Native artists from various tribal belts of India and their works showcase the richness of the country’s indigenous palette

In the world of Gond art, Jangarh Singh Shyam is a revered name. His beautiful Gond paintings in the deep forests along the Narmada river, where the Gond tribes live, were first spotted by Director of Bharat Bhavan, Jagdeesh Swaminathan. He brought Jangarh to Bhopal to be the first Gond artist to paint on canvas and his fame soon spread across the world. At a three-month stay in Japan’s Mithila Museum, Jangarh took his life for unknown causes. Today, his son Mayank Shyam carries high the torch of Gond art. At Kochi’s Brunton Boatyard, Mayank is one of 19 artists, both contemporary and folk, participating in the two-week long National Native Art Workshop conducted by the Lalit Kala Akademi, Regional Centre Delhi.

Elements come alive

Mayank’s two canvases tell a related story. In deep blue and black, the first presents a world drowned in water, where fish thrive richly and sea creatures roam free. The second unveils a landscape where the waters have been parted to reveal land and Mother Nature, shown by a sturdy tree, stands tall. Five other Gond painters are present at the workshop, and they are the largest team here, since the Gonds are the largest indigenous community in Central India. Geetanjali Urvati displays her completed piece on a cow god, while Shakuntala Kushram shows hers about the wedding-day rites performed for a bride in her family, and Kamili Kushram paints mornings in the kitchens of her village, with the sun just rising and cocks crowing their welcome.

“Gond art differs by the subsect,” explains Shakuntala. “The Pradhan Gonds, for instance, write songs that accompany their paintings.” Dhanya Shyam, a Pradhan Gond, has painted the song myth of the daughter born from the marriage of a mongoose and dog. Rajendra Kumar Shyam’s work is striking for its bold black lines that mimic the tattoo paintings of Baiga adivasis, neighbours of the Gond tribes, showing birds flying home on a monsoon evening while tribals dance beneath.

The tattoo motif recurs with the Madhubani artists from Bihar. “Madhubani comes in two kinds—Mithila that is done on walls and Godana that is done on the body,” says Shravan Paswan who follows the Mithila tradition. His mother, Urmila Devi Paswan, points to the Godna on her body that stretches from collarbone to collarbone. She bends over her canvas, crowded with thin monochromatic blue detailing that tells Radha and Krishna’s story through Godana work.

Mythology rings loud in Gurupada Chitrakaar’s Bengali patachitra paintings too. A Muslim, who paints Hindu gods, Gurupada says secularism and tolerance is the plea behind his art. From canvas to his clothes, and even umbrellas, Gurupada says the art that first narrated stories frame by frame on scrolls has contemporised itself. “We now use it to talk about terrorism, September 11, the Babri Masjid demolition and more.” On a lighter note, he sings of a wedding between fish, pointing to each scene sketched on a wide umbrella.

Wedding themes

Weddings are major preoccupations for the Warli artists Manaki Vayeda and Kamlesh from Maharashtra. “Everything that happens in our village, from the wedding dance, to women threshing grain, the bridegroom arriving on the horse, are painted in white against a brown background, just as it was done with white rice paste against mud walls,” says Kamlesh.

“The Akademi aims to raise visual literacy across India, not just about contemporary art, but by supporting and promoting the strong schools of folk art that India has. It’s important that we keep our art history of living traditions alive by treating folk artists on a par with contemporary artists,” says Sathyapal, Regional Secretary. The workshop thus features seven contemporary artists too who have drawn from the native traditions in their work.

Vincent Philip, for instance, has created a self-portrait that pays homage to tribal face-painting traditions, while his second canvas in just black,white and red depicts lightning-fast movement inspired by his other profession as a sports trainer. “Since this is a workshop alongside folk artists, I’ve used my time here as an exchange, to hear and learn from their stories and use it in my art.” Contemporary artist Meenakshi B. Sing from Gulbarga pays a hat-tip to her mother’s generation from Lambani by incorporating the native running-stitch style through the breadth of her pieces.

Bipasha Sengupta, too does something similar with her textured canvas drawn from Kerala’s Theyyam masks, while her second piece ‘Stay’ talks of environmental pollution through the changing colours of the sea.

Landscapes, one of the mountains and another of the beach and sea, both in an abstract style, are Aurangabad-based Poonam Rana’s pieces. Nature and its cycles are reversed in Radhanand Yadav’s work wherein rats rally together to kill a snake, usually their predator. For Medha Sharma, her dialogue is more internal in her two pieces that show the thought lives of young girls depicted in material things on their dresses.

The completed works from the workshop are on display at Brunton Boatyard on Sunday.