Folk forms are integral part of the lives of women in India. When looked at closely, we find that folk traditions have been nourished and preserved largely by women in our country with their sense of beauty, taste, delicacy and creativity. In olden days when women stayed back at home, while men went out to earn livelihood, they involved themselves day long in varied art forms. Their aesthetic fervor found expression through dancing, singing, painting, weaving, kneading, acting, or by drawing varied illustrations over their bodies.
Women have been playing an important role in upholding folk traditions of our country. Globalization has brought in several social, cultural and economic variations in our lives. Today in the era of technological advancements and modernization, western influence has altered our lifestyle. While on the one hand, western lineages have drawn Indians away from their indigenous folk traditions and culture, several fusions and contemporary juxtapositions of old Indian folk with western dances and songs have been gracefully accepted at large. It is overwhelming to see that in rural areas, the handicraft industries have utilized the creative talent of women, and liberated them of their economic dependence on men.This study looks at the folk life of Indian women, especially with reference to Rajasthan.
Mukhopadhyay (1994) said, “Tradition is the process of transmission of age old values and the contextual manifestation and interpretation of the universal. Tradition is not only a repetitive behavioural pattern or some persistent symbol or motif in community culture; it is also an assertion of identity, a revival and regeneration of the life force of the community. The traditional performing art is an aesthetic component of the constant concept of belongingness and affinity in a cultural context.”
The above phrase is a popular saying amidst rural women of Rajasthan, meaning “O fingers! Its only when you dip in colors, the arrival of a new festival is signaled.” This saying is with special reference to the art of floor and wall paintings by women. Since olden days women have painted the floors, drew over walls, stitched and kneaded beautiful attires, baskets, carpets, made idols out of clay, sang songs, danced for merriment, embellished and dolled themselves up with body art, and infused spark into their daily schedule. They did not receive any formal training in such art, rather imbibed and emulated it from elders. Mothers being the primary source of cultural messages for children in a family play a significant role in inculcating art and culture into children. Chidia Bai who lives in the outskirts of Jodhpur is a Dholi who performs various styles of Dhols at marriage ceremonies and auspicious occasions at her patron’s place and also plays professionally with her group all over Rajasthan. She admits that by the age of ten she knew the art of playing Dhol, which she learnt by observing her mother and grandmother since the males in her house went out to earn livelihood for the family while ladies took care of kids. Vatsyayan in the third chapter of his book Kamasutra describes 64 arts of women some of which are floor and wall paintings. It is often said that Nature has made women very compassionate and sensitive, that gets well reflected in Indian art and paintings. Globalization has not only led to juxtaposition of various cultures, but also changed our lifestyle. Today women in India are increasingly matching steps with men in earning bread for their families. At the same time, several trends amidst us suggest westernization of our attitudes, beliefs, habits or traditions. The attires and habits that were earlier very different across the states in India have been homogenized today, as people pick up patterns from the common popular culture through films, television, radio or internet. Given such transformations, it will be interesting to look at the contemporary folk life of women in our country. This paper focuses on the folk life of women in the culturally rich and colorful desert land of Rajasthan.
Objectives of the study
- To study the significance of folk forms in the lives of women.
- To examine the changes in folk forms with changing times.
Method of study
The study is based on interactions with folk artists from Udaipur, Jodhpur, Bikaner and Jaipur. Observations were made regarding the involvement of rural and urban women with various folk forms. The paper also derives from secondary sources of information like books, research articles, television, radio programmes etc.
Everyday involvement of women with folk forms
The women of the Bhils in Banswada and Dungarpur, Garaasias of Mount Abu, Meenas of Sawai Madhawpur and many other tribes of Rajasthan make idols of deities using different combinations of clay. Some of them have professionally taken up the art of idol making and are earning good money by selling idols in local markets.
In a study conducted by Ms. Mamta Sagar, Dr. Umashankar Prasad and Dr. Swarnlata Kadam in Meerut district in Uttar Pradesh, it was observed that women are primarily involved in the process of idol making, for instance in coloring them, in preparing clay and the framework for idols etc, while men are generally concerned with fetching raw material for preparation and selling them on their ferries. 
Floor art and wall art
Similarly, a variety of the motif –Bhittichitra, called Sanjhya, is made in Madhya Pradesh during the month of September and October, by unmarried girls, where first the walls are plastered with cow dung and then various designs and shapes, made out of the dung, are pasted over the walls and finally decked with leaves, flowers, corals, corns, white clay mix, glass pieces etc. The drawing of Sanjhya starts on Poornima, the full moon day, and continues for the next fourteen days ending on Amavasya, the new moon day. Everyday some forms or motifs are drawn as per the tradition. Finally, a huge motif called kila coatis is made which has all the drawings of fourteen days. It is preserved for few days and subsequently dispersed in river. Traditional folk songs are sung to the beats of a Dholak, while worshipping Sanjhya during evening, believed to be the symbol of goddess Parvati. This art form encompasses many folk forms like painting, idol making, singing, designing etc. Even during Hindu marriages, women draw images of the bride and groom, banana trees, and of various ceremonies over walls like the procession of groom, exchange of garland by the couple, women singing songs, Dholi playing Dhol etc. Motifs are also made during religious pilgrimages,of the temple and its bells, banks of holy rivers, priests etc. The women in Rajasthan also decorate their houses on different religious and auspicious occasions. During Navratra, a nine day worship of Hindu goddess Durga, women draw the mythological image of goddess sitting over a tiger and killing Mahishasur, a demon.On Diwali, women draw forms of Lotus, depicted as abode of goddess Lakshmi. During Gangaur, image of Gangaur is made and worshipped which basically depicts the abode of goddess Parvati. Similarly motifs depicting mythological stories like that of Shravan Kumar taking his blind parents for pilgrimage, men carrying kaanvar, the images of goddess Riddhi Siddhi with Lord Ganesha on the main gate of houses, women carrying the auspicious kalash, images of, Radha and Krishna etc is also seen.
Maandana is a folk art form where varied motifs are drawn on walls and floors using red colored Geru and white colored Khadia. These motifs are drawn on various occasions by women to beautify their houses. This form is known by various names across India like Maandana in Rajasthan, Sathia in Gujarat, Rangoli in Maharashtra, Alpana in West Bengal, Soan or Choukpurana in Uttar Pradesh, Aapna in Gadwaal, Thapa in Bhojpuri region, Bhogu in Andhra Pradesh, Kolam in Tamil Nadu or Ahpan in Bihar. These forms are believed to bring happiness and prosperity to ones’ house as they are offered as a mark of reverence to goddess earth. Varied geometric shapes like triangles, squares, pentagons, and others are meticulously drawn. Besides, varied dishes and eatables, birds and animals, leaves, flowers, grains, the sun, the moon, the swastika, various gods and goddesses etc are also drawn. In rural areas, after plastering the walls of houses with mud and cow dung, women draw Maandana for beautification.
Art of self-decoration-Mehendi ,Godna , Aalta etc
The existence of body art since ancient times testifies to the inherent desire of every human to look beautiful. In fact, the mention of solaah shringar for women in Kavya Shastra suggests that women have always been ahead of men in this regard. Various elements like flowers and leaves, dye made out of plants , stones, pearls, feathers of birds, bones, corals etc. have been used since ancient times by Indians for self-beautification. In India women apply Bindi as a small sticker or liquid paint on their foreheads or even get it tattooed between eyebrows.
Mehendi or Henna, a reddish brown dye made from the powdered leaves of a tropical shrub, is applied on auspicious occasions by women over their hands and feet not only for beautification but also to bring on health benefits by providing coolness and relief. This form of art has changed with time. Today we see Arabic designs and modern art juxtaposed with old patterns. Even stone embellished, easy to use stickers of mehendi, are readily available in stores today. Various songs of Bollywood like- ‘Mehendi hai rachne wali‘, ‘Mehendi lagake rakhna‘, ‘Mehendi lagaungi main sajna ke naam ki‘, etc point to the relevance of the form in present times.
Mahavar or Aalta, is a form of art on feet made out of a magenta colored liquid, which is deemed auspicious for married women and believed to prevent ominous happenings in one’s life.
Godna or body art is a folk tradition in various parts of India, especially amidst several tribal communities. In olden days body tattooing was not only thought to make one’s next birth auspicious, but also believed to be the only thing to accompany one after death to heaven. It was also widely believed that a body without tattoos would not get a place in heaven. Earlier Godna was made on a girl’s body when she was seven years old. Thorns of plants like Babool or needles were used for tattooing and monsoon was deemed as the most apt time to get a Godna done. Since the poor tribal communities could not afford to purchase ornaments, Godna was also done as necklace, anklet, bracelet, earrings etc. It was not only deemed auspicious to get religious symbols like Om, Swastika etc tattooed on one’s body, but was also believed to prevent many diseases through acupressure and acupuncture technique. It was also an Indian tradition to have one’s own name or the name of the husband tattooed on the bodies of women. Today even this body art form has seen a revival with many modern tattoo parlors mushrooming in malls and multiplexes.
It is a tradition in India that women sing songs on different occasions. These songs have been passed on from one generation to another orally and are replete with local idioms, phrases and tales. Every region has its own idiosyncratic style and way of singing folk songs. Be it the sacred thread ceremony or marriage or the baby’s first food eating or the name giving ceremony of a child, the ladies have specific folk songs for every occasion and rituals.
Singing has been a routine activity for women of the desert land while they walk long distances to fetch water, popularly referred as Paanihaari songs.
“सागर पाणां लेबा जाऊँसा, निजर लग जाय…”,or
“आठ कुआ नौतथा बावड़ी, ओ पणिहारी जियलो..”;
Be it while fetching water from pond, grinding grain, during farming activities, auspicious occasions like child birth and marriage ceremonies or festivals, women since centuries have upheld folk songs and music traditions. On Gangaur, girls worship goddess Gauri for getting desirable husbands and married women pray for long life of their husbands and sing songs of Parvati. On Teej, girls sing songs on the theme of rainy season.
Chari is a famous folk dance of Rajasthan. Women dance with pots over their heads and swirl with deep knee movements. This dance form has evolved out of the daily routine of women fetching water from long distances in the desert state. Ghoomar is one of the most famous folk dances of Rajasthan, popular amongst the Bhil tribe, performed during important occasions and festivals like Holi, Diwali, Gangaur etc, where women dressed in Lehenga Choli and Odhni covering their heads, dance while balancing large plates, full of lighted earthen lamps.
The Tera Tali dance is performed by women with veils over their faces, sitting on the ground, with Manjiras or small metal cymbals tied to their hands and various parts of their body, struck in a rhythmic pattern. Sometimes they have a small sword clenched between their teeth and a decorated pot over their head. Today the aforementioned dances are performed in several universities at their annual fests and competitions all over the state.
Weaving, Knitting, Paper Art
Even today most women in rural India are into weaving, knitting and stitching beautiful clothes for the entire family. It is a significant quality sought in girls when marriage proposals are discussed. Beautiful appliqué art, cross stitches, embroidery, fabric paint work are done by women to make designs over saris, bed sheets, duppattas, and other pieces of cloth. It is an afternoon hobby of women to make hand fans, door mats, wall hangings, baskets, colourful toys etc. Such activities have provided women a reason to socialize with each other, channelize their creativity, bring out their latent skills and also earn a living by selling self- made goods in fairs and local markets.
In regions like Bhilwara, Chittorh, Shahpura, a 12- to 20-hand long cloth called Phad is mounted and displayed using bamboo sticks, on which several mythological stories and tales of local gods and kings are painted and sung during the whole night to the accompaniment of an instrument called Ravanahatta. The enumeration of Phad is incomplete until the Bhopin joins the Bhopa and the couple jointly sings tales depicted on the Phad .While the female holds a lamp and lights the Phad, the male companion sings high pitch narratives on the top of his voice. Female Chiteras use the water left after boiling rice for applying the first coat over Phad and subsequently use colors like yellow, brick red, green, saffron, sky blue etc to draw illustrations over a phad.
Mud Art and Pottery
In Jaisalmer district of Rajasthan, it is a well-known art form where women make mud utensils of different shapes and sizes and decorate them with mirrors, stones, paints and laces etc.
Wood Art and Puppetry
Various toys and household goods, decorated doors, and other daily use items are made up of wood today. The toys after being carved out of wood are shaped and then colored and sold in the market. The wood chosen should not rot or split during summer or winter. Some of the wooden caricatures are also hung at the marriage pavilion, called (Sugga). Puppets made of wood and clothes in Jaisalmer are famous worldwide.
Be it the Bhils of Banswada and Dungarpur, the Garaasias of Mount Abu, the Meenas of Sawai Madhawpur or other tribes of Rajasthan, women have played a significant role in keeping up their indigenous folk traditions. Besides being part of their daily life, folk forms have been taken up professionally by many women of the state who have been felicitated for their skills in painting, theatre, dance, songs, music etc. Gulabo Sapera, the well-known Kalbelia dancer, Maand and Paanhihari singer Padma Shri Allah Jilai Bai and Mangi Bai etc are just some of the many folk artists from Rajasthan who are internationally loved and recognised.
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