Folk Art

It is a flexible concept which can refer to the traditional art or culture of a community or nation.

The term was coined in 1846 by the Englishman William Thoms. When Thoms first created this term, folk applied only to rural, frequently poor and illiterate peasants. This continues till date, hence this legacy is long ignored by scholars, academicians and policy makers.

By the 1960s, the concept of the folk group started expanding and it was understood with social groups. Each individual is enmeshed in a multitude of differing identities. As a child grows into an individual, its identities also increase to include age, language, ethnicity, occupation, etc. Each of these cohorts has its own folklore.

Characteristics of folk art

  1. Folklore or folk art is the expressive body of culture shared by a particular group of people; it encompasses the traditions common to that culture, subculture or group.
  2. The folk group is not individualistic, but is a function of shared community-based identity.
  3. The design and production of folk art is learned and taught informally or formally; folk artists are not self-taught.
  4. Linked to religion: These are related to mythology, stories from epics etc.
  5. Transmission is a vital part of the folklore process. There are two important elements of transmission: (a) The tradition-bearer, who is the individual who actively passes the knowledge of an artifact; and (b) the audience. Audience
    is the other half in the transmission process; they listen, watch, and remember. Many of them become passive tradition-bearer. However, transmission is largely missing despite the process of globalisation.
  6. Utilitarian: It was created to serve some function in the daily life. A ground-breaking book by George Kubler on the history of art states that “every man-made thing arises from a problem as a purposeful solution.”
  7. Aesthetics of the genre: Being part of the community, the craftsman is well aware of the community aesthetics.
  8. Not mass-produced: All folk art objects are produced in a one-off production process. Only one object is made at a time, mostly hand crafted. Each individual piece is unique.
  9. Materials used: It uses the locally available and natural materials.
  10. Influence on mainstream art: For example, Pablo Picasso was inspired by African tribal sculptures.

Folk arts are classified as

  1. Material folklore: They are tangible objects. E.g. sculptures, paintings etc.
  2. Verbal folklore: e.g. common sayings, stories and songs.
  3. Customary folklore: Custom is the traditional and expected way of doing things within a group.


Childlore is a distinct branch of folklore that deals with activities passed on by children to other children, flourishing in a street culture outside the purview of adults. Children’s folklore contains artifacts from all the standard folklore genres of verbal, material and customary lore.

India is an ethnically and religiously diverse country. Given this diversity, it is difficult to generalize widely about the folklore of India as a unit.

UNESCO in partnership with the International Organization of Folk Art recognizes and supports cultural heritage around the world.

National Folklore Support Centre, Chennai is a non-governmental organisation. It is dedicated to the promotion of Indian folklore research, education, training, networking, and publications.


  • India has a long tradition of paintings which depict the essential things about our culture. There are various schools, some even overlap.
  • Painting in India is being polarised. It
    has become a commodity of either intellectuals and academicians or rich people.
  • The government and various centres for the arts need to step up to these a matter of cultural heritage.


Folk paintings of India


1. Madhubani/Mithila Paintings, [Bihar and Terai region including Nepal]

  • These are the traditional Murals painted by women using rice paste and vegetable colours on a base of cow dung and mud.
  • Theme is drawn from Hindu religious motifs
  • Made on auspicious occasions like birth, marriage and festivals.
  • There is no shading, hence the paintings are two-dimensional.
  • This painting is symbol of women empowerment.
    • In 1970, this art got recognition, when Jagdamba Devi of Jitbarpur village was honoured by a President award.
    • Other famous painters are Bua Devi, Bhati Dayal, Ganga Devi and Sita Devi.
  • It has been given GI (geographical indication) status.
  • With time, the base changed to handmade paper, clothes and canvas, still the natural colours were used.

Figure 1: Madhubani paintings

2. Pattachitra, Odisha

  • Patta in Sanskrit means canvas/cloth and chitra means picture.
  • These folks have some elements of classical paintings too.
  • Natural colours obtained from coconut shells, lamp black etc. are used. There is no use of pencil or charcoal.
  • The painting is given a coating of lacquer to give it a glossy finish.
  • Theme: inspired from Jagannath, Vaishnava, Shakti and Shaiva cults.
  • Pattachitra on palm leaf is known as Tala-pattachitra.

Figure 2: pattachitra painting


3. Patua Art, Bengal

  • These paintings are done on pats or scrolls. Today they are painted on paper poster.
  • The scroll painters or Patuas are an artisan rural community of West Bengal.
  • Started out as a village tradition telling Mangal Kavyas
    or auspicious stories of God.
  • Theme: religious, social, political.

Figure 3: Patua painting


4. Cheriyal Scroll paintings, Telangana

  • It is a stylized version of Nakashi art.
  • They are at present made only in Hyderabad.
  • Painted in a narrative format, much like a film roll or a comic strip by the Balladeer community. They are often huge in size.
  • Theme: Religious.
  • It has been accorded the Geographical Indication status in 2007.

Figure 4: Cheriyal Scroll painting

5. Phad Painting, Rajasthan

  • These are scroll paintings.
  • Painted with vegetable colours on a long piece of cloth called phad, they are 15 feet or 30 feet long.
  • Theme: religious

Figure 5: Phad Painting

6. Kalighat Painting, Calcutta

  • Done by rural migrants who settled around the Kalighat Kali temple in the then British capital Calcutta. It is a product of the changing urban society of Calcutta in 19th century.
  • Use of Watercolours on mill paper, with brushes made of calf and squirrel hair.
  • Theme: religious, social.
  • These are the first of its kind in the country to express subaltern sentiments and address customers directly. [Subaltern was a lower level officer in the British army below the rank of captain]
  • Influenced by the British painting style.

Figure 6: Kalighat paintings

7. Paitkar Painting, Jharkhand

  • These scroll paintings are considered one of the ancient schools of painting in the country.
  • Associated with Maa Mansa, one of the most popular goddesses in tribal communities.
  • Theme: social and religious. The most common theme is ‘life post death’.

Figure 7: Patikar painting

8. Kalamkari Paintings, Andhra Pradesh

  • A Kalam or pen made of bamboo is used on the base of cotton.
  • Natural colours made of vegetable dyes are used.
  • Main centers: Srikalahasti and Machilipatnam in Andhra Pradesh.
  • Theme: Hindu mythology.
  • Textiles with handwork are also produced here.
  • Srikalahasthi Kalamkari got GI tag under handicraft category.

Figure 8: Kalamkari painting


9. Warli Painting, Gujarat-Maharashtra border

  • These are the mural paintings done by Warli tribe of the Gujarat-Maharashtra border.
  • Close resemblance to the mural paintings of Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh that date back to the pre-historic period.
  • Theme: Religious, social, natural, Palaghata goddess (goddess of fertility).
  • Traditionally, the paintings are done on the walls using
  • Use of graphic vocabulary, including a triangle, a circle and a square.
  • The base is made of mud and cow dung that gives it a red ochre colour.
  • White pigment colour is used, which is made of a mixture of gum and rice powder.

Figure 9: Warli painting


10. Thangka Painting, Himalayas and trans Himalayas

  • Related to Buddhist tradition.
  • Painted on a base of white
    cotton canvas, using colours made up of
    natural vegetable dyes or mineral dyes.
  • The colours have their own significance. For example, red stands for intensity of passion, golden is for life or birth, white is for serenity, black is for compassion.
  • Thangkas can be divided into three types.
  1. Based on life of Buddha from his birth to his enlightenment.
  2. Represents Buddhist beliefs of life and death including ‘Wheel of Life’.
  3. Represents offerings to the deities or meditation.

Figure 10: Thangka painting

Note: not to be confused with thang-ta, which is a martial dance of Manipur.


11. Manjusha or Angika Painting, Bhagalpur- Bihar

  • Angika name is driven from Anga MahajanPada.
  • Since snake motifs are always present, it is also called snake painting.
  • These paintings are executed on boxes of jute and paper.

Figure 11: Manjusha painting


12. Pithora Paintings, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh

  • Done by Rathvas and Bhilalas tribes of Gujarat.
  • Depiction of animals are common especially horses.

Figure 12: Pithora painting


13. Thanjavur painting, Tamilnadu

  • Got GI tag.
  • Developed under the Nayakas of Thanjavur.

Figure 13: Thanjavur Painting

14. Nirmal Paintings, Telangana

  • Done in in Nirmal District, Telangana.
  • They form a small-scale industry in the town.
  • The evolution of the Nirmal art goes back to the days of the Kakatiya dynasty.

Figure 14: Nirmal Painting

15. Saura Paintings, Orissa

  • These are mural paintings made by Saura tribe and are similar to Warli paintings.
  • These are Italons or Ikons and are dedicated to Sauras deity Idital.
  • Mineral and plant colours are used.
  • The human shapes are geometrical and stick like.
  • The designs have gained fashion in recent times with lots of T-shirts and female clothing.

Figure 15: Saura panting

16. Floor Paintings or Rangoli

It is an ancient and traditional folk art of India. It is drawn mainly in festivals and ceremonies.

It is known by different names such as Chawk Purna in Uttar Pradesh; Aipan in Uttarakhand; Mandana in Rajasthan; Muggulu in Andhra Pradesh; Aripana in Bihar; Rangoli in Maharashtra; Alpana in West Bengal; Athiya in Gujarat; Rangwalli in Karnataka; Kollam in Tamil Nadu; Arooph in Himachal Pradesh; and Kalma Jattu in Kerala.


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