The implicit and the manifest

The real answers to traditional Indian art involve the composite situation of a culture rooted in its myths

The implicit and the manifest
The significance of a traditional Indian art object is usually far more profound than its visual form would indicate. Its interpretation is valid only if the artefact is examined within the many layers of its history and culture, its myth and ritual and in the context of its inherited practice and belief.

While the records of India’s artistic and cultural history reflect for most part, the history of an urban aristocracy, the cultural achievements of the peasants and tribal communities have largely gone undocumented and relegated a secondary place in academic assessments. Yet their intuitive practices carry a logic that blends technical knowledge with cultural beliefs and these guide their creative process and shape their artefacts.

When tongue envisions colour

In Dhamadka village in Kutch, Gujarat, Khatri Mohammad Siddik, a traditional dyer and printer, converses with an ethnographer. The highly trained ethnographer wishes to know the exact quantity of alum to be mixed in mud for preparing a solution of resist-mordant material. Both the dyer and ethnographer know that the intensity of red to be finally achieved depends upon the proportion of alum — a higher proportion of alum will yield a deeper shade of red. The researcher’s concern for ‘authenticity’ of documentation makes him insist on finding out the exact weight and percentage of alum required, whereas the dyer argues that he has never worked with weights and measures and cannot enlighten the ethnographer exactly. At last the ethnographer asks the dyer to explain his own method of judging the proportion of alum. The dyer appears to be pleased. He just dips his finger in the solution of mud and alum, puts it on his tongue, rolls it to savour it for a while, adds a little more alum, repeats the process of tasting on the tongue and then, pointing a finger at a deep red piece of cloth lying nearby, says: “This solution will give that particular shade of red.” To the ethnographer’s persistent questioning, the dyer explains: “The scale can fail you, but how can your tongue fail you; when you drink your tea or eat your food, don’t you know whether there is too much sugar or too little salt in it? I can produce five different buckets of mordant-cum-resist material on five different days and dye five different pieces of cloth in them by my method of judging the proportion of alum, and all five cloth-pieces will yield exactly the same shade of red. As I savour alum on my tongue, my eyes visualise the corresponding shade of red that I will get. The son of a khatri (dyer) can never get a girl in marriage until he passes this test of being able to judge the ri­ght proportion of ingredients by using his senses and not gadgets.”

Khatri Mohammad Siddik of Kutch, Gujarat, preparing mordant of alum for the red dye

I perceive in this commonplace incident the inherent historical process of dovetailing the shastra, codified text, and prayoga, living practice, in India. Living practice, in many cases, must have preceded the codified precepts. The codifier of canons, like our ethnographer, may have wished to document the principles and practices of arts and crafts in terms of weight and measure: having the words but not the music, often without taking a sensitive or intimate view of a dyer’s perception of a particular shade of red in conformity with the sourness of alum on his tongue.

The authors and patrons of the shilpashastras, the constituted canons on art, crafts and architecture dateable to the early centuries of the Christian era (the actual practice being definitely older than the date of the composition of these works), generally belonged to the urban aristocracy. Accordingly, the shilpashastras concerned themselves with the details of form and proportion, geometry and measurements, materials, techniques, iconography and ritual prescription for building towns, forts, palaces, temples, stepwells and for making images of hindu deities. All these details were formalised and fixed to the extent of sanctification; violation of any of these could only lead to degeneration of form.

The artistic and cultural history of India as recorded by the archaeologists and historians is, for the most part, a history of the art of this urban aristocracy. Among other factors, due to some surviving remnants of the knowledge of early writing possessed by the aristocracy, the chronology of their cultural achievements has been established with fair accuracy.

Throughout history, peasants and tribals lived far away from the urban aristocracy in the villages and in the secluded hilly and forested areas. Depending upon time and place, they were exposed in varying degrees to the urban centres and their way of life, but at the same time they remained fairly confined to their archaic ways and means of living. The scale of the area of their temples and wells, and of each habitation unit of their houses, was comparatively small; their construction materials were clay, cow dung, wood, branches and hay. They did not know the art of writing though they possessed a highly sophisticated and well-composed oral tradition.

Due to these factors, the exact chronology of their history could not be ascertained and, as a result, their cultural achievements have been relegated to a secondary position in the present-day academic assessment, which is obviously discriminative.

The potter herself becomes the wheel

Unlike urban hindus, the tribals did not adhere to shilpashastras enumerating rigid and binding rules and regulations governing artistic work. This can be perceived in tribal art works. It is a ‘communal art, not produced by a few intellectuals or specialists but by the spontaneous and continuing activity of a whole people with a common heritage acting under a community of experience.’

Neelamani Devi, the Manipur potter, shaping a terracotta pot with her hands, not using a wheel

While making a pot, Neel­amani Devi, a tribal woman and member of a community of traditional potters from the northeastern state of Manipur, places a large lump of kneaded clay on a knee-high piece of tree-trunk, rolls it to form a cylinder and attaches a base to it. Next, she gently grips the upper edge of the cylinder with a wet piece of cloth and while doing so, spins herself around the pot to watch an elegantly modelled pot taking shape in front of her eyes. The pot grows due to controlled pressure of her fingers and thumb and the matching speed of her rotations. One sees there the po­tter’s wheel reversed — the potter herself becomes the wheel.

Many wonder why Neelmani Devi does not use the wheel to shape her pots. She explains that conventionally women did not use the wheel in her part of the world, but she does not know the reason. Later, I asked male potters from Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh whether in their communities women potters worked on the wheel. Most of them tell me in different words that ‘women are not allowed to touch the wheel.’

Khemraj, a male non-tribal potter from Molela, a rural potters’ village near Udaipur, Rajasthan, tells me that “the women are not allowed to use the wheel but I don’t know why; perhaps it is for the same reason that they are not allowed to operate the plough.”

He then goes on to elaborate his point: “We are known as prajapatis and we are the descendants of Lord Prajapati. At the time of creation, Brahma created prajapatis or the potters and assigned them the task of making pots. Vishnu gave his disc to them to serve as the wheel, Shiva gave his lance to turn the wheel and Brahma gave a string from his sacred thread by which a finished pot could be detached from the wheel. Prajapati is the male, he operates the wheel and creates; the earth is female, the substance from which Prajapati creates. Turning the wheel is the male role, the earth is female. How can female assume a male role? The earth cannot be both the creator and the material for creation. Without the male and female, creation is not possible.”

He comes back to his original analogy of the wheel and the plough and explains: “The plough like the wheel is the male, and the field, like the clay is female; if the roles are interchanged there cannot be crops (creation).”

I wonder about Khemraj’s explanation. I wonder whether the whole myth of creation and the identification of male and female ‘roles’ are being perpetuated to depreciate women’s position. As I ruminate over it, I feel convinced that the myth has deeper implication than a mere contrivance against women. In fact, the male and female roles in this context are not even hierarchically ordered. The principles of purusha and prakriti, male and female, so fundamental to brahmanic philosophy, are reflected in the very simple explanation given by Khemraj. He does not have a clear explanation for why women are forbidden to use the wheel. He has inherited this practice like the rest of his community and has never questioned it. His reply echoes Euripides: “The myth is not my own, I had it from my mother.” All through his life Khemraj had lived with the idea of women not touching the wheel, but was never concerned with an explanation. When it came to explaining, for the first time, the meaning behind the belief held by him and his community for generations, he did it metaphorically, that is, by means of the analogy of the plough. It is a perfect analogy, clarifying that real answers involve the entire composite situation of a culture rooted in its myths. His words remind me of other such me­taphors that we use without thi­nking of their layers of meaning.

Mobile shrines

The tradition of chitrakatha, the narration of stories with the visual aid of painted scrolls or panels, has prevailed in many regions of India since ancient times. Such shows were arranged in marketplaces and were so absorbing that the audience even lost track of what was going on around them. From references in literature dating from the 3rd century, it is evident that the tradition of wandering teachers-cum-picture-storytellers was ancient and widely popular.

Knowing this, some years ago I came across a painted storyteller’s scroll in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. This vertical scroll, about 3.5 m long and 40 cm wide, was divided into several sections, each having an illustration of a popular Gujarati legend. For me this was a new type of picture scroll. At the back of the scroll there was some scribbling. This was apparently a deed of transfer of the scroll from Amrutlal Shrimali to Prabhudas Joshi, signed in Palanpur, Gujarat, in the year 1992 of the Vikram era (AD 1935).

With the intention of knowing more about this Gujarati tradition of itinerant storytellers’ painting, I began to visit villages around Palanpur, the deed indicated that the scrolls of this kind were used by the garodas. Garodas are ‘lower-caste’ Brahmans who officiate in ceremonies in Gujarat, paint scrolls and practice astrology. I discovered that the garodas had more or less abandoned the practice of picture narration but there were still a couple of stroytellers going around with their scrolls. As directed by villagers, I paid a visit to the house of one garoda who still practiced the art. He was not at home. His wife told me that he had gone on a jatra, which popularly meant pilgrimage and, therefore, I asked whether he had gone to Dwarka, the most sacred place of pilgrimage in the region. She explained that by jatra she meant the usual ‘scroll reading tour’ and not a visit to a sacred place.

This different use of the word jatra intrigued me and, therefore, I prolonged my conversation with her. She elaborated that “the scroll contains images of deities and, therefore, it is a shrine.” When people listen to the legends and view the pictures, they get the benefit of darshan, viewing the divine image. That’s how peripatetic tours of the picture showmen are also known as jatras.

A priest-performer of Dev Narayan and his assistant narrating the Dev Narayan legend

This statement of the garoda storyteller’s wife came as an eye opener. On my next visit to the village I met the storyteller. In addition to recording his narrative storytelling and information about the social, religious and cultural background of the painting, the legend and the audiences, I further discussed with him the connotation of the word jatra. He opened his scroll and showed me the beginning portion, which had a sketchy representation of a hindu temple complete with a spire, a dome and the columns of the entrance hall. He confirmed his wife’s sta­tement that the scroll was a sh­rine or a temple that housed de­ities. He also said that his tour was a jatra in which he carried deities to people for sacred benefit or righteousness. It occurred to me that there was an obvious connection between the garoda’s scroll-reading tours and the hindu custom of rathayatra or chariot festival, in which, one of the divine images from a temple is placed on a chariot, which is taken out in the street and paraded around to bless the people along a sacred route. The Guj­arati word jatra and the Sanskrit yatra are derived from the root ya, meaning ‘to go or to move’.

The garoda’s explanation about the scroll being a temple and the actual pictorial conceptualisation of it as that drew my attention from Gujarat to the picture-show traditions of Pabuji and Dev Narayan of Rajasthan. In this context, I had known that when the painter completed the scroll, the space for the eyeball of the main deity was left empty. The eyeball was painted only at the time when the scroll was ritually delivered to the bhopa or the priest-narrator of the scroll. A whole ritual was conducted to consecrate the scroll by means of an invocation ceremony. The scroll became worthy of worship only after the deities painted in the scroll descended into it through this ceremony, and then the eyeball was painted. After this, the scroll became the seat of a ‘living presence’ and had to be treated with great respect and daily veneration. If for some reason the deity enshrined in the scroll was offended, he would reveal his displeasure through calamities. The deity would then be ritually invoked by the bhopa and be requested to leave the scroll. Finally, like the remnants of a cremated dead body, the scroll would be immersed in the lake of Pushkar near Ajmer, Rajasthan. This practice of consecrating and deconsecrating the painted scroll is comparable to the ritual of consecrating a hindu image or a hindu temple.

The process of interpretation and search for meaning in Indian art can be valid only if artefacts are examined within the layers of their complete significance as revealed in myths, rituals and hidden connotations of words like jatra, which have accumulated slowly over centuries of composite growth.

Many lives of an object

The significance of a traditional Indian art object is usually far more profound than its visual form would indicate. An art object may have merely ornamental value or it might be symbolic of something else. It might have more meaning in its total context than as a fragment in a collection or a museum. It might gather increasing connotation as it passes through various epochs through the centuries. On the other hand, it might lose some of its symbolic implication and value, as connected beliefs or practices of a given culture are forgotten and become extinct. Elements of art and craft may be likened to the vocabulary of a language. Some words have validity when used in the literal sense, others have lost their literal meaning long ago and users understand only the implied meaning.

An embroidered nolo, a wallet-belt for storing money, Kutch, Gujarat

The meghwal leather-workers and weavers of Banni, Kutch, use an embroidered belt-cum-wallet for carrying money on their person. The rabari camel-herders use a knitted belt for the same purpose. They use the word nolo for this object. Once I asked a meghwal whether the word nolo meant mongoose as it generally does in Gujarat and if so, what was the connection between the embroidered belt and a mongoose. He gave an interesting explanation. According to him, formerly it was customary to kill a mongoose, empty the skin while retaining its outer form and use it as a money-purse to be carried on the shoulder or tied around the waist. This object was known as nolo after the name of the creature known as nolo or mongoose. Later on, as embroidered and knitted wallet-belts replaced the actual mongoose, they mirrored the previous shape: they were elongated bands with two folds, meant to be tied around the waist and they were called by the same name. Had I not gone into the meaning of the word nolo, I would not have understood the hidden significance behind the strange form of the rabari and meghwal wallet-belt, the design of which has a mongoose as prototype.

The mongoose story does not end there. It sheds much light on the meaning and significance of iconography of Kubera, the hindu god of wealth. The deity is usually shown in the stone sculptures as having a large protruding belly and, among other emblems, a mongoose (nakula) strung around his neck. It is widely believed that Kubera carries his wealth inside the mongoose and distributes it. It has been an enigma for students of hindu iconography and mythology to understand why and how Kubera would store his wealth inside a mongoose. The example of the meghwal and rabari nolo, wallet-belt, offers the most probable explanation. Once there was a widespread pan-Indian p­­­ractice of using mongoose-skin for making money-purses. In the period of formalisation of the iconography of Kubera, the mongoose symbol seems to have been incorporated to visually clarify the god’s connection with wealth. Let me end with a quote from Mircea Eliade:

“The sacred tree, the sacred stone are not adored as stone or tree; they are worshipped precisely because they are hierophanies, because they show something that is no longer stone or tree but the sacred, the ganz andere.”

Note: This article is a shorter version of an earlier long essay entitled: The Implicit and the manifest in Indian folk art and mythology, in: Mud, Mirror and Thread. Folk Traditions of Rural India, edited by Fisher, Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe and Mapin Publ­ishing, Ahme­dabad, 1993.

(The author is former professor for Arts & Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and presently Editor of Marg Publications, Mumbai)

For Printed Version : 19roar1 , 19roar2



  • Hard disks, flash and cloud storage would become passé soon

    The multi-billion dollar data storage industry globally may undergo a revolutionary makeover in the next few years.


Stay informed on our latest news!


Sandeep Bamzai


By June 1945, as the Second World War was winding ...

Urs Schoettli

Dragon Days are here

This is a very crucial year for the People’s Republic ...

Zehra Naqvi

A fraction of a pale blue dot

“Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those ...