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Rock Art and Tribal Art of Madhya Pradesh

Thursday August 2016
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Following in the footsteps of Dr V S Wakankar, the 'Father of Indian Rock Art', Meenakshi Dubey-Pathak continues her journey through India in search of its ancient rock art. Here she explores the common motifs of rock art and tribal art in India. 

Peacocks in rock art in India

During my field work in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh, particularly in Satpura National Park. I have noticed various forms of visual art still present among the Pachmarhi tribes; throughout Madhya Pradesh there appear to be certain motifs in common with the rock art, with distinct variations due to the specificity of the art considered (for instance, tattoos or art in the open may be quite different from the contents of the Bhils- pitheras - the main painted wall inside a house). The significance of this repetition of motifs is that it is a consequence of shared beliefs and of a hierarchy of symbols.

Among the animals most often painted in the rock shelters, tigers and peacocks have a special importance. Tigers are the most feared and impressive animals in Indian jungles. They have always inspired legends and considered as particularly powerful creatures or even as gods that should be propitiated. Testimonies about those beliefs abound, particularly with the Gonds.

Thus, when the Gonds of the Madhai area worship the Goddess Kali in April and October, they put on tiger masks, paint their bodies with stripes, put on tails, and become tigers. In recent times, their Baghat (shaman) could make a tiger appear with his chants. This belief in the power of some special persons over the most dangerous and powerful animal in the jungle is still quite alive.

Stags depicted in Indian rock art

Honey collecting is one of the traditional motifs of pitheras as it is in the rock art (more than 20 at Pachmarhi), and so are isolated trees on mundas. Other such themes common to the two forms of art are ploughing (Chaturbujnath Nala), women carrying water and men carrying killed game, while hunting scenes are conspicuously absent from pitheras. In all the pitheras we saw in peoples' houses there was a discreet but obvious human copulation comparable to one found at Churna. An interesting scene, also on a pithera is that of a dishevelled blue shaman ministering to a person sitting. Some of the men with animal features in the rock art could also be shamans. 

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The motif of elephant riders, with a supposed significance, are infact scarce in the rock art (except Churna and a few other sites such as Deur Kothar in the Rewa area) as well as in tribal art. We only found them occasionally in pitheras - never as a central motif - and in house decoration, both inside and outside. 

Peacocks depicted in tribal art in India

Weapons may have a similar role in building up the image of a respected warrior. The Bhil/Bhilalas gathas always represent a dead man armed with a sword and a gun. The contents of pitheras are more peaceful: horse riders may or not have a discreet sword. Archers are never represented while they are so numerous in rock art. Still, archery is a respected and well-practiced tradition, as we could see for ourselves, with a bow and arrow being kept near a pithera and exhibited proudly by its owner, and bows and arrows being brandished during a traditional dance in a village. On Gond gurus, men sometimes have a stick or a sickle but neither swords nor bows.

Finally, the importance of dance is paramount. We saw superb examples from rock art sites of Bori and Churna; women dancing in a row is one of the constant features of mundas and the funerary ceremony of the Korkus involves constant dancing by both sexes. Pitheras also show dancing scenes.

As could be expected from cultures where hunting has practically never stopped until very recent times, animals play a huge part in traditional tribal art as they do in the rock art. The ones common to both that appear to have the greater importance, in addition to the horse images mentioned, are tigers and peacocks. We found both in pitheras. In house decoration, tigers are present but rare, while peacocks are a constant. We also found the birds on mundas, gathas and in tattoos. They thus had a special partly ornamental role. Parrots have the same one in gathas and pitheras but not on mundas. 

The beliefs that relate to trees and to animals are important in both rock and tribal arts. Some forms of painting and worship in shelters are still going on.

Meenakshi Dubey-Pathak

Ref: 'Des Images pour les Dieux. Art rupestre et Art tribal dans le Centre de l'Inde'. Arles (France), Editions Errance, 2013, (ISBN 987-2-87772-559-0).

'Rock Art And Tribal Art In Madhya Pradesh' (vol-24) 2014 Purakala, International journal of Rock Art Society of India.(ISSN0971-2143), (pg no.43-52).

Images: Meenakshi Dubey-Pathak & Jean Clottes

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