According to Gond legend, Mahadeo and Gaura created the world, birthing 12 Gond brothers unfamiliar with etiquette, leaving it to Lingo, the heroic forefather of the tribe, to teach them the ways of life. Brought up listening to the folk tale, Venkat Raman Singh Shyam is not sure if he truly believed in it. But in his book, Finding My Way (Juggernaut, Rs 1,499), he builds a narrative around it — the way of life becomes the way of art, where artist Jagdish Swaminathan is Mahadeo, the creator of their world, father of the primitive Gonds, and Jangarh Singh Shyam is the Lingo, who pulls the Pardhan Gond from the interiors of Madhya Pradesh to prestigious art biennales and exhibitions on the global map.
It was under Jangarh’s mentorship that Shyam, a Class X dropout, made the first leap from Sijhora to Bhopal in 1988. Since then, he has travelled across the world — from Barcelona and Paris to Virginia. But that 400-odd km journey was, perhaps, his biggest step. “It was a first in more ways than one. I was seeing a big city. Things that others found commonplace were fascinating for me: the roads, aircraft, palaces and the lakes,” says the artist, 46. In the early 1990s, he fled to Delhi to pursue art, doing odd jobs as a domestic servant, whitewasher and rickshaw puller for survival. He returned home when his health failed.
At Khoj Studios in Delhi, he has converted a corner of one of the rooms into a traditional Gond home, the wall painted in conventional Gond patterns of flora and fauna. There is also a self-portrait juxtaposed with Dutch artist Rembrandt, where Shyam paints the master in Jangarh kalam — the style of art conceptualised by Jangarh — using thin brushstrokes to form the portrait, crowned with a feathered headgear. “Rembrandt became so famous, he spaw-ned imitators and copyists. His story is much like Jangarh’s, where one became many,” writes author S Anand, who has written the text of the book.
The pages are left unnumbered, like art on the walls. Through his story, Shyam attempts at documenting the evolution of Gond art, from celebratory paintings on mud walls to acrylics that are coming under the hammer.
If Jangarh had not committed suicide in Japan in 2001, Gond art would perhaps have taken a different route. He was their captain. With him gone, the vacuum had to be filled. “We became competitive, started hoarding the contacts we had,” says Shyam, “It also made me re-examine what I was doing. I was 30 years old. I had two children. I decided to plunge into the same tornado that had swept Jangarh away. Besides, with the new flex boards and vinyl painting, artists who had painted posters and hoardings by hand were becoming dispensable.”
By then, he had developed his own style, perfecting patterns that looked like cracked earth and achieving complete control over the fine lines and dots that lend his work texture. He had once ground masalas and filled paint for Jangarh. Now, he attempts to fly, as he depicts in the book, winged and seated on a three-headed mythical creature.
Shyam had once applied for a government job, but got interested in graphics and personality development. Soon, he was getting noticed as his work began to respond to the world around him. After the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack, he painted smoke billowing out of the burning Taj.
More than a decade after Jangarh’s demise, like his other disciples, Shyam too has developed a unique language. The signature, that the master hardly used, has become important. Acrylics have replaced natural dyes. Shyam makes the outline first with a special black, a mixture of green, blue and black on a steel plate. Then the colours are filled. He prefers brushes made with animal hair and fur. But they are now difficult to find, he rues. In his plastic box are some made of sable fur, which he sparingly uses. Having exhibited at the recently concluded Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Queensland, Australia, in 2013, he was part of “Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art” at the National Gallery of Canada. “Unfortunately, the West is more encouraging and aware. In India, people ask me, ‘Oh, is this Madhubani?’ I don’t know what to say,” says Shyam, as he prepares for another show at the Camellia Gallery in Singapore.
His hair is long, and he wears a gold ring in one ear. He is conscious about how he presents himself. The latest iPhone is meant to improve his English. “When I type, auto predict helps me learn to spell,” he says. Back home in Bhopal, his son Naveen, 19, and daughter Mrinalini,16, often help their mother Saroj paint the walls of their home. “Art is in their blood. But for now, they should concentrate on getting good grades,” he says. It has taken him decades to gain acclaim — from pulling a rickshaw in Delhi, it is only now that he can paint the vehicle to tell his story. The wheels are finally turning in his favour.