Five Beautiful Tribal Painting Forms You Should Know About

By Jyotsna Hans

Tribal art has taken over the internet. While some people say they are aesthetically bohemian, others might agree that it’s a pleasing, raw art form. Tribal paintings play an important role in the lives of tribespeople. It is a unique way to decorate their houses but most importantly, some of these tribal paintings are a medium to tell stories. Though these paintings have now evolved from natural pigments to artificial paints, they still provide a glimpse into the culture and tradition that existed among tribal communities then and now. Here are 5 tribal painting forms that are so delicate and colourful, they surely deserve a place in your homes.

  1. Sohrai Painting

Sohrai paintings are harvest-art painted as murals on the walls of homes to worship the harvest in Jharkhand, usually practiced by the tribes of Santhal, Munda, Oraon, Prajapati, and Khurmi, among others.

Sohrai painting on a house. Image source: https://www.maatighar.org/feature-paintings/sohrai-paintings/

The name ‘Sohrai’ is said to have its roots in a paleolithic age word ‘soro’, which means to drive with a stick. Sohrai is the harvest painting on the mud houses which are repaired and repainted after monsoon. Women of the house offer thanks to the forces of Nature by painting these murals on the cow dung caked walls of their houses.

The painting is monochromatic, usually in the colours of black, red, yellow, and white and is a matriarchal tradition, which means it is handed down from mother to daughter. These colours are drawn from local sand or mitti. Sohrai painting depicts forests and fauna that revolve around the forests. Popular Sohrai motifs are animals, birds, lizards, elephants and Pashupati (the creator of all animals), who is usually riding on the back of an animal. The elephant also symbolises the paddy clan and is an auspicious symbol connected with the harvest. 

Sohrai Painting by Putli Ganju | Image-https://www.storyltd.com/auction/item.aspx?eid=3845&lotno=34

I found proof of Jharkhand’s Adivasis’ indigeneity in their art, the caves in the region bear similar art from thousands of years ago. For indigenous communities to claim their rights, we have to establish that they have been living on the land historically”, said Bulu Imam, an environmentalist working on the preservation of indigenous art and culture, who first discovered the rock art near Hazaribagh in 1991 and sought to bring it on canvas. 

Nowadays, Sohrai paintings can be seen in various parts of city Ranchi- the wall boundaries, railway station, hospitals, airport. Such initiatives are encouragement for Sohrai painters which ultimately helps keeps the painting form alive. 

  1. Warli Painting

Warli art. Image source: Artzolo

Warli painting is one of the most well known tribal art forms in India as well as internationally. It originated in Maharashtra from the Warli tribe and is practiced mostly by the tribes in the North Sahyadri Range. Padamshree Jivya Somya Mashe, the renowned artist has played a great role in making the Warli paintings popular.

Warli culture is centered around the concept of Mother Nature, and elements of nature are often focal points depicted in Warli painting. Farming is their main activity and a large source of food for the tribe. They have a deep respect for nature and wildlife for the resources that they provide for life. Warli designs have been adopted by fashion and home designers in their products too. 

Traditionally, Warli is done on a red ochre background, with clay huts in white paint, and these are the only two colours used. However, today, a variety of colours are being used to replicate these artistic motifs on fabrics, home décor, or other artistic forms.

In 2016, Japanese artists adopted the Ganjad village in Palghar district to try and keep the art form alive. They have also been constructing huts made of cow dung, mud, and bamboo sticks to promote painting on the walls. 

Wall Art Festival at Ganjad Village. Image source: Livemint
  1. Bhil Painting

Bhil Painting by Bhuri Bai. Image source: https://www.mojarto.com/artworks/bhuri-bai-27536/bhil-art-254022

Have you ever seen a painting which is made of dots? That’s probably a Bhil painting. Bhil art is the art form practiced by the Bhil tribes in India who mostly reside in western and central India, in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra. The Bhil tribe is the second largest tribal community in India. 

The paintings usually consist of large shapes inspired by everyday characters, filled in with earthy, bright colours, and then covered with uniform dots in several patterns and striking colors. Since these dots are placed in a random manner there is no fixed pattern, thus creating this unique art form. Artists produce real-life stories through these paintings.

Every painting is a story of the land told through the depictions of people, animals, insects, deities, festivals. Legends and lore are told through Bhil paintings, births and deaths recorded, religious occasions remembered. Bhuri Bai of Zher in Madhya Pradesh is one of the leading Bhil artists in India.

Pithora horses are a fairly common theme among Bhil artists. The traditional painter often paints pithoras as an offering to the goddess.

Pithora Horses. Image source: https://in.pinterest.com/pin/433893745325211187/?lp=true

 According to legends, the people of the Kingdom of Dharmi Raja had forgotten how to laugh. The brave prince Pithora rode on horseback through dangerous terrain and brought back laughter and joy from the goddess Himali Harda.

  1. Gond Painting

Painting by artist Durgabai. The antler and deer are Durgabai’s favourite animals. Image source: https://www.sunitanair.in/The-Gond-artist-Durgabai-1

Gonds are one of the largest settled tribes in Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh. Gonds believe that each and everything, whether it is a hill, river, rock or a tree is inhabited by a spirit and, consequently, is sacred. Thus, their art is a depiction of their belief system and purports that a good image brings good luck. Gond art is known for its exotic beauty and folklore depiction, an imprint of its ancient culture. Gond patterns are among the most elaborate and complex patterns of tribal art forms. 

Gond art is very delicate and made with the utmost care and precision. They use bright colours and natural pigments to fill colours between the lines. These are offerings in the worship of nature and are also a mode of seeking protection and warding off evil. The Gond-Pardhan community is the primary practitioner of the Gond art painting. It is created on the walls of houses and called Bhittichitra

Bhittichitra was for the decoration of their houses and was only done on special occasions like weddings, childbirth or during festivals. Gond paintings take inspiration from nature, myths, and legends of India or alternatively, from the daily lives of the tribe. The paintings can be purely abstract presenting an emotion or dreams of the artist. 

Gond- Jag. Image source: https://scroll.in/magazine/854136/gond-artist-jangarh-singh-shyams-forest-is-full-of-creatures-that-were-never-meant-to-be-seen

Jangarh Singh Shyam as an artist not only reinvented the art form of painting but also encouraged his tribe members to practice the Gond art.  His collection of 123 artworks have been compiled into a book titled “Jangarh Singh Shyam: The Enchanted Forest”, authored by Aurogeeta Das and published by Roli Books.

  1. Pithora Painting

Pithora painting being made. Image source: https://sparklemousse.com/gujarat/pithora-painting/

Hailing from Gujarat and practiced by the Rathwa and Bhilala tribes, these paintings are more of a ritual than an art. As seen in the above paintings, Pithora paintings are rituals performed either to thank God or for a wish or a boon to be granted. The protagonists of the entire painting are horses of the gods and goddesses and ancestors in vibrant colours. It takes inspiration from the daily lives of the tribe and symbolically represents modernity. 

It is believed that the presence of Pithora Baba is the solution to all the problems. The chief deities that appear in the Pithora painting are Baba Ganesh, Baba Ind, Baba Pithora, Pithori Rani, Rani Kajal, Baar Matha no Dhani Raja Bhoj, Abho KunbiNakti Bhuten, Lakhari and Jokhari, and Purvaj na Panch Ghoda.

Deities. Image source: https://www.sahapedia.org/motifs-pithora-painting

A Pithora is always located at the threshold of the house or in the first room as one enters a house. The entire wall is painted with figures. Three walls are prepared for the painting, the front wall and the two on either side of it. The front or central wall is considerably larger in size, twice the size of the side walls. Cow dung paste is applied to the walls, followed by one layer of white chalk powder. Only unmarried women are allowed to do the arrangements and only men are allowed to paint these Pithora murals.

A lot of tribal paintings are still unknown and uncelebrated in India. Though some paintings enjoy the spotlight, this fame is limited. As a painting does not speak for itself, its real values are always learned from the people who practice it: the tribes. The fact that these paintings are a ritual and describe daily life also takes us back to ancient times, when people drew on the walls of the caves, depicting different life events. One thing that makes these paintings special is their raw identity, the identity of a tribe and part of a civilisation. 

About the author: Jyotsna Hans is a content writer for Adivasi Lives Matter. She is pursuing her undergraduate degree in law. She is fond of good food, good reads and good places to travel. “Through my articles, I tend to bring all tribal goodness in the limelight,” she says. 

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