Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tribal truths

Sometime in summer 2008, there was a West Bengal tribal handicrafts fair being held near the newly opened exhibition grounds off the Park Circus bypass. My aunt had asked me if I wanted to tag along. It was a Saturday afternoon and there was actually nothing else to do. On reaching the venue, as expected there were hundreds of visibly excited females running around from stall to stall and their visibly depressed male companion (boyfriends/husbands/brothers/nephews) dragging their feet behind them carrying the tons of items already bought. 

All the usual tribal handicrafts that I had previously seen only displayed in drawing rooms and inside showcases were on display by the dozen.  Tribal art works at a primal level, that delves far deeper than the apparent simplicity of the artwork at its surface. Does a good piece of art have to have multiple interpretations and layers or can the grin of a semi-human statue contain more meaning than the most intricately detailed paintings? Do the stick figures that cavort in a group dance on a quilt really need flesh and bone detailing to convey their mood? I ended up buying for myself a black stone paperweight adorned with a boldly illustrated butterfly and a bronze mask which was oddly reminiscent of the Green Goblin's mask in the Spiderman movie. The mask still hangs with an indecipherable expression above my study table in Calcutta while the paperweight keeps (or at least used to keep) my daily paper from flying off in the late evening Ganga breeze. I look at them and forge a link with long lost ancestors whose lifestyle and skills are still retained by these rapidly dwindling tribal cultures. A doomed culture it is from the outset when less is more and beauty lies in brightly hued innocence.

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