Folk and Classical Art: In reference to the prevailing situation in Khasi society in accordance with the folk customs and usages, it is amply clear that there are no traces of visible folk art tradition in terms of visual art expression. The Khasi oral folk literature and folk music have enormous elements of folk expression and later they were written in book form, deliberated, discussed and debated at various social and academic fora; certain pieces can be considered classical. However, in visual art folk elements are absolutely nonexistent, therefore there is no scope for growth, evolution or refinement. Prior to the emergence of folk art in Khasi society, social changes took place with the intrusion of neighbouring races and later the invasion of alien colonial imperialists. Perhaps, the neighbouring Bengalee community introduced a certain impression of craftsmanship and subsequently the British brought about an austere tradition of visual art through the Roman Catholic church. Therefore, the present generation of indigenous artists encountered a cultural shock; neither could they produce authentic local taste nor refined taste of acquired tradition of visual art expression. Nevertheless, liberal expression of contemporary art is noticeable among indigenous artists like Benedict Skhemlang Hynñiewta, Thomas Mylliemumlong, Federick Donboklang Hynñiewta, Danny Tiewdoph, Rembrandt Iakmenlang Kharnaïor and Careen J Langstieh. On my (Raphael Warjri) part also I have endeavoured to indulge in that direction and I leave it to the readers or the critic to assess and evaluate. Some talented traditionalists like Solomon Kharir, Reginal Mark Rani, Ariopagos Manner and a few others have been working in their individual style of liberal expression and achieved to ascertain distinct personal statements and individual identities. Some of the young emerging artists like Mario Pascal Pathaw and Denzil Kharbudon also depicted their original creativity based on Khasi folklore.
On the other hand, the Garo artists have a vibrant visual tradition from which the artists derived their concepts and images. Some of the prominent artists are Vikramjit Sangma, Daniel Marak, Sambertush Marak, Jimstar Momin, Arak M Sangma, and Silnang M. Momin. Among the significant folk concepts and images of the Garos are the Dókakku, Nokpante, Borang, Narikki, Bugarani and other cultural traits of the community. The Nokpante is a popular cultural image that represents the Garo people and their land. It is a bachelor’s dormitory where all the discussions about human and social values are deliberated. One of the most significant components of the Nokpante is the Dókakku. The Dókakku is a treasure trove of ancient Garo culture and tradition. It is believed that Dokakku is being brought from the land of the ancestors at the Tibetan region and installed at any vital post of the Nokpante that is being built. The Narikki is earring worn by the ladies, believed to be the protective gear from demons in the afterlife. The earring is like the cylindrical series of rings that mesmerise the evil spirit while the departed soul is on the way to the abode of the ancestors. The other cultural images that affected the sentiment of the artists are the folk mermaid and merman known as Bugarani and Bugaraja; the mermaid is known in Garo as So’re, believed to be the most beautiful maiden that caused many mighty warriors to lose their life for her; the Borang or a tree house, that serves as a watchtower at the cultivation field; the Sarendra, a folk musical stringed instrument and few other folk elements.
The neighbouring tribal communities of North East India also have distinct folk art traditions that can be easily identified and differentiated from each other. Although all the tribes of North East India are of Tibeto-Burman origin, their individual folk art can be separately identified, leaving aside the Khasis, which is devoid of any visual art tradition and belong to Austro-Asiatic racial origin. This is another peculiar historical situation that one minuscule Austro-Asiatic community is surrounded by the dominant Aryan and Tibeto-Burman races. The Nagas, the Mizos, the Arunachal, the Assamese, Manipuris and Sikkimese have their respective folk art traditions. Even the Garos in Meghalaya also have their distinct folk art tradition. Unfortunately, not much is visible about the Tripuri folk art, although they have a vibrant folk tradition; perhaps, because of the intrusion of the Bengal tradition from across the border. There is an element of oriental Chinese or Tibetan art tradition in certain sub-tribes like the Lepchas of Sikkim and Monpas of Arunachal Pradesh.
The concept of contemporary art is perceived to traverse beyond the virtual visibility of the human eye. The idea is that the instant and immediate incident or the continuous development in personal experience or the encounter with society may touch the heart and trigger the mind of a person to create images that reflect the situation. This is the norm and essence of artistic expression that is usually encountered. However, a sensitive person could be easily affected by both the mere simple incident in personal life or by the sophisticated situation in society or the world over. Agony and ecstasy are the emotional experiences that activate and motivate the person to create aesthetic articles. However, aesthetics can also be measured in terms of sheer entertainment. Therefore the human mind should be able to differentiate between the two because there is a fine line to segregate them. A simple amusement object might appear casual or absurd or otherwise, a sophisticated piece of artwork may appear redundant to a thinking person. The same thinking person might be captivated by another simple entertainment piece and obviously conversant with still another sophisticated piece of artwork. However, the person with a simple mind will have fun with both the simple amusement pieces and probably ignore both the sophisticated pieces of artwork. It all depends on the intellectual capability of an individual. This is the conundrum that prevails in the art world, there is no rule to evaluate the standard of the artwork. Nevertheless, there must be a level of quality that should comply with the least acceptability of the genuine fraternity of artists. This is the job of the art critic to deliberate, argue and convince the artists as well as the society. The art critic will be conversant with the artists but may find it difficult to convince the public. For instance, the art critic could analyse and scrutinize the picture of a nude person. By the law of nature, an ordinary heterosexual male would like to appreciate the female form and vice-versa, but as artists, they study both forms and learn to understand each one separately before reproduction on any art medium. The innocence and vulgar impression of a nude form can be authenticated by a critic or artist, which the ordinary person may not be able to distinguish. Therefore, the public is always controlled by social convention and has the tendency to judge on instant impressions.
The significance of Contemporary Art must be broader than the visible power of human sight, it should trigger the mind, it should touch the heart. The emotions of pleasure or sorrow can be reflected through visual art; peace and weariness can be reflected through visual art. The memory and concern about nature, humankind, culture, and folklore could be reflected through visual art. Therefore, the skill of the mind and the hand worked together to bring about a fine and valuable art form. The more diligent, persistent and concentrated on the work, the more the fineness and perfection of the artwork; and this is the basis of great art. To assess and appreciate such great art requires truthfulness, honesty and courage. This is the firm foundation of a genuine understanding of contemporary art. This essence of contemporary art is refined and austere in the west, but it is emerging in this territory, but it does not mean that the people of this area are not receptive to such a notion. As an artist, I have journeyed through the ages of simple expression of realistic art and fathomed over the growth and progress of conceptual depiction of modern art. It is not difficult to understand modern art if we are receptive to change with a proper understanding of the evolution process from the applied to the abstract representation of visual images. Art has the potential to nourish and strengthen society and mankind to the core, but entertainment is superficial and generates temporary pleasure. It is similar to the difference between sexual pleasure and the procreation process. Both have to coexist. Without physical contact of a fertile couple, there is no creation of new life; and without literal application of emotions, there is no art. But there should be a balance between the two elements; the coexistence of the two elements should ensure sustainable development and survival. If the literal application is more than the required amount it will hamper the emotional expression; on the other hand, if the emotional expression is more than the required amount it will hinder the literal application. The picture or the image should be visually pleasant and relate to the significance of the meaning it conveys. This is total aesthetics. Society needs both the elements to achieve genuine satisfaction of the experience and the taste of that aesthetic. The consistent cultivation of this experience will facilitate the society to learn and grow in the outlook and attitude toward art. It is like music should be pleasant to the ear and the lyrics will further enhance the quality of the experience and provide satisfaction and contentment. The regular exposure to art along with interaction and criticism within the group of interested and serious persons will percolate to the different strata of the community and collectively grow into a more civilised society.