India/ 8.4 Amateur arts, cultural associations and civil initiatives  

8.4.1 Amateur arts and folk culture

Amateur arts: Any discussion of amateur arts needs to note that almost none of the first generation of independent artists in most art forms were trained. While students of painting, music, theatre and literature from Shantiniketan[1] remain an influential exception – as do students in dance from the Kalakshetra[2] or the Kalamandalam[3] – these are, in terms of sheer numbers, a minority in India in the years immediately after Independence. An explosion in arts training, therefore, takes place only from the 1960s and grows through the 1980s and ‘90s, so that over the years it has become near-impossible to find, say, a painter or a theatre actor who has not undertaken some professional training.

Folk culture: The concept of ‘folk’ culture has been a controversial one, since it often connects to another controversial category, that of ‘tribal’ practices. India, of course, has several such traditions, among the best known being the Santhal artists of Birbhum district in West Bengal (in which the famous Visva Bharati University at Shantiniketan is also located), and the Warli artists of Maharashtra. A lot of so-called folk art was directly sponsored by the Indian state after Independence as folk, e.g. Madhubani painting, to provide employment and to supply state Emporia (see Section 2.3 on Marketing of Cultural Resources). India’s bifurcation of the categories ‘folk’ and ‘classical’ has informed the nature of its cultural interventions and indeed its understanding of what constitutes the ‘nation’. Folk has been taken to signal India’s diversity, and the classical (or the classicisation impulse) as signaling that which we have in common, i.e. that which makes us a nation.

The concept of the ‘folk’, however, received a further turn with the intervention of visual artist J. Swaminathan, whose work at the Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal, with tribal artists allowed these artists to become properly contemporary. In music, the Baul singers of Bengal are almost indistinguishable from contemporary Bhakti/Sufi rock bands such as Bhoomi, or Punjabi and Hindi bands have a strong influence of Sufi (e.g. Indian Ocean). A further definitional distinction may, however, need to be drawn between folk (as represented say by Shantiniketan, and coded by the folklorist Gurusaday Dutt, who founded the Bratachari movement for spiritual and social improvement and to ‘create a sense of world citizenship as well as national awareness among people, irrespective of caste, religion, sex and age’ and set up the Mymensingh Folk Dance and Folk Music Society in 1929) and a more recent institutionalised legacy of folklore (linked to S.N. School of Arts & Communication, Hyderabad and the National Folklore Support Centre, Chennai).

A more specific issue today concerns endangered forms. See the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts Report on ‘Cultural Mapping of India’ under UNESCO’s Programme on Cultural Industries and Copyright Policies and Partnerships[4] for a summary of endangered practices.

[1] Visva Bharati University, established by the Bengali polymath, Rabindranath Tagore, in Shantiniketan, West Bengal

[2] Kalakshetra Foundation, a cultural academy dedicated to the preservation of traditional values in Indian art, especially in the field of Bharatanatyam dance and Gandharvaveda music, was founded in 1936 by Rukmini Devi Arundale. It is located in Chennai.

[3] Kalamandalam Deemed University of Art and Culture,  a major centre for learning Indian performing arts, especially those that developed in the southern states of India, with the special emphasis on Kerala, was inaugurated in 1930. It is currently situated in the village of Cheruthuruthy in Thrissur District, Kerala.


Chapter published: 22-04-2014