his groundbreaking work at Bharat Bhavan. He was responsible for ‘discovering’, but more importantly, providing a platform for tribal artists and documenting their stories for the world to hear.

Jamini Roy: Redefining the Folk Art Influence on Modern Art

Folk Art Influence on Modern Art
Portrait of Jamini Roy. Image credit: Akar Prakar

Padma Bhushan Jamini Roy had originally leaned towards the western academic style of painting. However, he underwent a transformative realisation under the guidance of E.B. Havell and Rabindranath Tagore. He began to look for inspiration from his own cultural heritage, focusing on tribal and folk art traditions.

Roy’s minimalistic yet expressive ‘flattened’ style took on a new life when he shifted from academic Western training to a style rooted in Bengali folk traditions. Soon, his brushstrokes imbued the bold and lively spirit of Santhal art and the Kalighat Pat style. Roy’s quest to capture the simplicity of folk life and make art accessible to a wider audience fundamentally reshaped the trajectory of his artistic journey.

Folk Art Influence on Modern Art
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

His experimentations with depictions of Santhal dances between 1921 and 1924 are well-known, as are his Kalighat-style paintings. Roy was so influenced by the Kalighat Pat that he would refer to himself as a ‘Patua’ the title used for Kalighat and Pattachitra artists in Bengal and Orissa. One of his most famous paintings, a cat holding a prawn, is a motif directly linked to Kalighat art. It represented the sinful Brahmin who still held on to worldly possessions through greed, sin, and excessive indulgence.

S.H. Raza: The Bindu as a Point of Creation

Folk Art Influence on Modern Art
Portrait of S.H. Raza. Image credit: The National

In the 1970s, S.H. Raza felt himself plagued by a sense of restlessness and boredom. He was no longer satisfied with his own work. In this pursuit of authenticity and desire to move away from ‘plastic art’, he inevitably turned to his roots. During his travels to Ajanta and Ellora, Gujarat, Varanasi, and Rajasthan, he found a new direction for his work. He began to study the diverse Indian art forms, and explore their cultural associations and the meanings behind their myths and motifs.

Folk Art Influence on Modern Art
Image credit: Indie Arts

What began as a search for inspiration resulted in the creation of “Bindu,” a symbolic point representing the essence of creation in Indian philosophy. In looking for a new direction, he had himself created a new point of creation. Raza’s journey exemplifies the undeniable impact of folk and cultural elements in shaping an artist’s self-discovery.

The Present and the Past:  How Folk Art Idioms Shape Modern Artistic Styles

As we reflect on the artistic journeys of Swaminathan, Raza, and Roy, a common thread emerges—their willingness to break away from established norms, move away from the commercial, and draw inspiration from the world of folk art. Folk art is a reflection of a community’s culture and their beliefs and is intrinsically linked to their identity as well. It displays an authenticity that is hard to come by in today’s materialistic world. S.H Raza wanted to move away from ‘plastic art’ and, as a society, we have been moving away from it as well.

The human touch and a creativity that is nurtured by one’s inner world rather than the outward perceptions of the world are characteristic of folk and indigenous art. As we celebrate Indian history, we must also acknowledge the role that folk art plays in the documentation of our ancestors’ struggle towards civilization. It also preserves the cultural identities of critically threatened social groups while allowing their voices to be heard through art.

The Result of the Folk Art Influence On Modern Art

Folk art, with its vibrant colours, deeply personal connections, local references, mythological motifs, and rich cultural narratives, has become a way for the modern artist to seek authenticity and connection with their roots. Perhaps the fascination that Indian modern artists felt towards folk art was a need to connect with their roots—to experience the human connection that their ancestors experienced generations before them.

Perhaps they simply wanted to find their ‘true’ selves and explore artistic authenticity and its complex ties with national identity by identifying what makes Indian art ‘Indian’. Is it an amalgamation of cultural influences from Rajasthani, Mughal, Deccan, Pahari, Persian, Buddhist, Jain, and Iranian art? Indian artists like Abanindranth Tagore scorned all western influence as foreign and believed that it diluted the ‘essence’ of Indian culture.

Now, we have come to acknowledge that the work of the Indian artist, even far removed from Indian folk traditions, may bear an unmistakable ‘Indian’ influence through constant exposure to the folk idiom that exists all around us, even in modern times. Folk styles live on in old-school movie posters, truck art, and through traditional clothing and jewellery.


Folk Art Influence on Modern Art
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The lives of these artists illustrate how encounters with tribal cultures, documentation of disappearing arts, and a return to cultural roots not only influenced their individual styles but also enriched the broader world of Indian modern art. In this confluence of traditions and contemporary expressions, we see innovation, self-discovery and artistic evolution.

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By Melissa D’Mello

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