When Annapurna Garimella began her talk, she started off, in a sense, by saying that she was not comfortable with the notion that “tribal art” for the most part, is considered comforting.
“This art had its own politics, histories, sorrows, joy… all the clichéd things in the warp and weft of life and it is time to address that,” said the Bangalore-based art historian and designer in a lecture titled ‘Aboriginalisthan’ on the history of Gond Art (a form of “tribal art”) through work and life of Jangarh Singh Shyam.
It was organised by the Tasveer Foundation in the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA).
“I don’t know if we should junk or keep the word tribal art because artists use it. The word ‘tribal art’ has consequences for artists, not just tribal artists, but for the art world, and about the way we imagine democracy and citizenship in the country.”
Global indigenous art
She began the lecture by showing one of Jangarh Singh Shyam’s paintings depicting a bovine creature lying on its back in a field with birds pecking at it. Jangarh is “considered an ancestral figure who gave modern history to Gond art. Is it alive, conscious, inebriated or dead? Are the birds pecking at the insides of the living body or scavenging a carcass? What will happen when the farmer discovers the scene on his field?” she asked, quoting from a piece of research. But the painting also raised other questions, on the use of the Rotring pen, acrylic, movement between abstraction and figuration and visualisation of mythology and current events in relation to the theme of global indigenous art, she read. She further elaborated her stand by quoting examples of other indigenous artists, like Jivya Soma Mashe (worli), Reena Umbersada (worli), who were able to translate their language into a “contemporary context” both in terms of medium and subject by painting current happenings in their lives. They were trained to reinterpret their skills on paper. It was art in every way, except that the language was indigenous. So why would they be placed under the category of tribal art as separate from global contemporary art, Annapurna seemed to question.
And Jangarh Singh Shyam was a sort of bridge, a trailblazer for this sort of a reinterpretation in his community. This, she illustrated, by narrating his tale.
Beginning with his roots, she traced his familial connections with tribal activist and anthropologist Verrier Elwin, and Jangarh’s discovery by artist J. Swaminathan and his landmark entry into Bharat Bhavan, and what he felt when he first dipped a brush into paint before a canvas.
“Shyam began to see the potential of the new instrument — the brush,” said Annapurna. So by 1981 he was experimenting with monochromes, then borrowed the dot tattooing technique from the Australian aboriginal artists and then made vibrant, colourful work full of narrative, explored minimalism. “He also took elements from graphic and textile art, including cross-hatching, comb lines, chain patterns, and layering of multiple patterns to fill in figures. The Rotring pen and print making also helped. He began to represent non-sacred subjects like the aeroplane. In the process, he was able to acknowledge and celebrate the sublime power of technology and modern urbanity,” she said, adding that by then his art reached the Centre Pompidou, the Magiciens De La Terre.
“It is hard to hold on to idea that tribal art has to represent authentic indigenity to be good art. It is good art for some other reason.” Jangarh then went to Japan where he did not have a support system, kept taking on more work. He kept getting more work and finally feeling a crisis and under trauma, he committed suicide. “By then he had introduced the concepts of authorship and intellectual property. With Jangarh’s move to Bhopal, his community moved to Bhopal. They are identified with Bhopal; they are artists in a city who need paper and paint.”
These artists now work as individuals, many work on contemporary themes, like the 24/11 attack or on minimalism or even sci-fi fantasy and these are all showcased and sold as Gond paintings. “How do we call this problem of tribal art, this is the range of material? Institutions want to hold on to idea that crafts are in the village, and that the art they make is a craft…like urban art and folk art don’t mingle, like two different countries. But it’s interesting that one of Jangarh’s works was sold in 2010 at Sotheby’s for 35,000 dollars.”