Transformations in South Asian Folks Arts Conference
-Emera Bridger Wilson
The Cornell-SU Consortium and Ray Smith Symposium Conference
“Transformations in South Asian Folk Arts, Aesthetics, and Commodities,” held
February 27-March 1, 2014, was received very well by the campus community. This
conference brought together anthropologists, art historians, curators, and art
lovers to investigate the ways in which “folk arts” are defined in South Asia
and how they have changed in light of globalization.
The conference was opened on Thursday evening by Dilip
Chakrabarti, Professor Emeritus of South Asian Archeology at Cambridge
University, who discussed the ways in which “the folk” may or may not be
represented in the archeological record. He concluded that the folk has not
been found perhaps because no one has asked the right questions or looked
closely enough at the material culture.
On Friday morning, Ned Cooke, the Charles F. Montgomery
Professor of American Decorative Arts, Yale University, gave a comparative talk
that looked at the ways in which folk arts have been classified both in the
U.S. and in India. In addition to discussing how the folk was classified, Cooke
also touched upon how folk arts articulated with regional and national
identities during the nationalist and postcolonial periods in India.
At lunch, Rani Jha, master Mithila painter, demonstrated her
work in the atrium of Shaffer Art Building, where the exhibition “Mithila
Painting: An Evolution of an Art Form” was on display. Jha had two paintings in
the exhibition at the nearby SU Art Gallery. For more information about Dr.
Jha’s time in Syracuse see page 5.
The efforts of individuals and institutions to collect and
catalog the folk arts of South Asia was another important piece of the puzzle
that was addressed at the conference, both in Cooke’s keynote address and in
the presentations made by Susan Wadley, Darielle Mason and Rebecca Brown during
their panel. Susan Wadley, the Ford-Maxwell Professor of South Asian Studies and
Anthropology at SU, highlighted the long relationship that SU has had with the
Indian folk arts by focusing on the efforts of Ruth Reeves, who collected over
500 pieces of folk art, including religious artifacts, household utensils, toys
and jewelry, and H. Daniel Smith, whose collection of “God Posters” numbers
over 3500 pieces. Mason, the Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan
Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Adjunct Associate Professor of the
History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania, focused on the work of Stella
Kramrisch, another prolific collector of South Asian folk arts while Brown,
Teaching Professor of History of art and Chair of Museum Studies at the Johns
Hopkins University, focused on how the folk was represented at three major
exhibitions in the 1980s.
However, the folk arts do not just exist in the museum or
the archive. The panel “Evolving Traditions” provided more ethnographic
insights into how the folk arts are integral parts of people’s lived
experiences. Frank Korom, Professor of Religion and Anthropology, Boston
University, discussed his work among patua (scroll painters) in Bengal while
Pika Ghosh, Associate Professor of Art at the University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill, discussed the lives, relationships, and social worlds created by
kanthas that survive from the nineteenth and first part of the twentieth
century and how they were part of the creation of a Bengali identity. Finally,
Peter Zirnis, curator and photographer of Mithila art as well as a board member
of the Ethnic Arts Foundation, presented a paper by David Szanton, the
foundation’s President, as he was unable to join us at the last minute. This
paper focused on the history of Mithila painting and how the Mithila Art
Institute in Madhubani, Bihar is hoping to preserve and perpetuate the art form.
The last day of the conference focused on the continuity and
change that can be seen in folk arts traditions in South Asia, whether it is
how contemporary Mithila painters in Nepal interpret folk narratives (Coralynn
Davis, Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Anthropology,
Bucknell University), the ways in which the idol comes out of the temple as
monumental architecture (Kajri Jain, Associate Professor of Indian Visual
Culture and Contemporary Art, University of Toronto Mississauga) or how tribal
textile traditions get reimagined for a middle class audience (Nora Fisher,
Curator Emerita of Textiles and Costumes, Museum of International Folk Art in
Santa Fe, and Lakshmi Narayan, Project and Design Consultant, Sandur Kushala
Following this panel, Tula Goenka and Susan Wadley,
co-directors of the South Asia Center, screened six short documentary pieces in
which the motivations and approaches of five contemporary Mithila artists are
explored—Rani Jha, Dulari Devi, Rambharos Jha, Amrita Jha, and Shalinee Kumari.
This documentary material is a result of a trip that Goenka and Wadley took
together to Madhubani, Bihar in 2012 to interview artists about their work.
The conference ended with an exhilarating presentation and
performance by Arthur Flowers, Jr., Professor of English at SU. His book, “I
See the Promiseland,” released by Tara Books, is a recounting of the life of
Martin Luther King, Jr. using patua illustrations by Manu Chitrakar. He
discussed what it was like to have his narrative interpreted by a Bengali
scroll artist and how there were moments of synergy and others of
This conference allowed the scholars and audience a space in
which to consider these issues seriously and it brought many interesting
questions to the fore that people will continue to think about for months and
years to come.