Understanding Diversity through Traditional Arts of India

Text and images from the talk delivered at a conference on ‘Migrants and Diversity: Understanding Trends & Traditions’ at Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Studies, University of London on Wednesday 23rd September 2009. Report of the Event


While understanding cultural identity and diversity is vitally important, it is an enormously complex task in an era when communities and cultures are constantly overlapping, getting homogenized, hybridized and reconstituted. Given such dynamic nature of culture, we must go to its roots to understand how its identity took shape.

A culture is born when a community inhabits a place long enough for a mode of expression to emerge, mature and consolidate, before the process of migration and trade spreads or modifies it. We are fortunate that many such prehistoric communities which are the cradle of culture on which our civilization is built have preserved their art and culture for us to study. While generally referred to as tribals or aboriginals, they are better understood as the first/original inhabitants of their land, or ‘adivaasi’ in Sanskrit.

This paper presents an overview of the art forms of various adivaasi communities of India and how each reflects its community’s identity, It focuses on the rapidly evolving art form of Gond community of central India, which reflects the way people of this community have integrated with the mainstream global society.
The remarkably unique, diverse and well-preserved ancient art forms of these communities give us a window of understanding these peoples and the origins of Indian culture, and a model to apply to any other world culture.


India comprises of 1.2 billion people, speaking more than 1600 languages, following more than seven different religions living in an area of 3.3 million sq km, boasting a civilization several millennia old. This diversity is a result of waves upon waves of migration since pre-historic times and continuous amalgamation, displacement and admixture among migrant peoples. It is not surprising that India comes across as a land of multitude of cultures in an immensely complex eclectic mix.

There are many ways to understand this diversity: genetics, linguistics, geography, etc. My research interest lies in studying traditional visual arts as a means to decode the diversity of India, and the subject of my talk today.

I will try to unravel the connections using the case of Gond community from central India, which is at the intersection of the issues related to indigenous and migrant communities, mainstream and marginalised societies and connectedness of art with all its socio-cultural aspects.

Before we look at the art of Gond community, we will briefly understand the broad composition of India’s  population and its place in it. But let us begin by understanding why and how is art a signifier of cultural diversity in India.

The Place of Art in Indian Society

20060201 08 KhajurahoSince ancient period, art in India has held an esteemed place in society. An ancient Indian treatise says that art conduces to fulfilling the aims of life, whose ultimate aim is moksha or re-integration with the absolute being. The act of creation is considered so divine that the individuality of an artist is insignificant compared to the creation. As a result, artists never signed their work. From royal palaces, to temples to mud walls of huts, art existed everywhere, serving several functions:

  •  Embodying the traditions of society where the written word was not a primary mode of documentation or communication for a vast majority, even today.
  • Connecting humans with the super-natural for instance in temples or rituals
  • Marking major events in people’s life like birth, marriage, death.
  • Celebrating festivals and important phases of a year based on solar and lunar  cycles and seasonal changes.

rangoliIt ranges from marking on and sculpting rocks that have survived for thousands of years to using rice powder on mud floors to make art that lasts but a few hours.

A vast majority of people of India whether in urban or rural areas, mainstream or marginalised communities, still practice traditional art in some form.

Thus, owing to its long continuous history, integration with culture, and presence throughout the country, art is a potent visible signifier of the cultural diversity in India.

20070106 001 Agra TajMahal20070106 026 Agra TajMahalWe can study the confluence of cultures in history through art. For example, Hindu architecture can be seen co-existing with Islamic design at the Taj Mahal site, reflecting the society during Mughal empire.




The focus of further discussion however will be on communities from a much earlier period, who have retained their identity through ages of domination, subjugation, amalgamation and marginalisation.

Diversity through Migration and the Original Inhabitants of India


It is widely believed that the Palaeolithic communities, affiliated to the Austro-Asiatic linguistic family, are perhaps the first to settle in India and the evidences suggest the earliest settlement was probably around 60,000 years BP. A second immigration event, 10,000 years ago, spread proto-Dravidian-speaking Neolithic farmers throughout the Indian subcontinent.

A third wave of Indo-European-speaking ‘‘Caucasoids’’ entering from West-Central Asia 3,500 years ago followed. They conquered the existing populations and established their dominance over the sub-continent, relegating the indigenous people to the lowest status in the society, and taking away from them the right to own land in the regions they once owned. The indigenous people either retreated to dense forests and hills, or existed at the lowest rung of a society highly stratified on the basis of caste system.

The invasions from central Asia In medieval times and the subsequent colonial rule though not causing significant migration, did introduce religions of Islam and Christianity and significant cultural changes. These powers ruled the existing Indo-aryan society which by now was recognised as Hindu society. The status of indigenous people, who were already at the lowest level of society, was therefore further denigrated.


Arab/Turkish/Mongol/Mughal/ European 1,200 BP
Caucasoids (Indo-European)                                3,500 BP    Hindu
Neolithic (Proto-Dravidian)                                10,000 BP   Adivaasi
Paleolithic (Austro-Asiatic)                                 60,000 BP  Adivaasi 

These indigenous people – the descendants of Paleolithic expansions into India are believed to have contributed substantially to tribal populations, which currently account for approximately 7.5% of the population. Believed to have coming originally from Africa, these original inhabitants of India are best referred to as adivasi, from Sankrit root words adi, meaning origin or beginning and vasi, meaning inhabitant.

This is the term I prefer to use in place of tribal or aboriginal which may have other connotations and regional bias.

Ādi  :  Origin, beginning
vāsi : inhabitant
Ādivāsi: indigenous, autochthonous 

Gond Adivasi Community

Gond are one of the most numerous group of adivasi communities, inhabiting regions in central India. With a population of over 5 million, they are one of the largest indigenous community on earth and are divided in up to 40 sub-groups.

Their native land is called Gond-vana, which is also the name of one of the super-continents from which land masses broke apart and drifted to form present day continents, over 100 million years ago. The association of the name of this ancient landmass with this community is a fitting tribute to its nativity.


Gond were one of those indigenous people who retained control over their land, and some of them were even given a high caste status in the Hindu society. They ruled their territory from around ninth century to late sixteenth century, after which their influence declined.

In 17th century, they were ruled by the Mughals, though still recognised as a region. By 19th century, their political power was lost though their territory is still recognised in a map from that period. By the time of India’s independence, their name has disappeared from the map completely.

For centuries, lack of political participation, depletion of forest wealth, landlessness, unemployment, and exploitation shook the foundation of the community and they lived in isolation and deprivation for a long time.

Gondwana 2 Gondwana 1

This map shows some of the locations where the work shown in rest of the presentation is made.

Gond locations

Gond Art

The earliest traces of art in Gondwana region are the Mesolithic rock paintings in Panchmarhi hills. While it is highly probable that the cave-men who drew these figures were ancestors of Gonds, a direct link has not been established.

Rock Paintings 2 Rock Paintings 1What we do know is that with time, the community segregated into several groups and also mixed with other ones. This slide shows a genetic mapping of some Gond sub-groups. Pardhaan Gonds and Gonds in Bastar can be seen as genetically quite apart. And this diversity is visible in the difference in their art.

Genetic Distribution

Kondh Sculptures

The Kondhs are thought to have inhabited the coastal plains of Orissa before the Aryans drove them into the less hospitable ghats, or hills, of the southern portion of the district. They remained in isolation from rest of the world till 1835. Their existence came to light for some political reasons, but the flurry of interest caused by their ‘discovery’ was due to their bronze sculptures. The sculptures were subsequently exhibited and written about for some time, and then again forgotten until 1970s. An article about the bronze sculptures in Arts of Asia in 1977 renewed world’s Interest in them and since they have began to gain popularity.

The Kondhs make sculptures for various purposes: to honour and remember their ancestors, who are believed to continue to exist though in spirit form; as emblems of clans (important for choosing mates); as magical rituals (can bring good luck and prosperity); and for wedding gifts (also show social status).

Click on the thumbnails below to view examples of sculpture for each type of use.

While those sculptures are by people living isolated in hills, we can now see the art of people living in the same region but in lower plains. Though it is not known which community these people are from, we can safely assume they are either Gond or a related community who can interact with Gonds further north, as will become clear soon.


Pardhaan Gond Paintings

Moving on to Patangarh area, where the Pardhaan Gonds lived in isolation for ages until very recently just like Kondhs, and once again the factor that arose everyone’s interest in them was their art. In 1981 Dr Swaminathan, director of Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, sent his assistants to the hinterlands to identify master artists, and if possible to bring them or their work to back to Bhopal. One of the assistants spotted Jangarh Singh Shyam’s aritstic talent, and he brought him to Bhopal to create mural for Bharat Bhavan. Jangarh became the first Pardhaan Gond to translate his art on canvas.

Here we see some paintings from Pardhaan Gonds depicting their rural life, environment, beliefs, etc.

When we see works by Pardhaan Gonds next to the folk art we saw earlier, we can spot similarities, which show a connection and flow of artistic heritage from one community to another through place and people.

Similarity between two art forms
Similarity between two art forms

Jangarh Shyam’s career took off as an artist and he shot to international fame in a short span of time. He encouraged his extended family members to come to Bhopal, he taught them techniques of modern media and helped launch them as artists.

Pardhaan Gonds are getting recognition for their art and many of them have moved to Bhopal. This migration has lead them to create more sophisticated and purely commercial works.

They have now travelled across the country, for example for making illustrations for books. There is this book published in London, in which the indigenous art style has migrated outside its native land and taken new forms in turn creating a unique depiction of the city.

They and their work have travelled to London for a restaurant project in 2002.

Gond Art in Restaurant 1 Gond Art in Restaurant 2

There has also been made an animation film illustrated by Gond artists, made by urban Indian designers, produced by a Scottish lady and directed by a British. This project truly internationalised Gond art.


To round up, let me conclude by saying that traditional art can serve as a useful anthropological tool for understanding diversity in many ways.

It is a means by which minority cultures can integrate with the world and be recognized without in a way that does not obliterate or homogenize their identity.

For so many illiterate, landless and poor adivasi people, the creativity and uniqueness of their art has become a source income generation and empowerment.

For people of other cultures, it is a visible means to identify communities and their uniqueness. It helps us understand a community’s culture, history, beliefs and social structure.

While migration may have lead to genetic diversity, cultural diversity is the result of people staying in one place long enough for a cultural expression to be born and take shape.

These cultural expressions are living testimonials of the everlasting, ever expanding quest of the human spirit. The spirit that makes us move beyond our boundaries and search for a greater meaning in our existence.