About SANTHAL FOLK Painting

  • Article explains evolution and different types of the art, its application, revival by Santiniketan and pioneer Jamini Roy.

Folk art has many forms in India but it is only in recent years that it has received its due attention. In a nation that comprises so many states, each distinct cultural and traditional identity is displayed in the folk art of the region. Apart from this, each tribe also carries along with its traditions, art forms that are unique to them known as tribal art. The state of West Bengal was one of the first in the move towards recognizing and reviving its folk and tribal art traditions.


In fact, not one, but several forms of folk art originate from the Eastern region of India comprising West Bengal, Orissa and Bihar.


Santhals are the third largest tribe in India and are known for their unique form of tribal paintings known as Santhal Tribal Paintings. Santhal tribes are sustained by the forests and their occupations - farming, fishing, hunting which revolve around the forests that they live in. After a long day at work they retire for the day and find relaxation in music and dance.


The inherent love of dance and music forms an important part of Santhal fairs and festivals.


Themes in Santhal paintings revolve around this community life especially celebrations and rituals. Paintings depict dancing, harvest and merry making through enchanting minimalist images in muted shades.


Reference and Pic credits

Evolution of the art

Forms of arts change from age to age according to changing outlook, circumstances, methods and techniques. But folk art is brought into form in fidelity to natural and biological laws, operating within ethnological and geographical parameters.


Today Santhal artists paint on canvases, using acrylic for exhibitions and for sale, although the older generation still stick to their special colours obtained from plants, mud and other raw materials. The simplicity, virility and vitality of Santhal paintings, emerging from natural environs provide a fine chapter in the history of Indian arts, and needs to be sedulously nurtured.


The paintings are drawn by a special community called Jadu Patuas or magic painters in the Santhal Paragana district of Bengal/Bihar borders. The painters are called magic painters because they paint to preserve crops, avert diseases, honour the dead and so on.


Chakshudaan Pata, for example, a painting made for a bereaving family, is shrouded in magic and mysticism. When somebody dies in a village, the Jadu Patua visits the family with an image representing the deceased, but the pupil’s in the eyes of the image are missing. After the family makes a gift offering or daan to the Jadu Patua, he then performs the Chakshudaan or “bestowal of sight” by painting of the iris in the blank eyes of the portrait in order to free the dead person’s soul and send it to heaven.


These paintings are nearly a world apart are the Kalighat style of paintings which was born in the market places of Kolkata during the 19th century. It is said that Kalighat paintings originated in the vicinity of the Kalighat Kali Temple in Kolkata.


Pic credits

The Application

The Santhal folk painting, drawn by the Santhal tribes living in Bengal, is a folk art with a distinctive style of their own. Here we see paintings where the tribes are in musical procession or illustration of other simple themes like harvest, family life, and rituals of their life.


The Santhals paint in Pata or cloth. These then form the scrolls which unfurl to tell a story. They take the paintings from village to village not to sell their paintings but to get money in form of donations by singing songs based on the stories. These songs are known as Pater Gaan.


Santhals earlier used natural colours which were prepared from various leaves and flowers. But now they have started painting with synthetic paints on paper in small and medium-size scrolls created by stitching two sheets of paper together.


Pic credit Dreamhouse and link

We know that Jamini Roy, one of India’s great artists was inspired by folk paintings of Bengal.


Though we loosely refer these paintings as Santhal tribal painting or folk painting of Bengal, their styles vary in form and application of colour from region to region. Bankura, Midnapore or Kalighat have very different styles. Even the themes distinctly differ. The bifurcations/ divide are as below:


Kalighat folk painting

The Kalighat folk paintings  have bold colours with strong definite strokes for outlines. There is a visual rhythmic movement of the people in the paintings. The side faced girls have a pleasant expression. Other than the people they also paint things that they use in daily life. Overall, the picture is busy and bright.


Pic credits

Midnapore folk painting

The Midnapore folk art, on the other hand, has finer lines and more detailed work. They focus on a theme and paint around the theme. The paintings have fewer colours as compared to the Kalighat painting and have a subtlety in their depiction. The eyes are elongated covering almost the entire face.


Pic credits

The Implementation

The Santhals paint the walls of their huts during their village festival for ceremonial celebratory performances as also for self-expression. They worship a stone, as a formless representation of the Divine, sing of the burthen of their life and provide a vivid portrayal of their day-to-day experiences, shared by animals and birds.


Done in primary colours, infested with leafy patterns in the foreground, background and borders, the Santhal paintings are characterized by a directness and a childlike simplicity in the depiction of birds, animals and insects. The figures are static, frequently multi-colour, artistic rather than realistic projections. Bodies of fish and birds are joined in one head.


Reference and Pic credits

A set scenario 

Mother and child as well as human, animal and bird couples are brought together by a philosophy of love and unions. A panoramic view of the village forms the backdrop, with women carrying firewood and water, men driving the bullock cart to the market, dancing and singing under a tree, a couple under flowering creepers; a family going for cultivation; men and women cutting wood, gathering fire wood, carrying water on the head; hunters returning with their catch ; fishing; taking mud pots in a cart to the village market for sale, flying kites and swinging, brothers of the bridegroom carrying the bride in a basket.


These tell of the strong family bond and brimming with life diffusing a rare energy that animates Santhal art.


The colour scheme holds no logic. A bird or a fish appear in many colours. The picture is first drawn in black and then coloured. Originally, the Santhals used natural colours made from plants and stones, with a special and striking tinge. The older generation still sticks to natural colours while the young opt for synthetic colours. There also black and white paintings on canvas presented for archives or for sale today.


Pic credits

Reviving Santhal Art (The main concern)

Revivalism in the visual arts coupled with the scholarly assessment of India’s ancient artistic heritage was a phase of India’s renaissance during the freedom movement. Over a period of fifteen hundred years, a continuous, consistent and ever-growing tradition had existed in arts. Glimpses of this continuity in painting are traceable in the present-day folk art, despite problems thrown-up by the confrontation of a traditional society with a technological age.


The pioneer

Jamini Roy of the Bengal school, who, like many of his peers, understood the formal qualities, was the first among his peers to recognize the vitality of the myths and nature mysticism inherent in so called primitive and folk art. And he forged ahead visualizing valid alternatives in this art to mainstream western are introduced in the colonial period.


A post-modern and a contemporary artist in this age, he brought the Vaishnavite, Baul and Santal traditions visibility and precision in the world of art.


Santhal Tribal Art Painting (Visual Display)

The stories are told in a series of simple clear-cut images. Trees, flowers or rocks are depicted by simple diagrammatic forms. Figures are usually shown in profile and color is used unrealistically for dramatic or poetic effect. All pigments are traditionally derived from natural sources.


This set of Santhal paintings, inspired by Indian rural or tribal life. Santhal is an important tribe which contributes more than 50% of the Indian tribal population. Santali culture is depicted in the painting set. This is a set of 3 - charming Santal paintings of marriage celebration (in A3 size), celebration of life through beating music and dance (in A4 size), fishing as livelihood (in A4 size). 


In the marriage celebration painting Bride and groom are being carried in a doli (palanquin). Basically, freehand painted, this painting replicates their perception of life.


In the celebration of life painting the Santal traditionally accompany many of their dances with two drums: the Tamak and Tumdak. The flute was considered the most important Santal traditional instrument and still evokes feelings of nostalgia for many Santal.


Pic credits

The other painting depicts the Santala performing their traditional occupation fishing- catching fish from a village pond. 


Basically, freehand painted, this painting replicates their perception of life. The paintings are traditionally made from handmade paper, backed with cloth. Santhal Art is a notable art form, coming from the tribal villages of West Bengal. These scrolls were visual accompaniments to stories told through songs and ballads.


These paintings are traditionally made with natural mineral and vegetable colours. Delightful and earthy, these paintings reflect the ancient tradition of storytelling in India. The tribal life of India has a lot of celebration in it. Their eyes shine bright and their body language is full of life.

An Institution Promoting the Art

Santiniketan, a centre of excellence for Indian art, is associated with the iconic figure of Rabindranath Tagore worldwide. The art of the Santhals gained prominence during his days Tagore got interested in the Santhals living in a hamlet close to Santiniketan and began to promote their art when he came across Nandalal Basu and appointed him as art teacher in Kala Bhavan.


From this context arose an interest in folk arts and traditional crafts in Santiniketan and Sreeniketan. Soon an artist’s colony was established in 1930 near Santiniketan with Ramkinkar Baij, the Santhal painter and sculptor as one of its founding members. Today, those who visit Santiniketan come back with Ramkinkar indelibly etched in their memories.


Pic credits

Art project in today’s times 

Usually, one paint’s almost the same theme in two different styles of Santhal painting. One mainly learns to draw out the figures. Then we use watercolour paper and acrylic paints to paint. One can also use watercolour or poster colours too. 


To see video of Santhal Paintings Tutorial 10 minutes

 The purpose of this compilation is to document and promote. We have given credits and reference links in this compilation. In case some are missed, it is not with malafide intent. 


To read all articles by author

Receive Site Updates