Folk and Tribal Art of Bengal


Folk art has many forms in India but it is only in recent years that it has received its due attention. In a nation that comprises 35 states, each distinct cultural and traditional identity is displayed in the folk art of the region. Apart from this, each tribe also carries along with its traditions, art forms that are unique to them known as tribal art. The state of West Bengal was one of the first in the move towards recognizing and reviving its folk and tribal art traditions.

 In fact, not one, but several forms of folk art originate from the Eastern region of India comprising West Bengal, Orissa and Bihar.

Santhals are the third largest tribe in India and are known for their unique form of tribal paintings known as Santhal Tribal Paintings. Santhal tribes are sustained by the forests and their occupations - farming, fishing, hunting - revolve around the forests that they live in. After a long day at work, they retire for the day and find relaxation in music and dance. The inherent love of dance and music forms an important part of Santhal fairs and festivals. Themes in Santhal paintings revolve around this community life especially celebrations and rituals. Paintings depict dancing, harvest and merry making through enchanting minimalist images in muted shades.

The paintings are drawn by a special community called Jadu Patuas or magic painters in the Santhal Paragana district of Bengal/Bihar borders. The painters are called magic painters because they paint to preserve the crops, avert diseases, honour the dead and so on. Chakshudaan Pata, for example, a painting made for a bereaving family, is shrouded in magic and mysticism. When somebody dies in a village, the Jadu Patua visits the family with an image representing the deceased, but the pupil’s in the eyes of the image are missing. After the family makes a gift offering or daan to the Jadu Patua, he then performs the Chakshudaan or “bestowal of sight” by painting of the iris in the blank eyes of the portrait in order to free the dead person’s soul and send it to heaven.

Almost a world apart are the Kalighat style of paintings which was born in the market places of Kolkata during the 19th century. It is said that Kalighat paintings originated in the vicinity of the Kalighat Kali Temple in Kolkata. Originally the art depicted Hindu gods and mythological characters and stories and was sold to visitors as souvenirs from the religious sanctuary. In later times, Kalighat paintings also depicted ordinary people and everyday life as well as social changes that were taking place at the time. Marked by generously curving figures of both men and women, the paintings acquired an essentially satirical style. The ‘babus’, as the 19th century, British influenced, nouveau rich Bengali gentlemen were called by the traditional people, were objects of fun not just for their unorthodox mannerisms but also for their often very tasteless and conspicuous consumption. Thus the “babu culture” portrayed in the Kalighat ‘patas’ often shows inversions of the social order like wives beating husbands or leading them about in the guise of pet dogs, maidservants wearing shoes, sahibs in undignified postures. Ironically, these satirical portrayals were created by artists who were and are rarely educated. Although largely secular, paintings of gods and goddesses continued in much the same de-romanticised way as the humans are.

Natsy by Design brings you these and other folk paintings from the East, including Madhubani and Patachitra traditions at

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