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Understory of a Painted Forest

Updated: Sep 11, 2020

Written by Nayantara Siruguri, Artwork by Vaidehi Patil

The art forms of India’s indigenous communities hide magnificent stories of culture, nature, and belonging. This is an exploration of this world of stories that lie underneath the densely patterned canopy of indigenous art; a world that is often ignored, but a world that preserves lessons of love, harmony, and co-existence.

अरे जंगल असे आमची आई रक्षणात जीव जाई.

झाड तुम्ही तोडून टाकता, त्याग आम्हा काय मागता?

अरे देशभक्त लोक तुम्ही नां, त्याग आम्हा काय मागता?

डोळ्यांदेखत उजेड चोरितां

त्याग आम्हा काय मागता...

त्याग आम्हा काय मागता...

अरे त्याग आम्हा काय मागता...?

The jungle is our mother, to save her we will lay down our lives.

You chop off all our trees, then why ask us to be the sacrifice?

You call yourselves patriotic, then why ask us to be the sacrifice?

You chop our trees in front of our eyes,

Why ask us to be the sacrifice…

Why ask us to be the sacrifice…

Oh, why ask us to be the sacrifice…?

The first time I listened to these heartfelt words, I found myself wiping away silent tears. The passionate words were uttered by Adivasi activist Prakash Bhoir in the song “The Warli Revolt” by hip-hop collective Swadesi. “It's time for the revolution to begin,” read the video description. The song, featuring Bhoir and different artists from the collective with lyrics in Marathi and Hindi, served as a poignant reminder for many about the struggles that the Warli people face with the destruction of their lands around Sanjay Gandhi National Park and Aarey forest in Mumbai. Since that day, I continue to learn about the struggles and experiences of indigenous communities from around India, and the inextricable linkages between their culture, art forms, and relationship with nature. A little more than a year later, when I listen to Prakash Bhoir’s words again, I still find myself wiping away tears.

Have you ever seen a Gond painting? It is very likely that you have, for it is hard to miss the meandering curves, the ornate patterns that fill them, and the colours that bring them to life. Many of us have probably heard of or seen the folk dance of the Koli fisherpeople community – some of us (like me) may have even “performed” it at school – with its joyous rhythmic beats and simple but synchronised steps. Gond art and Koli dance, like many other indigenous art forms of India, are wondrous manifestations of aesthetic beauty and wonder.

But have you ever noticed the presence of birds, cows, deer, big cats, and leaves in a Gond painting – all in one frame? Have you ever paid attention to the movements commonly used by Koli dancers and what they symbolise?

Gond art has traditionally been inspired by nature. The common motif of the tree symbolises the belief that trees rise upwards and directly meet God, and the presence of several animals – predator and prey often sharing spaces, and even birds picking off small organisms from the fur of animals symbolises the community’s knowledge about ecosystems and the interrelationships between different living beings. On the other hand, Koli dance is much more than a string of aesthetic movements; it is the graceful and festive depiction of the everyday experiences of the Kolis – traditionally, fishing and rowing boats. Similarly, the dancers also often depict the movement of the sea and sing about its wonders and mysteries.

The art forms of indigenous communities of India – well-known or not – are a direct reflection of their long-standing culture and traditions. They have also acted as a means of communication and education within the communities, passing on cultural values and traditional knowledge systems. For example, the Irula community of Tamil Nadu is known for the folk songs that depict their knowledge about and relationship with nature. A folk song about growing foxtail millet (thina) reads:

Red thina and black thina seeds should be mixed and sown;

Birds that come must be chased away.

You have to look after the cultivation

By watching from a small hut built

On the top of the tree…

India’s Indigenous - Of, For, and From Nature

Artwork by Vaidehi Patil

“Let's remind ourselves, we are a part of nature.

Let's look at the stories we come from, the stories we create,

Of what we are made, of the value we generate.”

India is home to more than 700 indigenous communities, some of which are recognised as “Scheduled Tribes” in the Constitution of India. Each of these communities, some referring to themselves as “Adivasi”, has its own set of belief systems and cultures that determine its people’s worldview, arts, and lifestyles.

Indigenous peoples have historically shared spaces with wildlife and have been almost a part of natural ecosystems of different kinds – forest, desert, marine, riverine, and more. This has incredibly resulted in lived experiences that have been deeply shaped and influenced by their natural surroundings. Decades and centuries of these lived experiences – with plants, trees, rivers, mountains, animals, and the sea – have given rise to entire cultures and beliefs systems that have directly emerged from these shared spaces in nature. One may thus say that the culture of indigenous communities is an intricate reflection of their relationship with nature.

It is well-known that indigenous people – in India and worldwide – feel a strong emotional (and often spiritual) sense of belongingness to the forests or other natural habitats that they live in. They give importance and great regard to animals that they share spaces with, to the trees, agricultural and medicinal plants that they depend on, and to the water and soil resources that are essential to their survival. Sacred groves – forest areas that these communities hold sacred and of spiritual importance – have a presence in most indigenous cultures. The life of the people is not only dependent on their lands, but it is also closely entwined. This way of living sets the stage for indigenous communities to form the core of systems that sustain, and also shows why community-based and community-led conservation systems often work much better and persist longer than those that are state or institution-led.

Such cultural elements among indigenous communities have traditionally given rise to sustainable and environmental-friendly lifestyles despite being dependent on forests and natural resources. This dependence on forest produce and natural resources, on the other hand, has helped develop a vast and rich pool of traditional ecological knowledge that persists even today, although threatened by contemporary rationalist perspectives and lack of scientific representation.

The rich knowledge systems of indigenous communities hold magnificent secrets about the way forward – towards a more inclusive, sustainable, and nature-centred world. When divorced from culture, however, they become meaningless – devoid of the very roots that brought them to life and sustained them for centuries. It is thus crucial to understand the cultural and spiritual foundations in which these experiences and knowledge systems are rooted – especially in a world where indigenous land rights and livelihoods are being endangered by deforestation, habitat loss, environmental degradation, land-grabbing, development projects, and a general disregard of indigenous rights.

Very often, driven by a curiosity about these incredible cultures, we seek awareness and understanding of them – but our understanding remains incomplete without proper channels of exploration. How does one understand a culture, without being able to experience it first hand? How does one realise its importance, as a part of a community of citizens? How does one communicate something so profound and esoteric but rooted in everyday life at the same time? The answer to these questions lies, I believe, somewhere within the frames on our walls.

Art as a Window to Indigenous Culture

Artwork by Vaidehi Patil

In their myths, the Khasi people believe in the concept of Mei-Ri-Sawkun - “mother earth that cradles her children and all else that exists around them”.

The art forms of indigenous communities – including but not limited to fine art – are aesthetic reflections of their cultures. They are full of spiritual meaning and ecological knowledge. In fact, “art” for most indigenous communities is not merely a practice or profession distinct from their everyday lives; it is an integral part of their everyday lives, their festivals, and even acts as an important means of communication.

One may notice, then, that these art forms communicate or represent culture, which in turn have been shaped almost entirely by experiences built through a close relationship with nature. The natural elements in indigenous art forms are not mere “landscape representations” or just aesthetic portrayals of their natural surroundings; one must look at indigenous art, culture, and nature as one unit of reflections – one that many would call “identity”.

Art can communicate in the form of folklore, mythical legends, and poetry, which often reflect the community’s traditional ecological knowledge. A Khasi tale imaginatively explains the dancing behaviour of the peacock and the psychedelic patterns on its tail: The Peacock and Sun lived together in heaven as husband and wife. One day, the Peacock spotted a beautiful damsel in yellow and green dancing on Earth and wished to join her. The Sun, troubled by this, wept and pleaded with the Peacock not to abandon her; her golden tears fell on the peacock’s tail, making a beautiful spotted pattern. Finally, the Peacock left for the Earth only to be greeted by mustard fields with bright yellow flowers. Feeling deceived, the Peacock tried to fly back to the Sun, but could not fly higher than a few feet off the ground. The Peacock still tries, and spreads his wings with the shimmering marks of the Sun’s tears, and remembers his lover. In their myths, the Khasis (traditionally matrilineal) also believe in the concept of Mei-Ri-Sawkun, which talks about “mother earth that cradles its children and all else that exists around them”.

Art can also mean folk music, dance, and drama. The Zeliang Naga people perform the Herielim – a mesmerising dance that pays tribute to the culturally significant hornbill bird – by synchronising movements among about forty dancers to mimic a hornbill gracefully flying over their lands. For the Zeliang people as well as other Naga tribes, nature is a spiritual being to be revered, and the hornbill also possesses a spiritual meaning. In most of the music and dance forms of indigenous peoples, the formal and authoritative figure of the teacher as in Indian classical art forms is missing – dance and music, here, are directly inspired by natural processes and the observed movements of trees, creatures, and other natural elements and processes. It is also usually a non-spectator performance, where people of all ages come together and sing and dance in unison. “Ekna dim tokna, Baa’na dim parna [Walking is dancing, and talking is singing],” goes a common proverb of the Oraon community.

And then there is art as it is widely understood – more accurately, visual art. The painting style of the Saura community of Odisha is often mistaken for the more popular Warli art. While there are significant visual as well as cultural distinctions, the two do share a reflection of reverence for nature and its spiritual status. The Sauras originally did not have a script, and their art – traditionally painted on mud or clay walls of their houses – acted as a record of their religious beliefs, history, knowledge systems, and culture. The paintings (known as ekon) were traditionally a representation of everyday life, and in most of them, one can find human figures in very close proximity with natural motifs. Many Saura paintings feature a “tree of life” dominating the frame, with the human stick figures in the background looking small and insignificant in front of the beautiful tree.

We must look beyond the aesthetics of indigenous art – and understand, in our capacity, the culture that it is rooted in and the harmonious relationship with nature that these communities have managed to sustain for centuries. Why? Because art as an identity for indigenous communities loses its meaning when there is dissociation in our perception between the art forms and the socio-cultural systems that back them. On the other hand, when art forms are viewed, enjoyed, and understood in the cultural context that they come from, they are more likely to inspire and incite change. Indigenous art forms are not only educational tools for sensitising people to indigenous cultures and issues. They can also be a medium of inspiring environmental action and change – the inspiration, without much doubt, coming from the indigenous cultures of respect for nature.

Artivism, Change, and Hope

Historically, there have been several cases where indigenous communities took to activism through art – or “artivism”, as it is now called – to fight for their rights, encourage greater representation of their people, and create wider awareness and education about their cultures. Now is a time when the rights of indigenous communities are being threatened increasingly – and on the global level, perhaps more than ever. The Draft Environmental Impact Assessment notification (2020), for example, was released by the Indian environment ministry for public review in March 2020 and if passed, will disproportionately affect indigenous communities of India by making it easier for corporates and industrial bodies to acquire the naturally rich lands that the communities depend on and have lived on for centuries.

Culture is shaped by centuries of lived experiences. It is because of lived experiences in close physical and spiritual proximity with nature that indigenous cultures have so much respect for the biodiversity and natural resources that surround them. When biodiversity declines and natural resources are plundered, lived experiences begin to change, and with this comes a greater disconnect with the traditional culture of indigenous communities, from within and without. In such circumstances, it becomes important for us to look at indigenous art forms as a means of protest against environmental degradation and solidarity with indigenous communities – and more deeply, as a means to understand their struggles and appeals for protecting their livelihoods and their natural surroundings.

That said, we must also make enough space in the communities of art and culture – as well as the environmentalist movements – for indigenous people to tell their own stories and talk about their own struggles. This is the right time for us to foster a wide exploration of stories – the stories that lie hidden in paintings, movements, musical notes, and words, some of them hidden in plain sight – that come directly from the indigenous peoples of our country.

So, the next time you see a Warli painting, or watch a Cheraw dance, or listen to a Santhali song, look out for stories of harmony, coexistence, perceptions, spirits, struggles, and belonging. For stories that speak of indigenous identity and call for recognition and support. And for stories that point to a greener past, and more importantly, inspire a hopeful future.

In the spaces that I call home

Where tigers roam the hill-heart

and deep, deep in those woods

lives the son of the man

who became a bear.

In the skies that cover

the spaces that I call home

sky-husbands appear in the night-skies

looking, looking for earth-wives.

Tree, rock, bird, flower

every river has a name

every mountain holds a story

every story, a right to be told.

Easterine Kire (Angami Naga poet and writer), “The Right to Stories”


India is home to more than 700 indigenous communities, each of them with a unique culture, belief system, and way of life. For centuries, indigenous communities have lived in close proximity and harmony with their natural surroundings and have taken inspiration from nature to build and shape their cultures and identities. Project Indi is our quest to learn these traditions and culture, through stories, and through art.


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