Prehistoric Art: Earlier than 5500 BC

The earliest examples of visual art in the form of paintings or carvings on rocks could be seen even to this day at the protected heritage sites in the country, in the form of rock shelter drawings and cave paintings or hand prints. These are believed to be dated earlier than 5500 BC. At places like Bhimbetka, in Madhya Pradesh and the fairly recently discovered, Ketavaram rock paintings and carvings, in Andhra Pradesh, one is introduced to the simplicity of line and form made by prehistoric human beings from the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic eras. It is believed that these drawings are mere documentations of the daily, mundane lives of the cave dwellers whose depictions stand testimony to their lifestyles. Hand prints, made by spraying natural pigments around the hand, animal hunting scenes, worship of nature and deities, groups of people celebrating, processions and various kinds of animal figures like deer, stags, hyenas, wild boars, cattle, elephants, insects, etc could be seen clearly along with plants and trees in these paintings. These are also accompanied by carvings of the rock surfaces – petroglyphs for specific purposes of making design or marking territories.

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(Images from Bhimbetka Caves and Ketavaram Stone Hills are used only for illustration purpose)

These were the marks made by a tribe or a group of nomadic communities which moved about, and took up residence in the naturally formed caves/shelters till they migrated to more resourceful pastures. One could trace the evolution of the hunter gatherer human being in all these drawings. As time and evolution rendered the human race to discover fire, form settlements and invent farming etc, the depictions change and in this one can see the origins of the tribal and folk arts as we see today. Be it Warli, Madhubani, Gond, Bhil, Kalamkari, and other art forms which comprise line based drawings and paintings which are later on filled in with organic pigment dyes. One would also notice the subjects chosen, from the basic hunting scenes to the formation of settlements to communities, to farming, domestication of animals, to seasons and biorhythms, rituals for nature and deities and other festivities including birth and death. Here the visual cultures changed and have continued to change for several eras till today.

One would be aware that after a period of near obscurity, the tribal and folk art of our country has now come back into limelight, with the domestic and global auction houses taking special interest in them. Gond art, Warli and Madhubani art, offshoots of these tribal and folk genres, have resurfaced with a distinctive contemporaneity visible in the portrayals of urbanisation and globalisation in their depictions today. The techniques have changed and the medium has moved to more durable and enduring materials, paints and paint surfaces to ensure longevity of the art works from the perishable organic materials. This becomes one of the important factors in today’s tribal and folk art evolution where traditional medium incorporates the contemporary medium to ensure long lasting presence in the visual culture map of the country, while steadily evolving depictions which move from rural to urban to global manifestations in the imagery.