A complete guide to the Santhal Tribal art of West Bengal

The Santhals as the name suggests are one of the most prominent ethnic groups of South Asia, found in the largest number in Jharkhand, the tribe is also found in the states of Assam, Bihar, Bengal, and Orissa. They also have a sizable population in Nepal and Bhutan, their language is one of the widely spoken Munda languages, Santali. “Santal” is derived from ‘Santa’ which means calm and ‘Ala’ meaning man. Santhals or Santals occupy a particular land or village in groups of 400 to 1000 spread across the east of India. Though reduced in number, the Santhals are still known for their unique culture and lifestyle, with a major part of it being their distinct music, instruments, dance form, and paintings. The Santhal art is a beautiful depiction of the ethnic culture of the tribe wherein they enjoy dancing in the autumn and spring seasons, which is also the highlight of their paintings. Like every other tribe, the Santhals have an artist’s vision that is rooted in their cultural traditions and physical surroundings.

The ever-so-beautiful art traditions of the Santhals involve using paint to decorate the walls of their houses for ceremonial performances as well as for self-enjoyment. For them a stone is a formless image of the divine that they worship, they sing of the sorrows of their life and portray their daily lives shared with animals and birds in their paintings. The background of Santhal paintings is of lush greenery including leaves and vegetation, these paintings are also known for their vivid and whimsical colors. Usually, this side profile of animals, birds, and humans is depicted in these paintings with a plethora of musical instruments throughout the painting. Bamboo flutes known as tirio, drums known as tamak and tumdak, fiddles known as banam, and ankle bells known as Junko are frequently shown in the paintings.

Santhal art has a nostalgic old-world charm due to its obvious childish Simplicity. The paintings are often dynamic, with a large number of figures and a rhythmic flow – one can envision the action simply by glancing at the painting. The magnificent view of the village forms the base of the painting, with the females of the village carrying timber and water on their heads, the men moving in bullock carts to the market, people singing and dancing, kids flying kites, men returning after fishing in rivers and lakes, and people enjoying while playing musical instruments during village feasts. These paintings are full of life and radiate a special vitality that animates Santhal art, having rare energy and depicting strong family bonds.

The artists of Santhal art are traditionally regarded as jadu patta or magical painters and they use natural hues taken from flowers, leaves, minerals, and mud to paint. Geru pathor (a scarlet stone), sheem Pata(Green bean leaves), And lamp black, for example, Were extensively used and the artist produced new colors by blending these Shades. 

  • A jadu patua scroll depicting a story

The paintings of santhal have no color scheme, the figures of animals, birds, and fishes can appear in any color. The figures in the painting and the scenery are first drawn with black ink and then it is filled with vivid colors. The paintings appear to be appealing because the painters use a striking tinge to give them a final shape.

Chakshudaan pata, for example, a painting created for a grieving family, is wrapped in mystery and mystique. When someone in a community dies, the Jadupatua comes to the family with a picture of the deceased, but the pupil in the figure’s eyes is missing. After the family offers a gift to the painter, he conducts the chakshu daan or, ‘bestowal of sight’ by painting the iris in the vacant eyes of the person to liberate his soul and allow it to proceed to heaven.

Santhali art involves the simplest of themes like harvest, family life, and rituals of their life. Pata or cloth was used to paint on and then the paintings on the clothes were used to form scrolls which were then unfolded to tell stories. The Santhals sang “Pater Gaan” which are songs based on stories used by the artists to get money in form of donations. The painters took the paintings from one village to another to tell stories and get money. 

Santhali art gained importance during the days of Rabindranath Tagore who certainly caught an eye on paintings of a few santhals living in a hut close to Santiniketan, then he began to spread the word about this art form. Next, he came upon Nandalal Basu and after appreciating his art he appointed him as an art professor in Kala Bhavan. Soon a colony of artists came up near Santiniketan in 1930 with Ramkinker baij , a Santhal artist and sculptor, being one of its founding members.

The Bengal school’s Jamini Roy was the first among his peers to realize the vitality of the stories and nature mysticism present in so-called primitive and folk art. He, like many of his peers, comprehended the formal qualities. And he persisted in picturing viable alternatives to the major western art forms that were introduced during the colonial period. In this age, he was a post-modern and contemporary artist who gave the Vaishnavite, Baul, and Santal traditions exposure and precision in the art world.

  • A jadu patua fish wedding painting

Art forms evolve over time as people’s perspectives, conditions, and approaches towards art change. On the other hand, cultural art is created in accordance with the diversity of nature and biological laws, while acting under oriental and economic constraints. Natural colors made of plants, flowers, and stones were originally used in the santhali, finished off with a striking and special touch. The older artists of Santhal tribe still use these organic hues but the artists of the new generation prefer to use synthetic colors. Santali art in today’s time is done on canvases using acrylic colors and is displayed in exhibitions and sales, but the simplicity and vibrancy which emerge from the natural setting of the Santhal tribe represent a beautiful chapter in the historical culture of folk art that must be preserved carefully.

  • Typical santhali tribal art 

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