India: A Treasure Trove of Beautiful Yet Undiscovered Tribal Art Forms
India, one of the oldest civilizations in the world, has a deep cultural heritage, unparalleled anywhere in the world. Tribal art forms are an integral part of this centuries old rich art and cultural legacy. From Kalamkari of Andhra Pradesh to Madhubani artwork of Bihar, every state has its own surplus of beautiful handicrafts and an artisan workforce brimming with talent and requisite skillsets. Despite this huge diversity of art and craft and an existing trained workforce, the industry is struggling to sustain itself. The fault lies in the very nature of the Indian handicrafts sector and its largely unorganized state.
Artisans all over the country, despite being capable of creating artwork worth lakhs, struggle in the clutches of ceaseless poverty. Lack of business understanding, illiteracy, negligible design thinking and the largely unorganized state of the industry leaves the artisans vulnerable to being cheated, used and manipulated by middle men and brands that seek to satisfy their own needs. While the artisans suffer to make ends meet, customers are unfairly charged almost ten times the actual price of a handicraft by brands. As a result, most artisans abandon their family business to pursue more economically rewarding careers, migrating to cities and ending centuries old traditional practices passed from generation to generation.
Fortunately, for Indian art lovers, some socially conscious Indian start-up brands have begun to revitalise the handicrafts sector. By employing these artisans and charging the right amount for each product, some of the start-up brands are successfully re-establishing the product chain, helping in organizing the industry and creating an identity and income opportunities for such artisans and craftsmen. Truly Tribal is one such brand.
Truly Tribal: Your One-Stop Destination for Authentic Handicrafts Inspired by Indian Tribal and Folk Arts
Founded in 2015, Truly Tribal was born out of a need to support, encourage and motivate Indian artisans while promoting and preserving the Indian handicrafts sector. Its founder, Shweta Menon, is a software engineer turned entrepreneur, with an unwavering love for everything artistic and handcrafted. Her birth place, Chhindwara, a small town on the MP-Maharashtra border, formed the root inspiration for the start-up, and was the place where she first developed her understanding and appreciation of tribal art. Though she had been born and brought up in that place, in close proximity of the artisans, it was only when her sister-in-law requested her to source a Gond painting that Shweta realised the artisans' plight and their dying culture.
Today, Truly Tribal works with more than a hundred artisans covering not less than 20 different art forms. The brand started with Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and quickly progressed to cover almost 14 Indian states. Through their website, the brand showcases a wide array of handcrafted lifestyle products, ranging from Warli wooden trays to Madhubani hand-painted clocks. Each product is tested, passing through rigorous sampling tests and quality checks before the design is finalised for bulk production. Each design is unique due to its handcrafted and hand painted details. The organization takes pride in calling themselves a social enterprise with a strong inclination towards increasing the artisans' income and creating an identity and a sense of pride in their talents and crafts.
Truly Tribal is more than a business platform as it showcases the rich diversity of ethnic tribal art forms of India. It is a platform which promotes & builds awareness about Indian art & artisans, and provides these artists with a wider audience which is made aware of the extraordinary works of art of these artists and their individual communities.
Shweta Menon – Founder and CEO, Truly Tribal
Bringing Indian Tribal Art Forms Centre Stage with Shweta Menon, Founder, Truly Tribal
- Q. Tell us about yourself and your background.
- Actually I come from a very small town in MP which is one of the very prominent Gond art tribal areas, a place called Chhindwara that’s near the MP-Maharashtra border. I belong to an eastern Marwari family but I have done my engineering and I am a computer engineer by qualification. I have been into the hard-core IT industry, software development, and delivery for 13 years. After that I tried my hands with consulting and business management, but I have always wanted to do something to give back to the society. Something, which is close to my heart and bridges the gap between the consumer and the source (origin). I am extremely passionate about art and am a very big art enthusiast myself. I am always on the lookout for artefacts from everywhere I travel to. During my IT work when I travelled abroad, I realised people appreciate art but they don’t know where to get it, even in the bigger cities, or the industries or anything you know you get some standard products. Secondly, I know there is no one place where you can get everything. Even if you get somethings in the stores, you will not find everything as per your customisation, or otherwise they are so expensive that you tend to not buy it. At the same time coming from a small town where I have seen all the tribals working and to be honest, I never valued them as a child growing up, I never appreciated or understood their art. I never realised that it was a part of our life. Once I came out of my town and I started staying or working out, I realised how much exploitation they suffer. When I go and pick up a piece from a big store – a handicraft piece, the astronomical amount of money they charge and I also knew how much the artists are getting. The artisans and craftsmen who are making these are actually living in very impoverished conditions. I thought you know the people who are making are actually not getting their dues and that is where I started off on my own and you know with my technical background lets bridge the gap between the consumers and the actual makers. In that case we will have a larger consumer base and at the same time, my artist would get a lot of work as well. Rather than making 10-15 pieces at ₹ 20.00 per piece if they end up making 50-100 pieces, then they will definitely have a better chance of earning a much larger income. So that is how Truly Tribal was born.
India has a rich and unbelievable wealth of arts and crafts. We have two major reasons - one is social enterprise that we want to keep these products affordable so that we have a larger consumer base. The other thing is that we want to be a one-stop shop where you can get everything you want, not just Warli art and Madhubani paintings, but even if you ask me for a customised brass sculpture or a metal handicraft, you will want to be in one place.
- Q. Are you working in the IT sector?
- No, I am completely a full-timer since the time I started and wanted to dedicate time only to this.
- Q. What led you to create Truly Tribal and how did you go about it?
- There have been quite a few incidents I will tell you which have actually remained at the back of my mind, apart from seeing the plight of these people. Once my sister-in-law asked me to get a Gond painting for her. The place where I come from - Chhindwara is the largest Gond tribal belt in India. I said I will get it done, and I went and I spoke to an artist. I mean an average artist, not some very crazily big-time artist, but a modern novice. Previously he was working with a museum. When I asked him he was pretty fascinated about somebody asking him to do this work, because normally only the government museums have such requirements. When I gave him the order for a 2 x 3 feet painting he was so excited that he gave me a 1 x 1 feet painting free as well. He charged me around ₹ 3,000.00 - ₹ 4,000.00 for both of them. After gifting the painting to my sister-in-law I did some research online and discovered that each of those paintings, of a similar level of quality was costing anywhere between ₹ 15,000.00 - ₹ 20,000.00! I sat wondering if this guy was so happy that I gave him the order, did not negotiate the price and I just gave him whatever he asked and he gave me a free painting along with it. That was the time I realised that he was the one who was actually making the painting but he was hardly getting anything. So that has remained at the back of my mind. As I have mentioned I have been an art enthusiast myself. Whenever I am looking for some artwork, I often feel - this is matching but this is not exactly what I am looking for, or can somebody help me understand and whether if I can get to know the story behind the artist. If I have somebody who can help to reach out to them! I left my IT job after that and my second child was born. I have been looking out to do something which is more meaningful. This did not remain the monetary thing anymore and I was looking at doing something which will impact other people’s life. I feel if I can alter and improve even 2-3 people’s lives, it’s enough as a job for me as a person. I am not looking to become a big crusader or something, even 2-3 people is good enough to start the change. Something I have also felt – I have seen my kids or my kids’ friends or even some of my friends, they do not know anything about art. But they talk about how great the aborigine art (a tribal art from Australia) is. I said you know there is an Indian art-form called Gond painting. They can’t even pronounce the word. Every country has their own art, culture and heritage. So I said why not use my technical knowledge and IT background and try to bring awareness to our art-forms and bring out these artisans. I started setting out the problems which I faced as a consumer. I started working with only 3 artists and started buying 3 different kinds of artwork – Gond painting, Dhokra, and Loser Bastar. This was the start of my journey and I started feeling that there was a lot of money needed to advertise and market everything. That was the time I realised how much people would have spent and would have got launched with big exhibitions and everything so that is the time I realized it’s not easy to sell things like this. So, we started as an online setup where you can get all of these things. I could be one of the few people who take the registration first and start setting up, so that is what I started. The initial 1-1.5 years was a major struggle in terms of convincing people to understand. In the exhibition mode I realised ₹ 2,000.00 worth of clothing and jewellery is easier to sell than a ₹ 500.00 artefact. I had my struggle and then I realised we need to change the model and that’s where we have been remodelling our business approach. And that’s how things started off.
- Q. You started off with two or three artists, now how many artists do you work with?
- We have 100+ artists right now and we are dealing in around 20 different art forms. Initially we started within Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, just 2 states. Right now we are covering almost 14 states in India, from Orissa, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, UP, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Gujarat – I am tapping only the original artists, we do not work with hobby artists at all. I stay in Pune and it’s a Maharashtra Warli artists’ hidden destination. Lots of people like you and me would have learned but the thing is we will work with only Warli tribe people who are in that particular belt like the Raigarh district. We work with those artisans only, even if that means a 5-10% increase in the cost of shipping, the raw materials and getting the work done. This way you get completely authentic work created and we don’t want to displace these artists from their workplace. If they have enough income they will not have to leave their work. Typically most Indian art forms witness generational transition. However, with the onset of technology and so much external influence, the artisans’ kids, and sometimes the artists themselves do not want their kids to do their work as they feel that can earn better money in other professions. If they have enough money to sustain themselves, the kids will also continue the crafts and traditions.
- Q. How do you introduce new products?
- As an organisation what we are doing is trying to bring these art forms into lifestyle products. To take an example, even if I like paintings, how many paintings can I put up in my house, 1-2 right? Even if it is a gifting option it is very difficult for me to gift it to somebody as I don’t know that individual’s aesthetic sense and whether he would be interested. So what we thought is we will try to bring these artworks into lifestyle products, like a complete dining collection. Now we are getting hand-painted coasters, tissue papers stands, tissue paper boxes, runners, mugs, cushion covers, etc. you name it and we have it. Décor products are something which we are leading to and where we do a lot of investment and research. We have got people like interns, who are designing things. Sometimes we get concepts of what products we can make which have a high utility value. Sometimes corporate requirements also come. Our major consumer base has been corporates – we are majorly into corporate gifting. We make customised corporate gifts too. So whatever corporates are looking for, we design as per that and once the concept is ready with us we identify which artist and what kind of artwork will fit into it and then we take it to that artist.
Sometimes the product design itself fails, whereas at other times it works. There are also instances when the market does not receive a newly launched product well. Sometimes the market accepts it wholeheartedly. Out of about 10 designs every quarter 1-2 actually take off for the consumer market. We also standardise the design of each artwork. Standardised designs are also available because a lot of people do not want to go into too much customisation because it comes with a price. But for us, both approaches are open.
Truly Tribal's Hot-Selling Products
Wall Plate (Shield) - Pattachitra Krishna Leela (Large)
Pattachitra is an ancient art form prevalent in the eastern part of India particularly Odisha. The art form is noted for its intricate floral border and depiction of mythological characters and folktales. This beautiful shield depicts Lord Krishna serenading Radha under a peepal tree. Weighing 1.5 kg, the shield's size is 21 inches and it is available for ₹ 5,000.00 here.
Wall Clock - Hand Painted Madhubani
Madhubani paintings are one of the most popular folk art styles of India which comes from the Mithila region (modern day Madhubani District) of Bihar. These paintings are made using fingers, nibs, matchsticks and twigs along with natural dyes and pigments like turmeric, cow-dung, rice, soot, etc. Its origins can be traced back to the times of the Ramayana. This beautiful and unique wall clock with Madhubani paintings is crafted by renowned Madhubani artists and is sure to become an attention-grabber in your home. Priced at ₹ 2,000.00 you can buy it here.
Gond Painting - 11" x 15" - Bird and Tree
Gond paintings are an extremely popular folk and tribal art form practised by the largest tribal community in India who primarily live in the central parts of India which are majorly in the state of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Gond art is vibrant and fluid and depicts nature in various forms. This exquisite Gond unframed painting depicting a bird and tree design having dimensions 11 x 15 inches is available for ₹ 1,300.00 here.
Where Can You Find Them?www.trulytribal.in
Truly Tribal's Innovative Steps for Reviving India's Handicrafts Industry
- Q. You also host art workshops. Tell us how that came about.
- Honestly speaking it’s the pandemic which brought us into this. We were primarily into product-based or concept-based paintings, consumer based items and also, customising interior solutions. But last year when the pandemic started, we realised that the artists do not have any work and the exhibitions of all artists were getting cancelled. So, we started training our artists – we thought why not bring them to an online platform when everybody is sitting at home. We spent a lot of time in training these artists even to make them to open Zoom, Google Meet and to set up their cameras, that too remotely. Yes, it has been a journey and they adapted pretty fast. Initially we started with 1-2 as early as in the first week of April last year. We conducted a few sessions and then we decided to take it up. We realised that many people were interested and the artists were also very excited. We discovered that this was the medium where we could provide adequate exposure and it was a great way for promoting art and letting people know about different art forms, not necessarily as a prospective consumer of the products. Even if they want to learn and even if they don't want to learn we conduct a lot of these sessions where we just bring about awareness and let the people know about these artists. Sometimes we conduct tours of the workshop or show the people how these artists live. It’s like introducing them to the lifestyle of these artists and the artists are also very excited. We found it is a very innovative way of spreading awareness not just about the art form, but even for bringing these artisans forward.
- Q. How do you ensure quality of your products?
- One of the major things we are doing is that we are working with different artists in the states and at the national level. Not only that, we are working only with traditional artists and state and national award winning artists. In the initial days we did a lot of sampling and concept creation with them. Once they come up with these products we keep everything with us initially and even during the trials. We have conducted quite a few trials and we discovered that sometimes the finish of the end product was not proper or the paints were peeling off. We have a lot of trials, sometimes they are not even worth it, but yes, we are ensuring that we have the products with us in terms of ensuring the quality. I even used them personally at times. We also do a lot of designing in terms of products, like combining two states’ artworks, etc.
- Q. What are you hoping to achieve for Indian handicrafts with your venture?
- It is not in my hand but I do not want people to bargain with artists. From the organisation’s perspective there are 2-3 goals which we want for our artisans which I mentioned earlier – increasing the earning capacity of the artists, ensuring that they don’t leave their art-forms and that their kids take it up as a profession. I want these artists to be known by their name. People should be aware that these are the artists behind it (artwork), and this is also an Indian art-form and see their lives. Then they start appreciating it more. So we would like to have a larger consumer base coming up and definitely we want to make more people aware of Indian art-forms. Another thing that we are hoping from our generation and the next generation too is to get to know these art-forms. I mean I want to have products which are conversation points. Let's take an example: if we get these coaster sets or a dining set done in a Warli or Madhubani painting, the consumer like you and me would not mind gifting it to a recipient’s house – whether it is traditional or contemporary. In that home if an adult or a kid picks it up they should be able to identify the art-form, that it is from India and also, which state of the country. Even if 1-2 children get to know it remains with them and they spread the knowledge amongst others and take it forward. The major thing among the current and the next generation that matters is the need to start appreciating different Indian art-forms and they cannot appreciate it till they don’t see and use it themselves.
- Q. You wanted the artists to be known by their names. Do the artists sign-off for the work they do?
- Not everything is signed off as some of the art-forms are traditional and they don’t sign it off. A Madhubani painting or any folk painting for that matter is never signed off by the artist, because it is considered a community activity. But what we are doing is, specifically in corporate orders, and we want to take this further in the consumer segment as well, for every product there is a small leaflet enclosed describing - the person who made it, their story along with their photo. That's the ultimate thing which we are trying to achieve and even though we are yet to reach there, but I think by the end of this year we will have that as well.
- Q. What makes Truly Tribal distinct from other similar brands?
- We are a social enterprise. We are not a hard-core business, though we will not say we are an NGO. We are for-profit but we have a very strong social intent. Secondly, the differentiation is that we are a lot into customised product design and we do not give you off-the-shelf ready products. Suppose you are looking for painting or a hand-painted décor item for your house, we are in a position where we can customise to the level wherein you can send the photographs of your house and say this is the colour combination you are looking for. We would be ensuring that everything is done only by the traditional genuine artists – the artwork will be completely authentic and an authentication certificate can also be provided if required. This is where we differentiate ourselves from others, that we put our art and artisans first and only then comes the business.
- Q. What are your own interests? Do you dabble in these art forms?
- Before I got into this business I used to think of myself as an artist. Now I don't even call myself an artist anymore after working with so many artists. Personally, I would do a lot of pencil sketching and charcoal shadings and things like that. I am pretty well versed with Madhubani and Warli paints and other similar art forms including Patachitra as well. I have always been travelling and my husband is also from the IT industry, and he would also travel. I took a step back from my career. So whenever somebody asks me what to get, I ask for some traditional artefact from that place. I have artefacts from Africa, from USA – I mean this is what I always collect and people used to make fun of me – you are yourself a tribal! Even if I am visiting a country or a city, I try to go to the local markets and meet the artists there. Even on a vacation tour when we went to Rajasthan or that matter Gujarat, I would ensure we go to an artist's location or a weaver’s location. I would want my kids to see that as well. So personally I love travelling and that is the major interest which I have.
- Q. Is there anything you would like to add?
- Yes, there is one thing which I would like to share, this is my personal experience, I don't know if it is relevant in this context. Before starting this setup, I have been an honorary member of a couple of NGOs as well and I realised the way people treat you when you go as a part of an NGO, in spite of putting your best efforts, not everybody treats you very comfortably. That is the general attitude of people. The people whom you are working for they also do not value your effort or the time you are putting in. Nobody values anything for free. As soon as you start paying for it, that is the time you start enjoying and consuming it properly. So when it is NGO work, everything starts taking the back-seat because this is your additional work. When you put money into the business, you yourself start taking it more seriously and even for my artists, they also know that nothing is coming free for them. That is the reason they also put in more effort. So the kind of product design which we come up with, the turnaround time is much faster. That's the reason we are a social enterprise. I want to remain true to my original vision of supporting the artist, at the same time I realised giving anything free will not hold value for long. Take an example: if I gift you something, say a pen stand or something, when you buy it you will definitely care for it more than if it has been a gifted item. As an organisation founder I remain true and do not put this at the back of my priorities. At the same time, the people I am working for are serious. If I am working for their development, they too have to work for it.
What's Next for Truly Tribal?
There is a process of revamping ourselves in terms of consumer reach, because honestly speaking, we have had a real hard time these last 1-1.5 years. I am seeing everybody’s business facing these adverse condition currently. We have been trying to reinvent ourselves like the art workshops, which we started last year itself, have been promoting and documenting the artists. That is something we want to take further into a much larger space. We are documenting all the various art-forms and we are starting the promotion of DIY kits. But we want to focus more onto a niche part. We are actually primarily into wholesale business. We started this as an online setup and we went into an exhibition mode and we realised we are losing a lot of money as well. That is the time when I took a 2-3 months break and I actually travelled to different artisans’ locations. I went to Kolkata, Chhattisgarh and many other places and met the local artisans at their locations. That is the time I realised, I am not very good at selling them to the consumers, but I am very good at designing and working with artisans. So, I thought let me keep that particular thing – we supply to stores, exhibitioners, and we also export. We also work with a designer on developing customised solutions. That is when we started off and we continued with our online setup. Right now we are focussing big time revamping ourselves and probably by this month-end we are relaunching ourselves. Apart from art workshops, customised solutions and the corporate and social gifting segment, we are planning to bring back the traditional Indian games and toys to the fore. We are looking for more niche products – hand-painted, customised solutions in personal accessories and lifestyle products. This is something I feel can be one of the very good ways to build about awareness, because people would not mind buying a clutch, a sling bag, a dupatta or jewellery on a personal consumption basis rather than a painting or a saree.
So that is something I would really want to focus on. We ultimately want to be the one-stop shop for Indian art products. But in the current phase we are trying to revamp ourselves and to come up with an online setup that is catchier and more appealing to the current generation. Yes, we will be focusing on niche products, things which are going into extinction.
Important Tips for Picking Out Tribal Handicrafts for Gifting?
I feel that if you know the recipient's interests then it is much easier. When you are looking for a gift for somebody, for safe options, look for the versatility in terms of the gift being a multi-use product. It should go well with contemporary or Indian décor. Avoid wall décor till the time you personally know that the person would be willing to put it on the wall. Utility based items are more for a general gift purpose because people will generally tend to use them more, even if the life of the product is 2-3 years and which have multi-use. Suppose you take a pen stand which can be used as a light holder or a cutlery stand, it is something which you can gift. If you know the person well and you are very clear in terms of what kind of liking the person has, then you can think about the colour tones and the likes. Do not take very bulky products as they are very difficult to keep, especially if you do not know the person.
Make a Lifestyle Statement with Indian Tribal Art Pieces in Your Home
Rather than collecting tribal art pieces from other countries, every Indian art lover should start looking and appreciating Indian tribal art form with a different perspective and make it a part of his daily life by bring it to his home. This will not only reflect your rich tastes and love for art but will also ensure that a skilled tribal artisan earns a respectable livelihood and feels proud of his tremendous talent, somewhere in the country. Truly Tribal is the perfect platform to start such a quest.