How to fight a pandemic with art


Folk and tribal artists across the country who pivoted to making masks during the pandemic to keep their craft alive, continue to innovate, finding ways to fuse traditional art with social messaging

Folk and tribal artists across the country who pivoted to making masks during the pandemic to keep their craft alive, continue to innovate, finding ways to fuse traditional art with social messaging

Between last September and now, it feels like the worst of the pandemic has passed, as people gradually start dropping their guard and their masks. Undeterred, a group of Indian folk and tribal artists from across the country, have bonded together to spread awareness in a manner they do best: by creating masks that are intricately covered in traditional art. Pivoting to masks over the last 15 months has helped them to stay afloat.

Kalyan Joshi, a Phad painter from Bhilwara Rajasthan, uses the 750-year-old Phad narrative art to convey a social message. “Our painted masks added colour in peoples’ lives at a time when everybody was scared,” he says. With his mini art works going for ₹250 a piece, Joshi has been catering to bulk orders of 1,500 to 2,000 masks a month.

Joshi’s paintings on conventional canvases sell for ₹1,000 to ₹1 lakh, depending on the size and subject. He explains how Phad painting uses eight primary colours and is distinctive as none of the subject’s front face is shown. “It is always the profile which conveys the importance of interactions,” he says.

Discussing how the pandemic prompted artists to blend traditional historic themes with contemporary issues, he discusses his latest art project — a series of 19 paintings on the story of COVID-19 divided under three categories — how the coronavirus spreads, the issue of migration and the importance of vaccination. He says many have been bought by museums in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Mumbai.

It did not take Venkat Shyam, a Gond artist from Patangarh, Madhya Pradesh, long to understand and develop a collection of masks as a symbol of unity to help fight the virus. With his expertise in painting nature, calamities and what he calls tatkalik ghatna (temporary incidents as they happen), he highlighted the vaccine in his artwork. “I call it the djinn’s bottle, which has miraculous power inside, to motivate people to get vaccinated,” he says.

Venkat says in remote interiors, adivasi culture and lifestyle helped the community to escape the worst of the pandemic. But, everybody was worried constantly. That prompted him to draw every stage from those pre- and post-pandemic days from January 2020, when he was in China for an exhibition. “Art is a powerful tool to raise awareness on critical issues,” he says. Venkat continues to sell Gond art masks for ₹100 to ₹150 each, either online or with the help of NGOs.

When the pandemic peaked, Anwar Chitrakar from Medinipore, West Bengal, made 1,500 masks a month in Kalighat Patua style. Now, although bulk orders are dropping, he continues to create them to spread awareness. “When a person wears our mask that has images of people wearing masks, maintaining social distance or getting vaccinated, the message spreads,” he says. Made of soft cotton, the masks are priced between 100 and 400 a piece with a focus on quality so they last. “We are not adding to the garbage of disposable masks,” he says.

At the third edition of the India Craft Week celebrations in February 2021 attended by more than 100 artisans, event organisers realised the need to support the artisans as COVID-19 had taken a toll on them. “We encouraged them to keep their artistic urge alive by making paintings themed around the pandemic and its protocols using the traditional art forms,” says Iti Tyagi, the key curator.

It helped to protect their practice as their artworks were soon up in billboards, on masks and canvases and also ready for sale by the time the second wave struck. The artists also educated neighbours, trying to ensure that people stayed safe during the pandemic. Most importantly, they continue to do so.

“Art and crafts have always helped to connect local communities and people and revived hope and optimism, says Somesh Singh, the founder of Craft Village in Delhi. “It is a powerful medium of communication to help fight adversity — as we saw in the past with Madhubani (that played an effective role on deforestation); or Pattachitra (that connected the world emotionally with Orissa during the tsunami and floods),” he says. “Since most traditional crafts date back to many generations and thousands of years, they are a great source of learning adaptability and survival instincts.”

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