It has been a prolonged and lonely journey for Jo Bertini. This never-say-die Australian has been out in the desert for two decades. As a conscientious expedition artist, she wanders to remote inaccessible lands and tries to find a connect between big cities and nomadic existence of the indigenous inhabitants. She has been working tirelessly with pastoral community of Australia and making art pieces that speak for themselves. Jo recently lived with Maldhari community in the Rann of Kutch for six weeks before she created her art works which are on display at the ongoing exhibition at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.
This award-winning artist, whose desert landscapes, places of wilderness depict extraordinary lives of pastoral communities, befriended shy, reticent Maldharis, made them sit with her and did their portraits. In the process, she demonstrated their closeness with their animals. She looked at the project with great deal of passion and commitment. And showcased that cameleering tradition, a threatened heritage worldwide, is still alive and kicking in India. “All over the world remote people have similar issues. The world doesn’t understand that they need environment for their culture and art to survive. If we lose nomadic people, rare breed of animals then everything becomes Hollywood. People come to India because it is so rich in art. Elsewhere everything is made in factories, they are not authentic. In Kutch, these people make handmade, valuable art works,” she shares as our conversation gets rolling.
The art works on display are spectacular and bring alive the Maldhari community’s rich distinct art form. They have created textiles that frame the art works. Jo’s paintings are on the centre. Textile has been embellished with local art, embroidery and appliqué - using colours and textures of the pastoral community. Each piece is a mix of Australian perspective with Indian traditions.
Excerpts from an interview:
What fascinated you to work with pastoral community in India?
I grew up in pastoral community of Australia and always worked in the countryside. We walk on camels on central deserts with scientists to explore the plant and ecology. I work in remote regions with Aborigines; they are my family. I love the desert people and their camels. So when Sushma Iyengar, curator, invited me to stay with desert people of Rann of Kutch for six weeks I knew that a lot of learning had to be done about the community. So I did lot of reading of Robyn Davidson’s book ‘Desert Places’.
What are the difficulties faced by Maldharis in their day-to-day lives?
The first important issue for them is to feed their animals. The Maldharis don’t damage forest as they know that they need to regenerate the grasslands. But their entry into traditional lands, which have been theirs for thousands of years, is getting more and more difficult. Restriction means it is increasingly getting harder for them to get food for their animals. Second factor is disease; animals are sick of lack of food. There is lot of encroachment on their land. Earlier they grazed their animals on farm land. Now farmers use machines. They don’t need herders as it takes too much time. They use fertilizers and not animal dung. The world is becoming modernised but they are leading their traditional lives.
Enlighten us about the collaborative venture
When I made paintings I wanted to show how simple their lives are. My work in water colours are simple little narratives which have come while sitting with them. My oil paintings are different as they represent ideas. In one of my works, I have shown a Jat woman clutching a baby goat, which had got stuck in the mud. And she is now relaxed in the company of the woman who is like her mother. They share a beautiful relationship. The great cultural gift has to be showcased to the world. I wanted to show my respect to these honest, simple people whose tradition arts go back thousands of years. Artistic language feeds into world art. Big artists like Matisse and Picasso got inspiration from tribal people. I wanted to show my respect for their art. Each tribe has its own incredible wedding show. Each herding community has a different motif. They embroider it with appliqué. I wanted to paint their landscape, portraits. So I made drawings and water colours and took them to my studio to Australia. I made big oil paintings and attached them to textiles. We are both desert people, who work with desert animals. We live with very similar environmental problems and both communities are keeping animals despite rampant industrialisation. They know how to work with animals, when there is no vet. Milking them, how to make cheese.
Any interesting observation that stayed with you?
I was impressed with the fact that the Kharai camels can swim in Indus river and up the Arabian Sea. Kharai camel is the only swimming camel.
Our camels don’t like water, their feet gets stuck. Here I saw that the camels have adapted themselves. It was a huge revelation and so special. Herders speak to camels; they walk along the side. They communicate so that they stay close by.
What kind of similarities exist between Maldhari and Aborigines?
Australia has long empty roads, while India has so many people and industries. Over a million camels live in Australia. No interference. They don’t milk the camels unlike the Maldhari. Sometimes they shoot to kill. On the other hand, Maldhari don’t kill camel for food; they are vegetarians. They use camel for milking and wool for making blankets, rugs.
Shed light on their women
Maldhari women are equal partners; they get all the respect from men. The community has particular beliefs yet when it comes to women they collect firewood, cook rotis and vegetables on animal dung, look after children and herd their animals. They even shave off hair from goat, buffaloes with big scissors; then spin the wool and dye them and make wedding shawls.
In festivals they cut them into patterns. Animals are like family, if they get hurt, they cry.
How do you intend to mitigate their sufferings?
As a person based in Australia, I can show my work to the people. When people come to art exhibition they would come to know about tribal vintage. Then they would tell me to narrate stories. During my stay, I moved around from one camp to another and found how the Rabari, Jats, Raika live and do their art forms. All have distinct weaving and textiles art forms.
They wear simple clothes with colourful head caps. Maldhari simple sticks with animals. They use natural dyes, colours like turmeric and indigo are so rich.
I am not a social worker. As an artist I would like to show beauty of their textiles, motifs. People need to understand their sophisticated art. They have much more art history than Australia. I would like this body of work to go to museums, institutions in Australia.