Monday, July 21, 2008

Art and Heritage Among the Adivasi

Friday, July 12. This morning we took an unplanned trip at the suggestion of yesterday’s speaker, Ganesh Devy, to a World Heritage Site only a _ hour from hour hotel. The site consists of the ruins (very intact, as you’ll see from the photos) of three early 16th century mosques. It was a rainy, misty morning and we were the only visitors. We explored two of the mosques. The largest, the Jama Masid, had a large enclosed courtyard and a vast pillared area designed for prayers. The layout here was very similar to the mosque we visited in Delhi. The place is inhabited by about a dozen monkeys who had the run of the place, hanging around inside and scampering about the roof and minarets. Adjacent to the mosque was an enormous, very deep well, about 50 yards across. A second, smaller mosque lay about 10 minutes beyond along a very muddy, pool-filled road. Just as we were turning to enter the gate to this mosque a man appeared in the distance carrying a baby goat in his hands. It had just been born and still had the umbilical cord attached. The mother came trotting along behind and we spent a few moments watching her clean the baby off as it tried to figure out how to begin to nurse. A number of us climbed the interior steps of the minaret in this mosque for a panoramic view of the countryside. You could see the minarets of the third mosque in the distance, towering above the forest below.

In the afternoon we set out in three jeeps for a long drive to a remote village and the home of a tribal man whose father is a well-known painter. The particular painting we saw on the wall of what is now his son’s home, is a ritual painting called “Pithora.” As it was explained to me the next day by a man who has dedicated his life to studying tribal practices, when a family has run into some form of misfortune (it might be related to farming, or to personal relations within the family) they may decide to take an oath with the village shaman to have a Pithora picture painted on the wall of their home. This involves a heavy financial commitment on the family’s part. It’s hoped that making this special commitment, which involves an elaborate feast and festival at the time the painting is done, will help the family overcome their misfortune. There are accomplished Pithora painters throughout the area, and while historically these paintings have been restricted to village homes and have a specific ritual function related to village life and thus are not “art” in the western sense, more recently they have begun to be produced on sheets of paper or canvas for sale to visitors (or reproduced as weavings). The Adivasi Academy defends this change in its museum statement about the Pithora paintings, insisting there’s a value in having the pictures, and the cultural significance they have for the adivasi, communicated to a larger audience beyond villagers and those who study them. As you’ll see from the pictures I’ve posted of the Pithora we saw, these are intricate paintings that represent animals, spirits, and other key figures in village life. Some sections seem to have a narrative element to them, as with Italian frescos, and the local villagers who took us to see the Pithora painting were able to explain the symbolic meaning of each figure in detail. It was wonderful to see the painting, meet the artist’s son, who has become a painter himself, and to spend time in his home with he and his family.

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