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.Dilip Chakrabarti presents to the audience on Thursday evening.

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.

Ned Cooke discusses Ruth Reeves during his keynoteThe 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 Kala Kendra).

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 misunderstanding.

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.

Peter Zirnis, Parmeshwar Jha, Frank Korom, Pika Ghosh, and Rani Jha take questions from the audienceArthur Flowers shows the patua scroll of his Martin Luther King, Jr. narrative