Folk Arts – An Expression of Culture and Community

The Origins of Folk Arts:

The Folklores and the folk arts share a close nexus. They form the oral, intangible heritage of humanity. They have found a place in the pages of antiquity at amphitheaters, courts of Kings, festive gatherings, operas, the arenas. These places have resulted in narratives of Iliad and Odyssey. Drawing a parallel are the mythological narratives of Vyasa’s Mahabharata and Valmiki’s Ramayana from our Indian sub-continent.

How did these narratives remain in existence and familiar across generations and time? The answer to that would lie in the clinking of the bells of the travelling folk performers.

Now relegated to showcase performances at events, the origins of the folk arts had a far greater purpose and design. It was a medium of expression and communication. Folk arts brought together communities and was insightful of the cultural life of the community.  Firstly, it instilled morals in society and was the bearer of news. Secondly, it was a unifier of the community and a mode of entertainment, and finally, a means of celebrating the harvest in the agrarian society of Bharath.

India, is a country rich in culture, heritage and customs . The same holds good for her rich folk arts. Being a large country, she is diverse in population and diverse in folk arts.  The performers of the arts are described as practitioners of the arts. In the case of folk performers, the sons and daughters of the soil, they live their art. It is literally embossed into their existence.

Forms of Folk Art:

Rural folk form of India is a treasure trove of folk art, theatre, music, dance, art and craft. The folk-art forms satisfy our innate need for self-expression. India is a powerhouse of performing arts, a multi-hued ritual that showcases talent like nothing else. Showcasing resplendent costumes, dazzling jewelry, quaint adornments and traditional practices, the art forms sew a cultural lore. If we were to delve deep into the regions based on the directions, we would find a huge repository of the arts in each of the regions.

In the north we would encounter Dumhal in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh’s Nati,Mayur Nritya and Raas Leela of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana’s Dhamyal, Matka dance of Madhya Prdaesh, Punjab’s Bhangra are some of the folk forms of the region.

The western parts of India, we have Tamasha performers, tera thali of Rajasthan, Dandiya , Pavri nach, Lavani and more.

In eastern India you will find Gambhira from West Bengal, Bideshya from Bihar/ Chattisgarh, Chhau from Odisha,Bihu from Assam, Jhumar from Jarkhand, the seven sister States bring us the folk dances like Aji Lamu, the Chalo dance and the Pasi Kongi, to name a few.

And in the south of India we have our own Yakshagana of Karnataka and Andhra/ Telangana, Lambadi, Dappatam, Vilasaninatyam from Andhra and Telanagana, Mayil attam, puli attam, pam attam, poi kal kudurai, Marakkaal aattam from Tamil Nadu, Theyyam, Paddeni from Kerala and more.
It would be interesting to note that some of the folkart forms have managed to trickle their way into the more structured format of the classical art forms. The performances of the mayilattam (peacock dance), pamattam (snack dance) are some such examples.

Current Reality of Folk Arts:

The folk arts have had to compete for the space and the attention of the community with the passage of time and  development of technology. It must not be forgotten that these art forms too form a part our who we are- our heritage. The pandemic and the extended lockdown, caused adverse effects on the household of these folk artists. As a result, the artists have now resorted to manual labour  to make ends meet and for food . The pandemic has forced these performers to take on new promps for a living…the hand that held the kollatam now bears a shovel, the head that donned the prop keeridam (crown) now carries a mortar pan, the feet that adorned the dancing anklets now covered with construction dust and the rhythmic notations of performances replaced by the clanking sound of stone cutting.  It is an unfortunate reality.

This year’s Ghantasala tribute organized by Smt. Parvathi Ravi Ghantasala and her organization Kala Pradarshini is a folk-art festival. It has offered opportunities to around 50 folk artists to perform to the songs of Sri Ghantasala Venkateswara Rao. It is the endeavour of the organization to keep the art forms alive and to offer these artists an avenue to showcase their art.

The folk forms are a language that resonates with the common man. Irrespective of the education, economic background or the actual language they speak. It has a universal appeal. Folk arts are  seeped in ancestry and not modern. They are an art form and not defined as classical. They are rustic and not refined. The folk art forms carry within them the pulse of a nation, our history and the essence of our existence in humanity.

Written by: Nandita Ramesh