Contemporary Folk Paintings of Vrindavan

by M.L. Varadpande

Situated on the banks of river Yamuna, Vrindavan is a beautiful tiny city in the Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh. This famous center of pilgrimage is hallowed by its association with Lord Krishna, the hero of the epic, Mahabharata, who, according to scriptures, spent his eventful childhood here. It was here, it is believed, he frolicked with the cowherd girls, fair as Champak flowers, danced with them on the white sands of river Yamuna, stole fresh delicious butter from their pots and also killed many menacing demons who were deputized to destroy him by the king of Mathura.

It was here the great musician saint Swami Haridas sang melodious songs to Krishna and it is here a grand temple of Govind Dev (synonym of Lord Krishna) was built in the 16th century. Considered as the largest extant temple of North India, it is described as the "most eclectic building of the world, having a Christian ground plan, a Hindu elevation, and a roof of modified Saracenic character."

Among many other things Vrindavan is known for its art tradition. Some art critics believe that in the 16th century a number of artists from the Vrindavan region joined atelier of Emperor Akbar who is considered as one of the early founders of Mughal school of paintings. They contributed significantly to the evolution of the new school of painting that took shape in Emperor's atelier.

In the form of temple frescos and wall paintings some paintings of old school have survived in the Vrindavan region. However, during the last couple of years, thanks to the creative efforts of a young local artist, a new style of contemporary folk art is emerging in this tiny city of temples. Being on the bank of Yamuna, the new style came to be known as Yamunaghat painting, meaning painting style that flourished on the bank of river Yamuna.

India has a very rich folk and tribal art tradition which dates back to Mesolithic rock art. By maintaining its independent existence it continued to nourish the elite art from time to time. For instance when the elite schools of painting declined around 19th century the visual arts continued to flourish with very little loss of vigor. It was this folk art which nourished the elite art of modern painting, as folk art has always played a significant part in the history of visual arts in India. Considering this, the emergence of Yamunaghat painting is quite significant event in the contemporary art history.

The main theme of Vrindavan paintings always remained Krishna and his divine sports. Around fifty years ago local ingenious artists brought from Rajasthan the art of gold painting. Here a painting is embellished with real gold leaf and semi-precious stones making it shine luxuriously.

However, a young member of the traditional Chitrakar family engaged in making gold paintings started looking beyond his traditional skill for inspiration and themes. And because of his creative efforts the new genre of contemporary folk paintings emerged on the bank of river Yamuna. His name is Krishna Chitrakar.

One day while moving in the countryside Krishna Chitrakar saw a village woman moving on the lonely road with water pots on her head and child and a bucket in her hand, face covered with a veil. It reminded him of the lines of a famous poetess which said:

Inspired Krishna made a beautiful painting on the theme which later brought him much fame and recognition.

Since then he started painting village scenes on the canvas with oil paints in a very realistic manner. The cows, the river, the wandering mendicants, birds and trees, people engaged in their daily chores became the themes of his canvases.

Among his folk paintings the paintings of women after bath or in the process of taking bath figure again and again, may be because he lives on the bank of the river. He has also painted a young woman milking a buffalo. In yet another painting he has show two young women looking out curiously through their veils.

The figures of the Yamunaghat folk painting are well integrated with the natural habitat; in fact they form an integral part of their rural landscape. The natural landscape and the figures merge into each other, as in lyrical poetry words and music are integrated beautifully.

What we find in these paintings is very faithful and authentic depiction of rural life. One critic has aptly described his paintings as "village on canvas."

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