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‘Invisible Webs’ by Amit Dutta explores the implications of artist Jangarh Singh Shyam’s death

A work by Jangarh Singh Shyam  

In July 2001, newspapers reported the suicide of resident Indian artist Jangarh Singh Shyam at Mithila Museum in Niigata, Japan. He was 39. Born in 1962 in the Gond village of Patangarh in Madhya Pradesh, Shyam was a pardhan — a minstrel responsible for orally transmitting the Gond way of life. But Shyam could do more than sing songs. He could paint. He adorned the houses of his village during weddings and wakes with his paintings.

‘Discovered’ at the age of 19 by artist J. Swaminathan, Shyam moved to Bhopal to work at the Bharat Bhavan arts complex, where he first encountered synthetic colours. Commissions, exhibitions, residencies and awards followed and, soon enough, Shyam and his art were travelling worldwide. His success had even paved the way for his relatives to take up painting and move to the city.

Unanswered questions

In 2001, he was invited to a three-month residency at Mithila Museum. Reportedly under pressure to keep producing paintings, Shyam wrote letters to his wife back home expressing his frustration and asking her to arrange for his return. Depressed and under duress, he hanged himself shortly. Detailing the circumstances of his demise, a report in The Hindu said his passport had allegedly been withheld by the director of Mithila Museum and his stay extended beyond the original agreement. The report concluded: “In his tragic death lie several unanswered questions about the feasibility of transporting art that is essentially bound to a certain way of life and sensibility into a culture which exploits it for commercial gratification.”

Shyam at work in Bharat Bhawan

Shyam at work in Bharat Bhawan   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

The museum refused to pay for the repatriation of his remains. It attributed Shyam’s decision to personal trauma. The museum’s response was not just typical of institutions trying to absolve themselves of moral responsibility, but also symptomatic of a broader cultural tendency to reduce complex social and historical phenomena into matters of personal temperament. This kind of romantic-individualist discourse usually works off the trope of ‘tortured genius’.

A wonderful, moving new book, Invisible Webs: An Art-Historical Inquiry into the Life and Death of Jangarh Singh Shyam, written by film-maker Amit Dutta, turns this perspective inside out, choosing instead to look at the Gond painter’s suicide as an unmistakeable fallout of far-reaching historical processes.

At the centre

Dutta was a student of Film and Television Institute in Pune at the time of Shyam’s death. “The news,” he writes, “gripped me

with intense paranoia.” In the years that followed, Dutta researched into Shyam’s life and art. He went out to Patangarh to talk to the artist’s kin, and made a short film called Jangarh Film One (2008).

But Dutta’s compulsion to understand Shyam’s final gesture wouldn’t find complete expression until he got a fellowship in the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla, in 2015. Invisible Webs is the result of this two-year stint and it’s as much a personal tribute as an academic intervention.

A work by Jangarh Singh Shyam

A work by Jangarh Singh Shyam  

Dutta constructs the book around a fundamental image: a dense, centrifugal web of names, events, movements and ideas with Shyam at its centre. Dutta found in the course of his research that Shyam’s meteoric rise to fame and eventual suicide were structured by factors much beyond his individual biography, some of them pre-dating him by decades. Consequently, Dutta writes, “the poignancy of his absence could be seen through the presences of all the factors that surrounded him and his drastic decision.”

Shared milieu

The motivation is laid out in the first two powerful chapters. In Shyam’s professional trajectory — his art anchored in pardhan folklore, its displacement from its roots and its eventual acclaim in the West — Dutta finds a parallel to his own development as a film-maker whose early work, though deeply entrenched in local mythology and childhood experience, alienated the home audience even as it was hailed by Western film culture as “avant garde”.

This similarity allows Dutta to define his position vis-à-vis the Gond painter. He writes: “I had to acknowledge that Jangarh ‘was’ my quest, not merely its object. In the first place I realised the need to consciously cleanse my intentions: I am not a scholar or academician; what then is my role in following the life and death of an artist who had shared part of my milieu?”

Larger examinations

In other words, Dutta couldn’t simply treat Shyam, his work and his death as a given object of study, no more or no less worthy as any other. He feels personally implicated in Shyam’s work and death as a fellow artist whose practice is embedded in similar networks of institutionalised culture. This investment of the author’s own subjectivity — without his ego overwhelming its subject — is what gives Invisible Webs its moral force. He states:

“I realised why I could not be objective about Jangarh; I had to commit a part of myself to reach him and my true quest through Jangarh was to go beyond him to the root of his tragedy, the point where it all began. I needed Jangarh to locate myself in this milieu which we both shared in many areas, and also areas where it was impossible for us to overlap. I could arrive at him only through the channels of history till it reached the point where ‘I’ became involved in relation to Jangarh.”

Dutta develops his thesis in 16 wide-ranging chapters hinged on Shyam’s — and his own — historically-specific status as an artist working within a particular context. He opens personal histories to larger examinations, reflecting on, among other things, the history of art institutions in India, the notion of outsider art modulating the urban-rural cultural divide in the country and the philosophical foundations of our current higher education system.

This trans-geographical, trans-historical investigation culminates into a close formal analysis of Shyam’s art in the final chapter exploring the artist’s use of line and synthetic colours. This final section is a potent counterpoint to ideas of primitive art that rely on sociological explanations of art objects and questionable conceptions of aesthetic naiveté. In establishing Shyam’s painting as sophisticated and formally self-conscious, Invisible Webs calls into question the categories of tribal and folk arts that vastly different aesthetic tendencies are boxed into.

Invisible Webs invites us to consider Shyam’s suicide not as an end, but as the beginning of a long, hard journey of collective introspection about our priorities as a developing nation. It gives meaning to Shyam’s death.

The writer is a film critic based in Bengaluru.

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2021 10:16:45 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/invisible-webs-by-amit-dutta-explores-the-implications-of-artist-jangarh-singh-shyams-death/article24993804.ece

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