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The empire BITES back

Black-clad Londoners, disappearing into pubs every evening, remind Gond arist Bhajju Shyam of bats back in his village

Bhajju Shyam: `A plane taking off is as much a miracle as an elephant flying.' — Photo: V Sreenivasa Murthy

ORDINARY phrases cannot quite sum up the charm of Bhajju Shyam. It seems unfair to describe his adventures in London as those of an innocent in wonderland. Or to paraphrase his take on the British capital across the urban-rural global divide. Or to negotiate his unusual vision of western mores as the quirky insights of a Gond tribal artist from Madhya Pradesh.

Bhajju's first publication, The London Jungle Book, co-published by Chennai-based Tara Publishing and the Museum of London, was released recently at Barista's on St. Mark's Road, courtesy the British Council.

His very individualistic travelogue brilliantly recreates Bhajju's first trip abroad in 2002 to paint traditional Gond panels at London's Masala Zone restaurant over two months with fellow adivasi painter Ram Singh Urvethi, at the instance of cultural czar Rajeev Sethi. While Bhajju's interpretative visuals are stunning, his narrative — fine-tuned by Tara's Sirish Rao and Gita Wolf — is deeply autobiographical.

On 33-year-old Bhajju's pages, London becomes a brilliant bestiary. He interprets Big Ben as a rooster, the Gond symbol for time. His complex emotions at leaving his village of Patangarh are rendered as a sad-happy face, whose banyan-like strands of hair connect with culture-specific images such as a mango for food, a porcupine to ward off the evil eye, or a cart loaded with life's essentials. The black-clad Londoners, who disappear into pubs each evening, are interpreted as bats.

Even a random sampling captures this wide-eyed traveller's zest for the experience. Under a picture of an ornate blue-grey elephant in flight, Bhajju writes: "The heaviest animal I have ever seen is an elephant. So that is the creature that came to my mind when I painted the plane. A plane taking off is as much of a miracle as an elephant flying. I have put the trees upside-down in the sky, and the clouds below, because flying turned my world upside down."

Speaking in Hindi, Bhajju later explains during an interview at Hotel Grand Ashok: "I've only painted in my village on festive or ritual occasions. When I didn't earn enough, I even worked as a security guard. At Patangarh, we work mainly with four natural pigments. But now, I use so many acrylic colours."

It was during a Tara-sparked 2003 illustrators' workshop at Dakshinachitra, outside Chennai, that the publishers first shared Bhajju's London experience. Over three months, the book finally took shape, a giant leap from his inherited visual vocabulary.

Pointing to a tongue-in-cheek self-portrait in orange legwear and fluorescent headgear, a black (very British) brolly in hand, Bhajju says: "Here, I see myself as a Londoner on my first trip. But when I went back in November 2004 for the book release at the Museum of London, there was less wonder in that journey."

"I got tired of telling my London stories to the proud Patangarh villagers," smiles Bhajju. "Instead of the traditional Gond bard or bhujrukh, suddenly everyone — even the elders — wanted to listen to me. I'm a villager who has travelled, but I know Patangarh is where I'll always belong. My parampara, my inheritance, is important to me."

How does Bhajju feel about his book's Italian and Dutch translations? Or the ongoing nine-month travelling U.K. exhibition of his art? "How could I dream that my book would be so well-received? You know, there was an English lady in a wheelchair who would visit the exhibition every day?" exclaims Bhajju.

In Chennai, Tara is already engaged with his second visual book — of fantastical creatures created in his inimitable vein. And from March 8, an exhibition of Bhajju's drawings about the reach of radio, done for the BBC, will tour Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand.

Bhajju's book raises core issues within the visual debate. Is the contemporary-folk schism widening? Are we re-tribalising these artists by limiting their reach? How do we gauge authenticity and ethnicity? Iconic crafts interpreter Jyotindra Jain brought these into focus at the launch.

In the last century, English anthropologist Verrier Elwin married a Gond and settled among them. Today, as Bhajju observed to his Tara editors: "Elwin sahib wrote about my tribe; now it is my turn to write about his!" A case of tilting scales? Or one in which the former empire bites back?


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