Historicizing ‘Folk Art’: A View From Bengal (India)


Session Title:

  • Perspectives on Colonialism and Art

Presentation Title:

  • Historicizing ‘Folk Art’: A View From Bengal (India)




  • Dissemination of the colonial ideology and utility for administrative needs were the main objectives of the educational policy of the British government, nevertheless the educational program of the (nationalist) Indian intellectuals was oriented to the ‘re-generation’ of the country. Among other things, this primarily calls for canon-building.

    The Indian intelligentsia was however caught between a serious dichotomy: whether to believe in Enlightenment as a panacea, embrace western ideas and focus on England as the birthplace of progressive values or to ‘re-invoke’ (cultural) indigenity. The former group of elites disowned an assorted chunk of India’s heterogeneous cultural past in the name of the ‘folk’. The distantiation between the colonizer and the colonized, the West and the East, was made, according to Said, by deictic categories ‘we’ and ‘they’. Xenophobic and paranoid ‘we’ designated ‘they’ simply as primitive, savage; ‘we’ called those homo sapiens by the name ‘tribe’, ‘ab-original’, ‘folk’ and so on.

    Is there any natural or biological basis for these categories?  Who, for what cause and intention set up these categories to signify a certain group of people? What is the ‘telos’ of this dividing practice? Which politico-historical milieu allowed this ambiguous polarization of the ‘Homo Sapiens’ into the ‘folk’ and ‘non-folk/ classical’?

    Tracing back the originary moment as early as the German Romanticism (c.f. Herder, Hegel) obsessed to find human beings in the ‘raw/ natural/ organic’ state, the paper initially aims for a genealogy of the politics of in/exclusion in what eventually came to be known as ‘folk art’. The paper shall account for how the nineteenth century/ nationalist inhibition for clinically sanitizing the ‘classical’ against the ‘folk’ forges links with the ‘public/popular art’ in the contemporary. Citing works by Abanindranath Tagore, Ramkinkar Baij, Jamini Roy, Nandalal Bose, Benodbehari Mukherjee (each preferring  non-Western modes of representation in their unique way) on the one hand and the ‘folk/popular’ art forms like the Kalighat paintings (patachitra), woodcut prints, Chau masks, calligraphies etc on the other, it would be shown how there had been a perennial bi-way traffic between the ‘folk’ and the ‘classical’; and hence the collective identity ‘folk’ born out of the exclusionist practice seriously problematic.