Hill Korwa at work, Raïgarh District, Madya Pradesh, March 1996 in Korwa by Franck André Jamme, Galerie du Jour Paris 1997.
This history of these drawings is highly unusual. With the purpose of studying the different tribal communities of Madhya Pradesh—one of the most populated and varied states of India, and approximately the same area as France—Swaminathan first sent ethnologists, painters, and poets there in 1983. After traveling for several hours on roads and paths, they arrived at the Hill Korwa’s, whereupon they began to take notes and make sketches. To their great surprise, the villagers grabbed their pens, crayons, marker pens, and paper and spontaneously began to draw.
But whereas the members of other tribes most often produced half-human, half-animal figures, the Korwa’s motifs employed a rhythmical, calligraphic, but unknown alphabet occasionally accentuated with lines or accompanied by images of bows and arrows.
The Korwa speak a dialect that has no written form so the conclusion was drawn that their encounter with written language in neighboring towns must have struck them forcefully. Did they consider writing to have a magical role? Did they think it able to give an unknown power to those people who mastered it? Did they simply wish to take part in the strange ritual it seemed that their visitors were urging on them? There are many interpretations given to these apparent “writings.” “When they write, I believe that they think that their pencil is a bow. They don’t write, they shoot with it. They shoot signs like arrows,” wrote Archana in the catalogue of the Korwa exhibition at the Galerie du Jour in Paris. “Or perhaps writing is for them a sort of trance. Instead of crying, singing, gesticulating, or dancing, like a shaman, the Korwa simply write,” noted F.A. Jamme in one of his approaches to the Korwa mystery (in the catalogue Korwa, Galerie du Jour, Paris, 1997).
We remain astonished by the fluent skill of the Korwa, both men and women. The elegance of their signs and the skill with which they broad strokes and finely etched lines in their compositions call to mind such seasoned artists as Henri Michaux and Cy Twombly.
The first Korwa exhibition was staged in Bhopal in 1985 by Swaminathan and resulted in the publication of a book called Magical Script. Korwa drawings were shown at the Galerie du Jour in 1997 by Franck André Jamme and at the Drawing Center in New York in 2001.
Jhangi Korwa 1990s ink on paper 152x595cm
Laganna Korwa 1990s ink on paper 152x444cm