A palace courtyard is filled with courtiers and attendants, with some holding phuljharis. Nearly everyone is looking up at the night sky in anticipation of fireworks. “...one man with a lighted balloon-shaped paper lantern about to be released into the air, and two professional fireworks-men setting off lights and crackers in the middle,” is how Prof. B.N. Goswamy describes the scene from the painting A Fireworks Display, in his publication Nainsukh Of Guler: A Great Indian Painter From A Small Hill-State. A gouache and gold on paper, this work by Nainsukh, a master of the Pahari school of painting, uses what is clearly Diwali-like festivity to ponder over the play of dark and light, the elaborate palace architecture and the dynamics between those present.
Traditional Indian art, be it the courtly styles of Kangra and Basohli paintings or folk forms like Mithila, abound in evocative festive scenes. None of these directly ever allude to Diwali. Rather, they draw out nuances related to the festival in subtle ways, be it scenes of the women’s quarters in palaces, awash in the glow of fireworks, or the depiction of the myths and legends that Diwali traces its origins to. Some of the paintings reinforce ideas of syncretism, with people across religions celebrating together.
“It has something to do with the societal fabric of the time, when everyone lived in harmony. In fact, until Partition, during Eid, Muslim families in the Kangra valley would send non-vegetarian dishes over, and during Diwali we would send across vegetarian fare. That is the underlying spirit in some of the paintings made under the Kangra school,” says Aishwarya Katoch, from the erstwhile Kangra royal family, who has a rich collection of these paintings.
Just like these paintings, folk art forms too need to be viewed within the sociocultural context the artists inhabit. The scenes in their work celebrate nature and our relationship with it. According to Anubhav Nath of Delhi-based Ojas Art, which focuses on indigenous art forms, the Mithila style pays obeisance to the sun god. However, in a nod to the association of Sitamarhi—the birthplace of Sita—with the Ramayan epic, Mithila paintings have a lot of scenes from the Ramayan as well.
Communities across the country have different names for their festivities. For instance, the Gond community in Chhattisgarh celebrates Devari, which falls on the same day as Diwali.
In an article on Sahapedia, an online culture resource, researcher Swarnima Kriti writes: “A festival that marks first the celebration of labour of the herding community in the village and secondly, Devari marks the celebration of the first mythical marriage in the Gond pantheon (between Ishar and Gaura).” On the day after Devari, women from the shepherd community visit households to paint special wall designs “to bring protection and prosperity to the household”, she writes
Curators believe the ongoing pandemic has brought such folk arts, and their reflective, inward-looking spirit, into focus. “We want to simplify external manifestations and look at internal meaning,” says Pavitra Rajaram, brand custodian of Sarmaya, an online museum.
People are looking at the spirituality underlying these paintings. For instance, the Mithila style celebrates seminal moments of the human journey, such as the union of man and woman, or childbirth. “Around Diwali or otherwise, there is a tradition of celebrating the human condition,” she says.
Folk art is an ever-evolving field. Today, many motifs related to Christianity figure in scenes of festivities, especially in the work created by Bhils. “It is understandable as a lot of conversion has happened in the area. Also, in this way, the artists try to reach out to the expat clientele,” says Nath.
So Gond artist Bhajju Shyam’s large work, Mohini, painted in 2014, features the Ashok Vatika scene from the Ramayan, considered a turning point in the epic. However, the grove seems to be laden with apples—a Catholic influence, even though Bhajju Shyam is not one.
“As Sita, Hanuman and the ladies from Ravan’s palace sit in the grove, from within the tree, you can see a three-faced deer, which is a depiction of Maricha. Clearly, Bhajju Shyam is alluding to the idea of temptation through both the apples and the golden deer,” says Nath.