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The word for world is forest: Vibrant art stories of Gond folklore

A new publication of over 100 works dives deep into the vibrant art of the late Jangarh Singh Shyam, the artist who put Gond folklore on the global map.

Written by Vandana Kalra |
Updated: December 10, 2017 1:46:51 pm
art, artists, art works, Jangarh Singh Shyam, Gond folklore, art collector, Pradhan Gond folklore, indian express, indian express news Joining the dots: A section from Shiv Shesh Nag. (1990)

Art collector Mitchell S Crites distinctly remembers the first time he met Gond artist Jangarh Singh Shyam. It was in the winter of 1987 and the world was yet to discover Shyam’s art rooted in the Pradhan Gond folklore and tradition of Madhya Pradesh. After hearing of his talent and purchasing a couple of his works through dealers in Delhi, Crites paid him a visit at the Surajkund Mela in the capital. There, he found Shyam sitting on a bamboo mat under a large tree, dressed in faded jeans and a checked flannel shirt. The unassuming artist and Crites were to develop an association that lasted more than 15 years. Whenever Shyam travelled to Delhi from Bhopal, he would first visit Crites before any other collector in Delhi. “We would sit cross-legged on the floor, slowly sorting through the piles of drawings and paintings, putting aside the ones we liked,” writes Crites in the foreword of Jangarh Singh Shyam: The Enchanted Forest, a collection of over 120 works by Shyam, and representative of a 20-year-long career, from 1983 till 2001. Written by art historian-curator Aurogeeta Das, and published by Roli Books, the book comes 16 years after Shyam’s tragic demise in 2001, when the 39-year-old artist hanged himself from the ceiling fan in his room, during his residency at the Mithila Museum, in Honshu, Japan. Until then, not many in India had taken note of his brilliance.

“I consider him to be one of the four or five best artists that India has produced in the last 100 years. He is very much missed; we were very saddened by his demise. All this while, I have kept his works in handmade boxes that he made with khadi,” says Crites.

The Enchanted Forest exemplifies why Shyam was, and remains, one of the most ingenious Gond artists. His legacy is retained not just in his own works, but also in the Jangarh Kalam school of art, the branch of Gond art named after him. In the book, Das presents a wider canvas, locating Shyam’s work in a larger cultural milieu of 1950-1960s India — a decade when the indigenous arts were being rediscovered by the mainstream art circuit. To discuss each of his works in the Crites collection and its origins, Das introduces us to Shyam’s world, his surroundings, persona, and the evolution of his art. She tells us how his name possibly came about — Jangarh from ‘Janaganana’ or the census, which was held in his village, Patangarh, in eastern MP, in 1961.

art, artists, art works, Jangarh Singh Shyam, Gond folklore, art collector, Pradhan Gond folklore, indian express, indian express news Shyam (left) with J Swaminathan in Bhopal, 1987. (Detail from photo by Jyoti Bhatt, courtesy Asia Art Archive)

In the early years, Shyam often painted murals on the walls, mixing natural pigments to form varied patterns. In 1981, it was one such mural of Hanuman, painted with peeli mitti, that caught the attention of Vivek Tembe, a young artist recruited by renowned painter J Swaminathan to tour across MP to scout for talent. Tembe first offered Shyam posters paints to work on paper, after looking at his murals. Soon, Swaminathan, the director of Bharat Bhavan, the arts museum in Bhopal, invited Shyam to work there, where he nurtured his talent.

International recognition preceeded domestic success. There were hardly any takers for his work at his debut solo at Delhi’s Dhoomimal Gallery in 1984. But the world sat up and took notice when Shyam’s work travelled across Japan as a part of the group show, “Art of the Adivasi” in 1988; and in 1989 when his work was exhibited at the prestigious Pompidou Centre in Paris in the exhibition “Magiciens”. “His style evolved but he remained very close to the roots. He painted to express himself, and also had a sense of responsibility towards his extended family,” says Crites. “The greatest aspect of Jangarh’s art is that he combines two things that are often not combined — terror and beauty. You can sense the artist’s fear and terror of the gods, the Gond pantheon he visualises. But he freezes the moment of terror into a moment of beauty,” says Das.

What distinguishes the book from the existing material available on Shyam are the various facets that are discussed, from a detailed analysis of each work in the Crites collection, to the various changes in his art practice; references are made to the archives of national institutions and private collections across the world, from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal. The boy, who grew up visualising patterns in natural pigments, painted the walls of Vidhan Sabha in Bhopal. He perfected working with a brush on paper, and using the pen for several black-and-white works where thin strokes covered the frame. The themes ranged from myths and mythology to flora and fauna, or even the airplane that Shyam painted in traditional patterning.

A 1991 work titled Chhipkali.

Das delves deep into his oeuvre, from the use of negative space to deconstructing the patterns and his preference for flat colours. She tells us that it was possibly around 1989 that Jangarh developed a method of drawing a single line dotted in the mid-section, where two strokes met in the middle. “Jangarh’s notable talents in colour composition occasionally eclipsed his equally striking flair for patterning. The latter is most evident in his early ink drawings, where his lines are virtually transformed into a plethora of patterns, through the use of dashes, squiggles, scallops, curlicues, waves, hatches, crosshatches and chevrons,” she writes. If she describes a 1990 work, Shiv Shesh Nag, in the Crites collection as “Jangarh’s pointillism at its best”, another 1995 work, Tillee, Keeda, Ganesh, Pakshee, she notes, is “truly a testament to Jangarh’s exceptional compositional abilities”.

The narratives also dispel some common assumptions regarding Shyam’s techniques and compositions, such as some kind of correlation between Shyam’s technique of pointillism and Australian aboriginal art. Das firmly refutes any connection. She also concludes that he drew wave patterns much before his visit to Japan, as is evident from an early work at Bharat Bhavan, and another work from the Crites collection.

In the end, Das turns to Shyam’s own words, quoting him from a 1989 interview: “I want to draw the figures of my desires, and I want to infuse them with my desires. For me, art and life are unceasing silences. Art penetrates life like an explosion of dance. I remember the forests. That memory makes me paint what I paint.”

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