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The Indian Quarterly – A Literary & Cultural Magazine – In the Image of the Forest

In the Image of the Forest

By Jaya Jaitly 0

Indian art, craft and textiles have a richly diverse tradition of drawing materials and metaphors from nature, writes Jaya Jaitly

Forests, jungles, groves, trees and plants have been sacred for humanity. First, in animist religions and, later, when ritualistic religions invested them with greater significance. Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapiens, tells us how, through a quirk in the wiring in their brains, humans developed a crucial feature that differentiated them from other creatures. This was the ability to create ideas, concepts, myths and systems of functioning, weaving together whatever the imagination could conjure. Humans became aware of their ability to create imagined ideas to bolster facts they needed to know to survive amongst other creatures, which they communicated through words, symbols or images. Harari writes, “Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’” This ability to create fictions is the most unique feature of human language.

          As forest dwellers, hunters and gatherers roamed the earth, they learned of the value or dangers that lay within the swathes of dense forests, and the large and small creatures that dwelled within them. They also began to discover the nutritional and medicinal benefits of plants and trees. The concept of “sacredness” would have developed as a fictional rationale to protect and preserve those plants and trees for their own benefit. They would have felt the need to accord sacredness to all creatures so that those that could harm them could be avoided or propitiated through prayer and ritual.


        This capsule history might indicate how forests, sacred groves and medicinal life-restoring plants attained a special place in literature, art, poetry, traditional health systems and mythology. These are repeatedly reflected in the works of one of their largest preservers and disseminators—the traditional practitioners of India’s heritage arts, crafts and textiles. It is often the unlettered or unschooled artist, craftsperson or weaver who creates multiple expressions of plants, trees and forests in his or her work, either as design motifs, embellishments to a central subject or as the primary subject itself.

          Art forms also emanate from a spiritual realm, where the practice of art is an act of worship, in which the work is dedicated to a higher being. In Islamic art, calligraphy, decoration and the celebration of flora merge to celebrate the words of the Prophet. In others, a god or goddess is invited to enter the spirit of the object or, if it is a textile piece, bless it for the wearer’s benefit. Every human figure is a character in a religious epic or a folk tale. Stories are populated with animals, birds and even insects like scorpions and spiders. Each of these is infused with symbolic meaning and has a characteristic quality or specific role to play which builds an integrated picture of the universe.

         Within this framework, the tree holds a special place. Sacred groves and forests are very much a part of the existing spiritual landscape in many parts of India. In Hindu belief systems, trees represent important deities. The pipal tree, also called Ashvatta, has the significant botanical name Ficus religiosa, indicating its deep links with religion. Krishna is supposed to have said that he was the holy fig tree, making the pipal a manifestation of the god himself, who is often depicted in his child-like form lying on the heart-shaped pipal leaf with its pointed tip. The tree is also said to contain Brahma at its roots, Vishnu in its trunk and Shiva in its leaves. In Buddhism Gautama Siddhartha obtained enlightenment under the pipal, or Bodhi tree. So highly revered is the Bodhi tree that the Sri Lankan Buddhists took a shoot of the divine tree from Gaya and have been protecting its younger avatar in their country for 2,200 years. 

          The story of Hanuman carrying an entire mountain in the palm of his hand, as he could not identify the medicinal plant in a forest needed to revive Lakshmana from his grievous injury, is the subject of art works, dance dramas and numerous storybooks. Songs that survive from ancient times, when simpler forms of animistic beliefs existed in Ladakh, a high-altitude desert with little vegetation, show how people are exhorted not to collect firewood by cutting branches off trees but to gather only what has fallen to the ground, ostensibly to protect the divine spirits that resided in trees.

The presence of forests and trees is incorporated in every kind of craft skill, ranging from traditional painting, textiles, wood, stone and metal icons and artefacts. Works can be seen within different locales and in religious legends or folk rituals and tales, often depending on the varied cultural traditions and flora and fauna of different communities. Forests play an important role in the lives of tribes whose work depends on acquiring resin, roots and other organic materials that are needed for colouring and dyeing from plants in the vast forests of Jharkhand, Odisha and other states. Lac from resin is used to colour wooden items that are turned on a lathe. Dyes for Adivasi shawls are made from Indian madder, Rubia tinctorum, made from the roots of the plant Rubia cordifolia. Depending on the quantity used and its reaction to the minerals in the water in which the textile is washed, the colour can emerge a deep red, pink or even a brownish purple. Most weavers and dyers depend on tribespeople who go deep into the forest, and know exactly where plants for colouring and medicinal needs are to be found. The artisans’ dependence on forest produce is centuries old.

          In accordance with the importance given to forests, animals, water, the sun and even the seasons—everything that is part of the cycle of life—becomes part of the wondrous image that is known across the world as the ‘Tree of Life’. Significantly, a terracotta fragment from the Indus Valley Civilisation has a tree indented on it. Its worldwide acceptance as being sacred because of its properties of offering shade, shelter, food and clean air, its lasting qualities and its quiet towering presence make it a powerful icon across many art forms. In Islamic art, it is a symbol of divinity and growth. Chinese and Celtic art have their expressions of the Tree of Life and India has its own interpretations. There is something magical about the way the Tree of Life is depicted. It seems to exuberantly transcend the quotidian world and go into a space that reaches out to all beautiful living beings, offering shade, protection and joy.

          Each artist tries to capture this metaphysical quality in his or her own way. In works created during exhibitions and projects over a period of over three decades, the Dastkari Haat Samiti, a national association of crafts people, has found many examples of trees and forests that get seamlessly incorporated into its vast body of art and craft works. They are an almost inevitable addition to a larger canvas, becoming second nature, an emotional internalisation, and an almost compulsory addition to complete or ornament a work.


The Kalamkari Tree of Life is among the most prominent images in India’s art forms, capturing the skills of dyeing natural colours, drawing outlines with a fine homemade cloth and bamboo brush, dabbing colours within to create great flourishes that become birds, flowers or epic figures from India’s religious texts. Jonalgudda Niranjan of Telangana has created many versions of the Tree of Life in his textile art. Three forms of the Tree of Life trace the journey of its adaptation. The first was an artistic map of Andhra Pradesh giving locations of crafts and textile production (when the state was undivided). Painted in Delhi, dyed in the purer waters at his home in Sri Kalahasti and completed in Delhi, it shows the tree nurturing not only exquisite birds, but also a community of weavers and printers. The second work expresses the nurturing qualities of a tree, nourished by the sun and, in turn, sustaining many life forms. The most remarkable is this work (above), done almost entirely in calligraphy in Telugu, as part of a work highlighting Indian scripts and local cultural expressions.

Van means forest.  Tapovan, Mahavan and Sreevan, for forests of penance, sanctuary and prosperity, form the basis for many names that end in “van”. These places would have been areas of lush forests. Brindavan in Uttar Pradesh is one such, said to have been the playground of Krishna and Radha, who dwelt in the forest, frolicking with animals and playing the flute. Sanjhi, the art of creating images as stencils with just scissors and paper, evolved from a form of worship practised in Brindavan. Forests and trees are rich components of Sanjhi art. Craftspeople cut paper intricately with fine scissors to fashion exquisite stylised forms depicting a host of beautifully rendered trees like the banyan, mango and pipal, which, when put together as a landscape constitute lush forests, populated with cows, monkeys, peacocks, parrots, streams full of fish and, at the centre of it all, Krishna and Radha.

Sanjhi (2) modified
kerala textile

Kerala is known for its reverence for its lush greenery and its concern for ecological preservation. The artworks commissioned as a backdrop for crafts and textile maps of Kerala were created by Suresh Muthukulam. He forms the map of Kerala out of a cluster of coconut trees and the elephants that live in its thick forests. The woman weaves a mat out of dried palm leaves. The art owes to a centuries-old mural art of Kerala which was revived with the establishment of a gurukul. Most of the works of artists who emerged from this school are filled with people, animals and birds within the thick foliage of forests.

Madhubani, or Madhuvan as it was earlier known, means ‘forest of honey’. The word ‘forest’ resonates in almost all paintings of this Mithila region in Bihar in the form of characters in epics or at ceremonial occasions. They are surrounded by trees in a lush garden or forest. In this art form the depiction of trees is highly ornamental. While the style has a recognisable identity, artists find their own unique styles. Satyanarayan Karn insisted on sticking to the purest form, working with only natural colours extracted from flowers and plants and following the rule book: “Never pluck flowers, only use fallen ones. Do not take from a neighbour’s garden and do not use edible plants.” This piece shows how all forms of animal, bird and reptile life in a forest nurture and protect their young ones


pindra Swain is a shy young patachitra artist from Odisha who traditionally made etched works on strips of palm leaves. He also paints on treated canvas which is then wrapped around three-dimensional objects. He decided to explore a new idea, of painting a proliferation of animals and trees found in the forests of Odisha onto a large fibreglass tiger. Another work by Swain is for a project that created works to depict the value of education and literacy. He painted a series of nine square panels in which a parrot is caged. A man frees him and teaches him to read, beginning with the recognition of alphabets in Odiya. Finally we discover that the parrot is employed by an astrologer who makes it pick out a card which predicts the future. Swain ensured that trees were present around the bird and the man in every panel, giving the impression that all this was taking place in a forest.

Rajesh Roy, a contemporary Bengali painter who is primarily a terracotta artist, decided to tell the tragic story of the gradual disappearance of the mangrove swamps and forests in the Sunderbans area of Bengal. The word Sunderbans is derived from the Bengali sundar van or ‘beautiful forest’. The story tells of a tiger cub’s sorrow as it sees its mother killed by a hunter’s arrows. This art form follows the urge of the terracotta artist to try his hand at contemporary art, moving away from traditional subjects to try storytelling instead. It is significant that the story should involve the depletion of forests and, consequently,
its wildlife.


Kavad art is still not very well known. It combines the elements of Mughal-style miniature art and Phad painting styles while retaining a folk idiom. Kavads in different sizes served as mobile temples, and were earlier commissioned by patrons who either wanted their own life stories told or a depiction of scenes from the Ramayana or Mahabharata. Now that the time of courtly patronage is over, artists chose to convert their kavads into educational tools, apart from art objects for the tourist trade. Dwarka Prasad Jangid created a ‘show and tell’ for small children that tells the story of the jungle and the lion who lives in it.

The Dastkari Haat Samiti often creates storybooks for children using the art works of traditional artists. Some involve stories of what happens when old lifestyles and practices face a modern world. Artist Kaushal Prasad Tikam belongs to the Gond tribe that lives in and near the forests of Madhya Pradesh. Even if they have moved to cities, their tradition of painting completely embraces the subject matter of trees in forests, with all the imaginary forms of sundry animals and birds integrating themselves within. Antlers become branches of a tree, and trees become an enclave for a multitude of birds with different colours, textures and forms.

himachal textile

The Chamba rumal is the outcome of a traditional form of embroidery in Chamba in the hills of Himachal Pradesh. The embroidery has been described as miniature painting with needle and thread. The images are often replicas of Pahari paintings which mainly depict Krishna in a forest. A Chamba rumal is a large square piece of unbleached cotton cloth used as a wall hanging, a cover, a decorative object or one of prayer, if the story depicted is of the gods. Here, the embroidery work was created by Masto Devi of Chamba. It depicts trees seemingly randomly scattered around the figures, but they represent the forests that cover the Himalayan mountainsides. A second series of four art works in the Kangra painting style, executed on mirrors painted from the rear, present words from Jayadev’s 12th-century poem, Gita Govind, in calligraphy. Within the elegantly styled letters, contemporary artist Sneh Gangal painted Krishna among flower-bedecked trees in the
Himachal forests.

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