Verrier Elwin ’s Collection and Definition of Adivasi Art

“Verrier Elwin‟s home in Patangarh village, 1952”
(Photo copyright Ashok Elwin, Douglas 2018: 13, Fig. 8)
“Verrier Elwin‟s home in Patangarh village, 1952” - (Photo copyright Ashok Elwin, Douglas 2018: 13, Fig. 8)

Abstract I The article returns to the first book fully devoted to The Tribal Art of Middle India. Published in 1951, by the missionary turned ethnologist Verrier Elwin, this book provides both the first list and the first definition of what would be labelled thereafter „tribal art‟ in India. Hence, the book has a second title: A Personal Record, so by re-locating the author‟s claims in the context of India‟s post-independence and under the influence of functionalist and culturalist anthropology, we give a deeper understanding of Elwin‟s aim as well as of his limitations.

“Black seed is sown in a white field: when the crop is cut, it sings…
– A song written on white paper”
(dhandhā or riddle, Elwin and Hivale 1935: 147)

Adivasi art is a specific topic in India, and in order to understand its “institutionalization” in catalogue and museum, I turn to the first books devoted to this type of art: The Tribal Art of Middle India, and The Art of North-East Frontier of India. These books were both published in the 1950s by the same author: Verrier Elwin, a missionary turned ethnographer at the precise moment that the discipline was being professionalized in India (Vidyarthi 1978). I will show that these books constitute a true illustration of tribal creativity, in a strategy of recognition of the specificities of these groups within a recently independent India (1947). In other words, art definition has also deeper meaning and consequences, which remain valuable to the present…

Journal Article
From Literature to Visual Arts: Verrier Elwin’s Collection and Definition of Adivasi Art
Author: Raphaël Rousseleau
Journal of Adivasi and Indigenous Studies
Vol. X, No. 2, August 2020: 30–43 / Published by:
Read and download

About the author

Dr. Raphaël Rousseleau ( is a Social Anthropologist (PhD EHESS, Paris), Professor at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. He studied particularly the rituals and ethno-history of the Jodia Porja (Odisha), but he also works and publishes widely on more general topics such as Adivasi art, religion and civilization.


Journal of Adivasi and Indigenous Studies (JAIS)
(A bi-annual peer-reviewed online journal posted on
Vol. X, No. 2, August 2020: 30-43
© 2020 JAIS, ISSN (online) 2394-5524

Keywords: tribal art of India, Adivasi, Verrier Elwin, William G. Archer, functionalist, anthropology.


Folkartopedia Archive is an online open resource of folk, traditional and tribal arts and expressions. We are constantly documenting artists, artworks, art villages, their artistic expressions, cultural heritage and other aspects of their life, to develop and enrich the archive that deserves you. We usually ask, what is the necessity of documentation and archives of arts? The answer is simple, what cultural heritage will we leave behind for our future generations in absence of documented work?

This effort cannot be a success, without your support. We need you and your support. If you think, the role of Folkartopedia is important, please support us.

You can help us by Instant Giving here.


The opinions expressed within this article or in any link are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Folkartopedia and Folkartopedia does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

Folkartopedia welcomes your support, suggestions and feedback.
If you find any factual mistake, please report to us with a genuine correction. Thank you.


Receive the latest updates


Folkartopedia is the leading resource of knowledge on folk art and expression in India. Stay connected.