FOLK ARTS AND ORAL TRADITIONS OF INDIA
Dr. Susan Wadley
Professor of Anthropology and Ford Maxwell Professor of South Asian Studies
Inspired by Syracuse University’s superb collection of South Asian folk arts, including more than 100 paintings from the Mithila region of India, lost wax and terracotta pieces from the Ruth Reeves Collection, the 3000 god posters donated by H. Daniel Smith located in Special Collections, as well as my own collection of kantha embroidery and Bengali patas and the Moynihan Institute’s 24 foot Rajasthani par (on the wall on the north wing), I envisioned a class that not only studied these traditions and others, but also included the ‘doing’ of art. So on week two, we spread poster board in the lobby of Tolley and made kolams, as found every morning outside of the doorways of South Indian houses. We didn’t succeed with the flow of rice flour, but we made beautiful kolams anyway. Professor Radha Kumar demonstrated the ‘proper’ way to do it, using skills gained from her mother and grandmother in Chennai.
As our explorations of key themes of caste and gender continued, we focused on Bengali patas, scrolls traditionally used by low-caste male storytellers moving from village to village singing of the gods, goddesses and events of their world, a world that now includes tsunamis, HIV-AIDs, and global warming. Our third venture into making art led us to the paintings, once adorning the walls of their houses, now made on paper, of women from the Mithila region in northern Bihar. These complex, detailed paintings challenged most of us, but we all tried.
As we concluded by focusing on the globalization of folk traditions, Professor Arthur Flowers brought his two books illustrated by Indian folk artists, one a Bengali scroll painter and the other a Gond tribal painter, and ex- plored his work with Tara Books, a Chennai-based publisher famous for its innovative publishing of the works of folk artists.