Rogan Art. Image credit:

Tribal Arts of India

India is home to more than 2500 tribes and ethnic groups who have continued to thrive and contribute to the cultural diversity of the country throughout centuries. The fabric of India is enlivened with the varied art forms of this country’s indigenous people. It is particularly interesting to observe the modernization of these ancient art forms over the years. What started as a way to decorate walls of homes, is now portrayed on canvasses with acrylic paints and inks instead of natural pigments and dyes. The motifs, while still close to the ethos of the art form, in many cases are quite close to contemporary art. This combination of the ancient and the modern is what makes tribal art so exciting today for art collectors around the world.

Here we talk about some of our favourite tribal art forms from India apart from Gond, that is:


One of the more popular art forms, Warli originated in the north western state of Maharashtra in India. It belongs to the Warli tribe which is among the largest tribes in India. Despite being very close to a metropolis like Mumbai, the Warlis reject much of contemporary culture. While the style was not recognized until the 1970s, it dates back to as early as 10th Century A.D. The artist Jivya Soma Mashe had a significant role in bringing Warli to the mainstream. He was the pioneer who started painting not for a ritual but to express his artistic sensitivity.

Normally Indian art forms are associated with a riot of colour, however, Warli paintings are different in that they only use white pigment. This pigment is made from a mixture of rice paste, water and gum as a binder. A chewed bamboo stick makes the brush.

The motifs are constructed from basic geometrical shapes, each of which represent an element of nature. A typical denotation of a male in Warli would be a triangle that is larger at the top, while the female is represented by a triangle that is wider at the bottom. An interesting advantage of using geometric shapes is that they can depict dynamic movement.  

The paintings showcase everyday life scenes such as hunting, fishing and farming, festivals and dances. The most popular motif is that of tarpa dance. The tarpa is a trumpet-like instrument, which is played in turns by different village men. Men and women hold their hands and move in a circle around the tarpa player. The circle of the dancers is also said to resemble the circle of life.

Warli tarpa


Santhal is an art form practiced by the Santhal tribe from eastern India. The paintings are made in free hand and considering the artists do not have any formal training, their works are quite impressive. Despite originating during pre-Aryan period, their painting style is interestingly contemporary in human figures design.

The art form has remained relatively uninfluenced by the Mughals, Rajputs or the British. Hence their style remains authentic. They paint on handmade paper backed by cloth based canvas using natural vegetable dyes.

This vibrant art form is predominantly celebratory in nature with key themes focused around events like harvest and family functions and motifs showcasing dance and celebration.

Santhal painting

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This 3000 year old art form was once on the edge of extinction. It was discovered and in a way rescued by the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation. This is the art form found in the Nilgiris and is practiced by the Kurumba tribe. There is an ancient 3000 year old rock art site in the Nilgiris, which the Kurumbas believe to be the art of their ancestors. Here is an interesting article about how this one artist worked to keep this art form of his ancestors alive. You can read it here.

The Kurumbas originally drew with burnt twigs and coloured the art with a resin from the bark of a Kino tree. Some artists still use this method. It produces some beautiful work, but is quite slow. The artists now work on paper and have learned to use water and poster colours.

The central themes depict facets of tribal life in the remote forests of the Nilgiris. Scenes such as women drying foodgrains, men collecting honey, weddings etc. are quite popular.

Kurumba seed sowing


Kurumba art

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Rogan is an extraordinary art form that at one point was practiced by only 6 surviving artists in the west of India. The art form has been sustained by one family, the Khatris and they have somehow kept this tradition alive for over three centuries. One of the most important Rogan artists is Abdul Gafur Khatri.

US President Barack Obama was gifted 2 of Abdul Gafur Khatri’s Rogan paintings, which he put up in the White House.

The word Rogan means oil in Persian.The technique involves laying down paint made from boiled castor oil and vegetable dyes on fabric using a 6 inch thin metal rod. Castor is a typical crop of the region and the artist sources it from the local farmers.

Rogan Technique

Rogan Technique. Image credit:

Floral motifs, animals and day to day life are common themes, with the tree of life being a predominant theme. Historically practiced only by men, since there was concern that the women would pass on the secrets of the art when they get married, as of 2010, women were trained in the art form for the first time. As of 2015, there are 20 women who practice the art form.


Rogan painting by Abdul Gafur Khatri

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Our favourite tribal art form from India is Gond and we are so very happy that we can help emerging Gond artists like Santosh Maravi. Get yourselves a beautiful Gond piece here

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