The “Wonder” of the Indigenous State

Georgina Maddox

Discovering the painted world that Bhuri Bai secretly created and then shared with the world.


The story of the monkey and the crocodile is a Panchatantra tale that we all grew up with, however it is not until one sets eye upon the magical rendition that artist Bhuri Bai has created out of this story that one understands the true child-like wonder that a fable like this may arouse. 

There is something joyous and primal about the energy and feeling of suspense that is brought forward and that she has conveyed. Begin with the twisting branches, the low hanging fruits, the playful monkeys and birds perched in the branches and move on to the contrast of the ponderous yellow and scaly zig-zagged skin of the crocodile with its hungry mouth slightly agape and the fish swimming cautiously around it. This is all balanced out well by the pivotal character, a little black monkey on the back of the beast, pointing to the tree where the fabled heart is ‘hung’.  

Notably the entire surface is covered with the energetic lines and bright colours that follow a style that is particular to traditional Bhil-Gond painting, where the European tenants of space, perspective and ‘realism’, have little role to play. Instead it follows a style that the Europeans knew as Horror Vacui (Latin for ‘fear of empty space’) and it reflects Aristotle’s idea that “nature abhors an empty space.”  While indigenous painters like Bhuri Bai were certainly not exposed to the writings of Aristotle while they were conceiving their compositions, it may be inferred that the ‘collective unconscious’ that governs humanity was playing a role here. The collective unconscious is the brainchild of Carl Jung referenced from his study of the structures of the unconscious mind which are shared among beings of the same species. One may note this fear of empty spaces even within Egyptian Art and other non-European styles. 

There are several other compositions by Bhil artist Bhuri Bai that one may enjoy, but before entering into the body of her work, it is important to acknowledge that one may have never had the good fortune to view it had she not been encouraged and mentored by the legendary artist J Swaminathan. 

Bhuri Bai was born in Pitol village of Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh, where she belongs to the community of Bhils, the largest tribal group of India. 

It was while she was working as a construction worker onsite at Bharat Bhavan that Bhuri Bai was spotted by the legendary artist and mentor J Swaminathan. During her break time at the construction site, she used to draw Bhil art on the ground. When Swaminathan approached and encouraged Bhuri Bai to paint, she referenced what came naturally to her – the tenants of the Bhil art that she had been exposed to as a young girl. She would watch her father paint and privately she emulated his style, but he never ‘allowed’ her to ‘paint’, as it was early days in tribal communities, where only men were allowed to ‘touch’ the figures of the gods and allowed to create the ‘sacred art’, that was created for festivities. 

With appreciation and encouragement, Bhuri Bai began to understand the importance of her work and she began to take pride in painting. Initially she was afraid because at that time it was more important for her to provide food for her children than to ‘flaunt’ her art. Swaminathan assured her that her paintings could fetch her more wages than what she was earning as a labourer. Thus, began her journey.  She worked on the stage of Tribal Museum, where she has even painted the story of her life on a 70-foot wall. She also visited several other countries to showcase her collection. 

Currently, Bhuri Bai’s artwork combines the contemporary with the traditional, in a very subtle yet comprehensive manner. Her approach is to bring contemporary narratives to what is known as the traditional Pithora paintings. She is no longer an unfamiliar name in the field of arts since she transferred the folk-art from the mud walls and floors to huge canvases and sheets of paper. The process that she underwent under the mentorship of Swaminathan fetched her recognition, awards and finance. 

Georgina Maddox is a critic curator, based in Delhi who has been writing on art and culture for over two decades. 

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