Growing up in Sijhora village in Madhya Pradesh, artist Venkat Raman Singh Shyam recalls being fascinated by stories of the Pradhan Gond, a sub clan of the adivasi community in central India. He was only six when his mother introduced him to paintings of his maternal uncle Jawahar Lal Uikey. “My mother believed that I was his reincarnation and was destined to become an artist,” recalls Shyam. Though he decided to pursue art almost a decade later, even as a child he carefully studied the nuances of paintings on the village walls, to replicate them with charcoal in his own home. The depictions would range from animals to the flora and fauna he saw around. “My father did not want me to become an artist but friends would appreciate my work,” says Shyam, 48.
His painted tales now have an ardent following. On a warm evening last week, Delhi’s swish set headed to Art Alive Gallery for the opening of his solo “Clouds of Wings”, and hobnobbing with them, Shyam shared tales of the acrylics as well as legends that they originated from. To initiate a “reconciliation” between human beings and nature and draw attention to environmental degradation, the artist has turned to stories of thick forests and pure water that he was told as a child. If we see an owl carrying a lotus bud on its back in Owl, Fly of Joy has butterflies fluttering on a bright yellow canvas. “Clouds need wings to fly and that can only come from clean air, which isn’t possible without trees — I feel they are a blessing for us. Since childhood I have seen lush green forests and clean water, but today there is only dirt and pollution,” says Shyam. In the more than 20 works on display, he also introduces us to trees as living entities with distinct personalities. If Pakari Tree has evidently feminine curves and squirrels dancing on its branches, Van Dev is tall and brawny, with abundant flowers and birds perched on its branches.
Like his famous uncle Jangarh Singh Shyam — credited with initiating a new wave of Indian tribal art — Venkat’s compositions too are rendered in bright colours, though he makes references to contemporary colour associations. So red and yellow denote celebration. Considered inauspicious by his forefathers, Venkat feels black highlights other colours when used alongside. “Traditions should keep changing to keep up with the times and for longevity,” says Venkat.
It was Jangarh who had first noticed potential in Venkat’s artistic explorations. He invited Venkat to Bhopal, where he apprenticed under him from 1988 to 1991, when Venkat headed to Delhi in search of work and to establish his independent identity as an artist. Not many knew about Gond art then. To fend for himself, Venkat did menial jobs, from plumbing to riding a rickshaw and masonry. He painted posters and hoardings — the last came in 2001, when Venkat heard the news of Jangarh’s death during an art residency at the Mithila Museum in Niigata, Japan. He was only 39. The Pardhan Gond artist had lost their Lingo — the forefather who led the way in getting global recognition for the art genre. “I was determined to make a mark. Till then galleries refused to promote young Gond artists,” recalls Venkat.
While Jangarh had found buyers for Venkat’s works during a trip to Paris in 1989, Venkat struggled for a breakthrough back home. In 2003, he assisted a team from Scotland that was in India for an animation film on folk tales. “I designed paintings and worked on the storyboard. I never looked back,” says Venkat. Apart from solo exhibitions across India, he has also exhibited at the National Gallery of Canada, Virginia Tech’s Perspective Gallery and Queensland Art Gallery in Australia.
“I want to address contemporary issues through stories that have existed for centuries. Visual media has the ability to talk to people and should be used to generate awareness,” says Venkat. He points to Tulsi Vivah, a vibrant canvas based on an ancient tale. Venkat tells us that on the 11th day of the Hindu month of Kartik, the sacred plant is married to Shaligram in a ceremony. On his canvas, present to bless the couple are the moon and the earth, apart from birds enjoying the revelry.
The exhibition at Art Alive Gallery, S-221, Panchsheel Park, is on till May 15
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