Art historian and museologist Jyotindra Jain gives a glimpse into a life spent in the service of India's arts

It's sheer coincidence that hours after interviewing Jyotindra Jain, Member Secretary, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), I pick up a book called “After Elwin — Encounters with Tribal Life in Central India”, which has tumbled out of my colleague's cupboard in office during her operation cleaning. The author Prosenjit Das Gupta in this wonderful travelogue wakes up to the world legendary anthropologist Verrier Elwin from England made his own, several years ago. Jain, familiar with all the work done by Elwin, describes him as the “first one who didn't deal with the tribal culture as material culture but creative expression.”

Seeking creative expression of the various indigenous tribes is something that has kept Jain too engaged all his life. Whether it was his first assignment — setting up of the Shreyas Folk Art Museum in Ahmedabad — or his latest, “Other Masters of India”, a marvellous exhibition comprising specimens of contemporary Indian tribal art at Quai Branly Musuem in Paris, Jain has actively sought out the element of contemporaneity in our tribal art. Based in Delhi, a city that seems to have neither an inclination towards tribal arts nor even an urge to know the past better, Jain says, “While Elwin looked at the creative expression of the whole community, I searched for how they are responding to their own inherited traditions and, to their social predicament.” Incidentally, during his tenure as director of the Crafts Museum in Delhi, he had curated another exhibition by the same name, “Other Masters: Five Contemporary Folk and Tribal Artists of India”.

To see the works of five tribal artists — Sonabai of Chattisgarh, Manipur's Neelamani Devi, Ganga Devi, Jangarh Singh Shyam and Jivya Soma Mashe — on one platform wasn't a regular experience for a Delhiwallah in 1998. Nor it is now in a city that prefers multiplexes over museums.

“Indira Gandhi had introduced paper in these villages. The new medium had got them excited. They had seen paper for the first time in their lives and Jivya Soma Mashe was the first one to work on it,” states Jain. The smoke stains in late Padma Shri awardee Neelamani Devi's pots, appearing to be abstract designs, caught the fancy of a visiting Japanese delegation. “Jangarh Singh Shyam was somewhat known even before the exhibition, but these artists were not recognised as individuals. In the last 10 years, there is a shift from static to narrative iconography. Policemen, trains and airplanes have entered the canvas of artists like Kalam Patua and Sundaribai,” points out Jain.

But there have been occasions when Jain had to introduce a lost traditional craft to an artist in order to revive it. While he was heading the Ministry of Textiles' Crafts Museum — cultural activist Pupul Jayakar zeroed in on Jain to set it up with the famous architect Charles Correa in 1984 — he encouraged Manbodh Rana, a toymaker from Orissa, to take to terracotta roof tiles. “It became such a rage in Delhi, and he went on to win a national award for the craft. He sold roof tiles for about Rs.10 lakh. Bastar iron craft or a hollow bamboo flute not played by the mouth but by turning it round by hand hadn't really been seen in Delhi until then, but the exhibitions and crafts demonstration programmes popularised them immensely,” recounts Jain proudly.

His other valuable contribution to the museum was to make it functional and accessible to craftsmen for research. To realise that, he didn't stack away the massive collection in storage; he instead had the 16,000 items put in the running glass cases. “Since there was no concept of air-conditioners those days, we installed a small fan on the ceiling of the case and one exhaust fan inside the wooden shelves where the artefacts were kept, and it worked,” beams the museologist.

However, it was the time spent at Jawaharlal Nehru University as the founder dean of the School of Arts and Aesthetics from 2001 to 2008 that Jain cherishes the most. “The department offered a novel course, a Master's in ‘Indian Popular Vision, Culture and Representation'. Dealing with the social and political implications of a mass-printed image, and discussing image and nationalism with young energetic students were intellectually stimulating. Those who were teaching miniature paintings didn't just teach that but also talked about hierarchies, strategies and representation,” elaborates Jain.

Now, in his current outing as the MS of IGNCA, Jain is striving to render the institution vibrant and dynamic. Giving it the much-needed facelift, hosting grand events, like the theatre festivals by the two leading mobile theatre companies of Andhra Pradesh and Assam, and the Braj Mahotsav eliciting a higher level of audience participation is how he is inching towards his goal.