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The ‘Tree of Life’ Motif in Indian Folk Art

How often have you looked at a particular fabric or art and exclaimed in excitement on identifying it?  It is probably the style of painting, design or the motifs that make them easily recognisable by us.  The Oxford dictionary defines the word Motif as ‘a decorative image or design, especially a repeated one forming a pattern’.  It is also ‘a dominant or recurring idea in an artistic work’. Motifs describe the traditional elements found in the lore of particular folk group, thereby creating recognisable patterns in folk-art traditions. I find this immensely fascinating and so decided to explore one of the most common motifs – the ‘tree of life’!

The ‘Kalpavriksha’ or  the  Tree of Life

The ‘Kalpavriksha’, the wish-fulfilling tree or the ‘tree of life’ is a motif that can be found in many folk art traditions. From the ‘Samudra-manthan’ or ‘churning of the ocean’ tale from Hindu mythology to Jain Cosmology and from Turkic mythology to the Meso-american Aztecs and Mayans, the tree of life has had its origin from religious symbolism the world over. Closer home in India, the ‘Parijat’ (Adansonia digital) or ‘Baobab tree’ with fragrant flowers is revered as ‘kalpavriksha’. It may have a mythical legend, but scientific studies show that it came it India from Africa.

Some other trees that originated from different states in India are also referred to as the ‘tree of life’. They are the Banyan tree, the Mahua tree from tribal areas, the Ashwatha tree (or the sacred fig tree), the Khejari tree from Rajasthan , the Coconut and the Indian Butter tree from  the Himalayas! Ever wondered why we worship them? In addition to the mythical legends, we worship them probably because of their ability to amply provide for human needs.

Motifs and the Tree of Life

Motifs often showcase the unique ways of life across cultures. Flora, fauna and mythology form the central theme in Indian folk arts, and the various ‘wish-fulfilling’ trees take centre stage in the arts as well. I present to you a glimpse of some regional ‘kalpavrikshas’, represented in their native folk arts:

The Tree of Life in Kalamkari. Artist: J. Niranjan. Image Source: Paramparik Karigar
The tree of life as depicted by the Mohua tree in Warli folk art from Maharashtra. Image Source: Achao France
The tree of life as represented in the Gond Art form. Image source: Decoraindia
treeoflife-pattachitra-bhaskar mahapatra
The tree of life is beautifully depicted in the Pattachitra style by artist Bhaskar Mahapatra. Image Source: Forms of devotion
Buddha meditating under the Bodhi Tree – a kalpavriksha, the pipal tree in the Madhubani art form. Image Source: Jaypore

While we see the ‘tree of life’ motif portrayed in folk art forms, there is a large collection of these trees in the weaving traditions across India.

The Tree of Life created with the tie and dye weaving from Orissa . Image Source: Pinterest

There are many more such motifs that run through craft traditions  be it folk painting, weaving, metal work or terracotta and you will find them not only in India, but across the globe. It is interesting that each craft form using various motifs has a reason and a story that holds a lot of meaning to the artisans locally.

Be curious to know more about art in daily lives. Stop and appreciate the motifs, the stories and finer details created and nurtured with love by our artisans.

Be notjustashopper!

Cover image: Pinterest



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