Bhopal-based artist Japani Shyam was 13 when her father, Jangarh Singh Shyam — Gond art legend — passed away in 2001. She remembers how, as a child, she would often watch him paint folktales and myths that he would narrate as he worked. “He would often tell us stories that he had grown up listening to and we would be completely mesmerised,” says Japani. To encourage her to draw, he would often give her a blank paper and ask her to sketch what she liked. “Observing him paint was a lesson and the way I approach nature comes from him, but he would always tell us not to copy him and develop our own style,” she says.
When she was 11, he submitted one of her works for the Kamala Devi Award. Not only did she win, she also found buyers for her works when she was in the city to receive the award. “That was very encouraging and it is probably when I thought that I should also pursue art more seriously,” says Japani, 31, as she packs works for her solo at Gallerie Ganesha in Delhi that began last week and is on till September 22. The showcase comprises 15 works, from ochre peacocks flocking under a tree, intricately painted in black and white, to deers prancing in grey leafy fields. “It is important to feel at one with nature. I sketch free hand and the animals might not be an exact replica of the real but belong to a world I imagine,” adds Japani.
Along with her 32-year-old brother Mayank Shyam — and numerous other artists who now follow the style of art that has been termed as the Jangarh Kalam School — Japani is taking forward the legacy of her father who reportedly committed suicide in Japan. “That is also when we realised that we had to reach out to the world like he had with Gond art and familarise others with our traditions,” says Japani. Named after Japan, as her father was in the country when she was born, the artist has exhibited across the world, from New York and Tokyo. Last year, she was awarded the Annual FICCI Young Achievers Award.
While most artists working in the genre were from Patangarh (Madhya Pradesh), the centre for Gond art, Japani grew up in Bhopal. The difference reflects in her works that more often talk about issues concerning the environment and her urban surroundings. “I do borrow characters from the stories I have heard but rarely do I depict the entire tale. I feel introducing little changes are important so that the genre is not typecast,” says Japani. In 2018, along with her cousin Dilip Shyam (36), she presented the monuments of Delhi in Gond patterns in the exhibition “Gond Views: From Their Natural World to Visions of Delhi”. If the Qutub Minar was surrounded with trees occupied by monkeys and mythical birds, a night scene had birds admiring the Red Fort from a cloudy sky.
Characterised by fine lines and geometric patterns, Gond art is most often painted in bright hues but Japani distinguishes her works with a colour palette dominated by black and white. “I wanted to highlight the detailing,” says the artist. Though she has moved to using more colour, she is on the lookout for natural colours. “We work with acrylics, which have a very different finish from the natural colours once available in our village,” says Japani. She shares how the ongoing exhibition brings back pleasant memories, as it is at the same venue that she had exhibited alongside her father’s works in December 2013. “It was indeed special to have my work on the walls with his,” says Japani, as she returns to an incomplete work at her studio-home in Bhopal, a tale of birds and fishes.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Geometry of Patterns’