Sukhnandi Vyam tells the fables of his Pradhan Gond community through wooden sculptures.

Rarely do any private galleries in the Capital play host to our exquisite indigenous art and craft, for that's considered to be the domain of state-owned museums and galleries. And in this context the ongoing show of sculptures “Dog Father, Fox Mother, Their Mother and Other Stories” at a contemporary space like W+K Exp (Wieden+Kennedy Experience), the art gallery owned by W+K Delhi, a creative agency, can justifiably be called an aberration.

Striking forms

Actually, anybody who has a penchant for strong narrative would find it hard to resist the striking wooden sculptures, fashioned out of sagon (teak) wood with the help of a few basic tools by the 27-year-old Sukhnandi Vyam. Soaked in the Bana musical tradition of Pradhan Gond tribe of eastern Madhya Pradesh, the figurines are backed by a plethora of tales passed on orally from one generation of Pradhan Gond tribe to another. Is he a raconteur or a sculptor, the viewer wonders looking at his pieces.

While “Dog Father, Fox Mother, Their Mother” is based on the famous Gond lore of a fox and a dog who give birth to a girl, the ‘Mangrohi Mandap' is a traditional wedding totem pole on which are carved many deities revered by the tribals. “A person is designated to go to the forest and collect Sal wood to make it. Believing that our deities reside in the pole, we place it at the wedding venue, decorate it with turmeric etc, offer it coconut. Through the ritual, we seek blessings for the newly wed,” says Sukhnandi.

Sculpture of Mallu Deo with an infant at his feet holding a coconut in his hand, point at another belief of the tribals, that the deity cures children of different stomach ailments. The caricature-like facial expressions, Sukhnandi says have made their way from his observations at various functions especially during Navratras, in the village “when somebody would get possessed by Mallu Deo. He would look like a monkey.”

The comfortable relationship between the tribals and the animals becomes apparent from the imagery of owls, mongoose, snake that appear in many of his works. Sukhnandi can even narrate a story establishing how the bonds were strengthened between the man and the animal world and how eventually they fell apart. “Even today, Gond tribes invite people from the Pradhan community to purify their houses by coming and singing such fables on bana, a three stringed fiddle. My grandparents used to go and now sometimes I go. People sang these stories and simultaneously painted on the wall. The figures and motifs from these stories are supposed to bring good vibes and peace,” explains the artist.

‘Artist 1' and ‘Thinking Man' are Sukhnandi's renditions independent of any tale, even though, the visual grammar remains rooted in the same milieu. It was ‘Artist 1' which actually led him to this first ever exhibition in Delhi. Some 10 years ago, an American artist on a visit to Bhopal commissioned Sukhnandi and his uncle Subhash Vyam — under whom Sukhnandi learnt the skills of the trade — to sculpt a naked artist. He gave them a token amount, his business card and asked them to ship the work. He completed the work but couldn't ship it as he had lost the card. The five-feet-tall figure of an artist carrying paintbrushes in his four hands, his phallus becoming the third leg, is exhibited in the show. S. Anand of Navayana Publishing saw it and promised Sukhnandi to organise his art exhibition.

While a majority of the Pradhan Gond artists are engaged in painting on paper and canvas, there remain a handful of art practitioners like Sukhnandi who are sculpting the magical fables in wood. It pays far more to paint but Sukhnandi isn't the one to give up so easily. Having artists like Subhash Vyam, Durga Bai and late Jangarh Singh Shyam — whose magnificent Gond paintings made the world wake up to it, but who later died in Japan under mysterious circumstances — as his family members, Sukhnandi is expected to take the road less travelled.

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