An exhibition presents mythical tales through the works of six artists who straddle the traditional and the modern.
Durga Bai Vyam
As a child, Durga Bai would often accompany her mother in making dignas on the floor and colourful patterns on mud walls. “We would do new ones every few weeks to decorate our homes,” says the artist. Her foray into canvas and paper happened much later, after marrying Subhash Vyam in 1986. She moved to Bhopal, where she began working with her cousin Jangarh Singh Shyam. In the exhibition, we see Durga, 40, painting stories from the animal kingdom. If the series Elephant Family has the mammal as the protagonist, in Fireflies and Cow, we see how a firefly helps an old lady become friends with those who inhabit the jungle.
In his early 20s, Shyam remembers filling in colours in intricate patterns painted by his uncle Jangarh Singh Shyam. As a child, he had assisted his mother in decorating the walls of their mud house with traditional Gond motifs in Patangarh village (Madhya Pradesh) but this was different. “He would encourage me to make my own works and not copy his style,” says the Bhopal-based artist. The apprenticeship continued for almost a decade. He began to present Bhajju’s works before his own collectors and in 1997, when Bhajju found buyers for five of his works, he knew that he is perhaps ready to come out of the shadows. In 1998, he exhibited at a show dedicated to indigenous art in Paris, and in 2001, he was in London to paint the interiors of the restaurant Masala Zone. Soon his works began to travel the world. Awarded the Padma Shri last year, he has gained recognition for pictorial narratives that tell the stories of Gond tradition, myth and folklore and also address contemporary realities. The experimentation continues: If in 2017, at an exhibition in Vancouver, he painted on photographs, at the ongoing exhibition, he has painted in grey. “I started with a lighter shade of grey, but then chose to make it darker so that the details are visible,” says Shyam, 49. Also on view are more radiant works. If in Mahua Ped, we see a couple in embrace under entwined trees, another work titled Jalharin, dominated by eclectic blue and purple, depicts how life on earth began.
Ram Singh Urveti
Urveti recalls how when he first painted on canvas, on Jangarh Singh Shyam’s impetus in the early ’90s, the colours spread in all directions as the artist had no previous experience in the medium. To calm him, Shyam’s mother said, “The way the colours have spread over this canvas, your work will also spread all over the world.” Years later, his works have travelled across the world, from Japan to France, Russia to Brazil. “Orally passed on from one generation to another, our folktales are not written anywhere and by painting them we want to share them with the world,” says Urveti, 49. Best known for his amoebic forms and the small arrow heads that fill his figures at this exhibition, he has, among others, the acrylic titled Bada Dev, with the main deity of the Pradhan Gond community invoked by the Saja tree that surrounds it in a circular maze. In Dudh, Dahi aur Mahi ka Ped (pictured), he tells the story of a king who planted three trees of the same name and resolved that only someone who could identify them can marry his daughter.
Growing up in Sonpuri village near Patangarh, Vyam recalls being intrigued by aquatic life as a child. Soon he began to experiment with wood, but the lack of buyers led him to discontinue the craft and adopt the medium of paper. However, at the last edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale (2018-2019), he, along with Durga Bai Vyam, painted a narrative on marine plywood. “Our traditional stories always has nature as a protagonist,” says Vyam, 49. The exhibition sees his works based on Gond folk tales, including Kajal Machli-Gond Story that speaks of a fish that took birth as a girl and married her lover.
Illustrator for the comic book series Ramayana 3392 A.D. and India Authentic, and writer and illustrator for the graphic novel Krishna — A Journey Within, Singh’s works are often fantastical tales where mythology is reinterpreted, and where he comments on the possible future. “He has a very strong background in Indian mythology and graphic art, which is evident in his work,” says Anubhav Nath, director of Ojas Art gallery. While his book Namaha – Stories From The Land Of Gods And Goddesses releases next month, the exhibition presents diverse works of the NID graduate — from a colourful acrylic depicting Gangavataran, a Hindu festival celebrating the descent of Ganga on earth, to the 2018 monochrome Vrikshadootam (pictured) that was painted live at Ojas last year.
Son of Jangarh Singh Shyam, Mayank’s works bridge the traditional and the modern. The artist is known to depict contemporary issues and urban landscapes in compositions that also often feature geometric forms. In the exhibition, he depicts numerous modes of modern transportation, from a train chugging to an airplane in a cloudy sky. “My father wanted me to paint my own thoughts. I depict our traditional tales but also try to address present-day concerns through them,” says 32-year-old Mayank.
He also turns to more traditional narratives in some of his works. If the acrylic Jeevan Ki Aas has mermaids revelling in the rains, in the work Devroopi Vriskha he paints an ancient ritual where those who went to the forest to cut wood for cooking would pray to the trees to give them good wood and save them from wild animals.
The exhibition at Ojas Art, Mehrauli, is till September 1
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines