[Reader-list] Sarai Independent Fellow Archana Jha on Folk Forms

Vivek Narayanan vivek at sarai.net
Wed Jun 15 13:50:00 IST 2005

Painted Folklore- Tradition of Chitrakatha

India has a very old tradition of 'gatha gayatri' and in some areas it 
still exists. Story-tellers used to go to distant places, roam around 
from village to village, and tell stories. This factor has played an 
important role not only in the development of the folk art of India, but 
also helped in spreading various local folk forms from one area to the 

While Court art forms were patronised by State and the kings, the ruling 
class never determined the character of local folk forms. Folk forms 
preserved their elements in changing social environment for quite long 
periods. However, with time, the character and style changed in folk 
forms due to social and economical factors or because of some outside 

The tradition of 'chirtra katha' in India dates back to the time of 
Patanjali. In his writings, there is a reference of 'Chitra Katha' style 
when story-tellers spread moral and religious doctrines among the people 
with the help of pictorial illustrations. In Bihar and Bengal, the 
storytellers were called 'Jadu Patua'. They moved with their scroll made 
of clothes, beautifully painted in different colours. The main character 
in these paintings was always 'Krishna'. The pictures provided a vivid 
account of events from the famous epics. In Maharashtra and Madhya 
Pradesh in central India, Chitra Katha, particularly the 'paithans', was 
very popular. They moved village to village to entertain people with 
their paithan style paintings, which told stories from Ramayana. Pot 
Painting of Orissa and Rajasthan have also came from Chitrakatha tradition.

The storytellers from South India, particularly from Tamilnadu, used a 
painted wooden cabinet that could be unfolded to depict a kind of altars 
to display illustrations of Vishnu legends. In Kerala, people used 
leather puppets for this purpose and in Andhra Pradesh (Tirupati), 
people painited in Kalamkari style. The storytellers went to distant 
places to entertain and in that process they influenced locals with 
their particular style of painting and singing.

One can find same kind of motifs in folk paintings of different areas. 
For instance, 'Ramgoli' in Maharastra, 'Alpana' in Bengal, 'Aripan' in 
Bihar, 'Kolama in South India, 'Mandana' in Rajasthan are some motifs 
influences by these stories and styles.

With passing of time and the changes in societies’ modes of existence, 
changes also come in the art forms. The 'Patuas' of Bengal, who used to 
paint the colourful pictorial scroll, adopted a new style. By then they 
had migrated to urban areas for survival. And hence, the urban 
requirements and sensibilities forced them to change their age old 
style. In city (Calcutta), they started producing art for mass market, 
mainly the pilgrims. There articles were cheap, but did not have much 
artistic value. The intention was that it should be within the reach of 
everyone, because in religious places, people came from all kinds of 
social and economic backgrounds. The important factor is that now the 
character of these paintings was not only religious; a number of themes 
were also taken from daily life of common people and contemporary local 

The kalamkari and paithani style of painting still exists but few people 
can afford to purchase them. But printed cloth materials with kalamkari 
style motifs are easily available for mass consumption.

In India even the metros and big cities still contain some local 
elements. One, in the shape of communities coming from same region and 
state living in the same localities try to retain some of the common art 
and folk forms in various manners. Two, a growing demand for cloth and 
other materials with folk motifs has been generated in recent years, and 
it helps in their survival in some form or the other. Therefore, one can 
easily see an association with the strong tradition of story telling and 
art motifs in various forms even now.

Archana Jha
(Independent Fellow)

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