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Tribal Art vs Folk Art

Updated: Jul 15, 2021

Tribal art or Folk Art? Are these synonymous i.e. same things having different names? Can these words be used interchangeably? What comes to your mind when you hear Tribal art or Folk art? How many of us have thought about these questions? Even if some of us did, have we ever got any satisfactory or tangible answer? In this article, we will try to give you some details which will probably help you to some extent. Art is such a huge world and like its nature itself, it will never have a single justification.

India is home to more than 2,500 tribes and ethnic groups; a large part of India’s cultural diversity is etched in the varied art forms of the country’s indigenous people & local communities. Every region in India has its own style and pattern of art, which is known as folk art. Other than folk art, there is yet another form of traditional art practiced by various tribal populations, which is classified as tribal art. The folk and tribal arts of India are very ethnic and simple, and yet colorful and vibrant enough to speak volumes about the country's rich heritage. These traditional arts are characterized by a naive style, in which standard rules of proportion and perspective are not employed.

Phad Painting - A Folk Art from Rajasthan

Folk and Tribal Art are closely related terms to Outsider Art, Self-Taught Art, and Naïve Art. Folk & Tribal art is however not restricted only to paintings, but also stretches to other forms such as Dance, Music, Metalcraft, pottery, home decorations, Jewellery & ornaments, weaves, and so on. Here we are focusing primarily on the various traditional paintings.

Folk & Tribal art is an expression of the traditional cultures of the community & tribes, thus has some similar undercurrent passing through which leads most of us to use these words interchangeably.

Warli Painting - A Tribal Art from Maharashtra

However, Tribal Art and Folk art are very distinct in their origin, subject matters, depiction, traditions & Techniques. While both Tribal art and folk art draws inspirations from life around them, there is a major distinction in terms of nomenclature & subjects, themes.

First and foremost is that Tribal art is art drawn by the tribal community and named after the community they belong to. Like Gond Art, Warli Art, Santhal, Saura, Bhil, and so on. These are the names of the tribal community that does these drawings thus the name. Folk art is a community-based art form of a particular region, like Mithila (Madhubani), Pattachitra, Phad, Thanjavur, Miniature, and so on. This artwork is named either on their region name or the techniques/medium it is drawn.

Gond Art - A Tribal Art from MP

Generally, Tribal communities are nature worshippers as originally, they lived in the forest and their lifestyle completely depends on the forest. For this very reason, their art depicts similar subject matters which are derived from nature & day to day lifestyle. Whereas Folk art is a community-based art form that revolves around the religious beliefs & deity worship and lifestyle of the community. Yes, what is common in the subject matter is celebration & folklore. However, their celebration styles & folklores are very distinctly local to their regions & religions. Tribal paintings have a very strong nature orientation whereas folk art revolves around religious themes.

Tribal art draws upon aspects of daily life & nature, for topics and medium, and thus it represents an earthy and ad-hoc type of creativity and every artist within the community denotes possibly differently within the means of basic art guidelines. However, folk art follows a more structured pattern and has relatively more rules. Obscure symbols do get used, for decorative purposes, but they are not the foremost subject or purpose of the object. In simple words, tribal artisans use more wild and mystical subjects & representations than folk artisans.

Santhal Painting - Tribal art from Bengal & Odisha

Folk Art is made by individuals whose creative skills convey their community’s authentic cultural identity, whereas generally, Tribal art bears a stronger individual or idiosyncratic artistic identity in terms of representing the subject's depiction.

Although in current times people from all walks of life learn and do these artworks professionally or as a hobby. Traditionally Folk paintings are done by all castes and creeds in that particular region whereas Tribal paintings are done by the particular tribe only.

Apart from being distinct, there are so many similarities in these artworks, which actually makes a common man use these terms interchangeably. Tribal & Folk art is rooted in traditions that come from community and culture – expressing cultural identity by conveying shared community values and aesthetics

Both Tribal & Folk are generally a traditional skill and passed on from one generation to another. Most of these traditional artisans don’t undergo any formal training and learn this while growing up as a part of day-to-day life.

Tala Pattachitra - A Folk art from Odisha

Both Tribal & Folk art works have major subject themes as celebrations and major life events like births of child, wedding, harvesting, festivals and so on.

Most of this artwork originated as means of decorating the walls & the civic structures. Both these art styles are smaller, more local, domestic, and decorative; less self-conscious. These are narrative artwork, recognizable by their simple motifs, flat aesthetic, traditional application techniques, typical of the community, region & tribe.

Traditionally all these artworks use natural colors on handmade canvas. Natural colors are produced using locally available ingredients from oil Lamp blacks to stones to vegetables & leaves and so on. Canvas varies from wall to leaves, clothes.

Pichwai - A folk art from Rajasthan

Folk & Tribal art are living disciplines, constantly changing and transforming. It reflects the lives of its diverse makers with varying combinations of history and tradition, cosmology and myth, beauty and wit, creativity and personal expression, as well as observations and descriptions of the world around us. Folk and Tribal Art of India has evolved to not only include traditional aesthetics but also encompass contemporary visuals and attitudes making the individual artist the center of their creation and vision. The focus is on giving these arts a new voice and lead them to the new phase of global art and help in the revival of these art forms.

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