Spotlight Art

Jangarh and the Crites

The Goddess Khabeej Veena Devi, by Jangarh Singh Shyam, Poster Colour on Paper, 1990. A painting celebrating the Gond Festival of seeds.   | Photo Credit: Robyn Beeche & Abhinav Goswami

Jangarh, sitting on a bamboo mat under a large tree with his drawings and paintings spread out before him, was wearing his ‘uniform’ faded jeans and a checked flannel shirt. He smiled shyly as I told him how much my wife, Nilou, and I admired his drawings and paintings…”

This is how art collector Mitchell S. Crites recalls his first meeting with the late Pardhan Gond artist, Jangarh Singh Shyam, in the preface to the newly published Jangarh Singh Shyam: The Enchanted Forest, Paintings and Drawings from the Crites Collection (Roli Books). Crites and his wife Niloufar own one of the largest collections of Shyam’s work.

The release of the book — authored by Aurogeeta Das, academic, printmaker and writer — was accompanied by the inauguration of an exhibition of selected works from the Crites’ fabulous collection (1983-2001) in New Delhi.

Shyam, who took his life at the age of 39, has been described as an artist who ‘flew into and out of the Indian art scene like a bright yet elusive bird.’ He was born to an impoverished family in Mandla, a rural settlement in Madhya Pradesh.

Much like other indigenous artists, he had to battle prejudice and marginalisation. Shyam had a prodigious command over indigenous visual language and the iconography of Gond painting, passed down across generations via oral history, songs and folklore.

Traditional. And not

“Crucially, he departed from tradition, yet simultaneously embraced it; he found an indigenous visual art tradition in an urban context, consequently presenting us with numerous paradoxes,” writes Das. She goes on to point out, “He tackled a wide array of subjects too, revealing knowledge of, and awe for, the deities of his tribe and the fellow creatures of the world.”

(Left to Right) Nankusia Shyam, Jangarh Singh Shyam and J. Swaminathan in Bhopal, 1987.

(Left to Right) Nankusia Shyam, Jangarh Singh Shyam and J. Swaminathan in Bhopal, 1987.   | Photo Credit: Jyoti Bhatt, courtesy of Asia Art Archive

He even portrayed gods in visual forms, risking the ire of his tribe and the wrath of their gods. His work was featured in several places whether in Chakmak, a children’s journal, or at Vidhan Bhavan in Bhopal where he has painted vibrant murals.

The ‘Jangarh Kalam’ school of art, as it came to be called, is unmistakable: dots and dashes cover the entire form, colours are bright and unconventional. Deities and animals are rendered with a characteristic plasticity; birds and fruits acquire fleshy forms that appear earth bound; snakes and crocodiles seem to soar. Shyam particularly loved to portray the tiger, snake and monitor lizard as animistic deities; he would observe them keenly in their natural habitat.

Shyam would paint all night long. He even encouraged studio-style production. This consisted of conceptualising and outlining works and then having his apprentices fill in the colours and other details. This presented collectors with a problem sometimes: it meant that the works were created collaboratively and it was quite impossible to distinguish works created at the atelier from those of his own.

Sold for a buffalo

The Crites’ collection is unique. It was bought directly from the artist who would visit the couple with a big sheaf of his art. Mitchell Crites recalls an incident when Jangarh appeared at the door with many new works. “He insisted I buy more, so I asked why. He replied in a soft voice, ‘My buffalo has died’ …I didn’t know what a buffalo cost, so Jangarh slowly counted the drawings one by one and when he reached the total he needed, he stopped and solemnly handed them to me saying, ‘Mitch Sahib, THIS is a buffalo’.”

A section of a mural at Vidhan Bhavan, Bhopal, by Jangarh Singh Shyam

A section of a mural at Vidhan Bhavan, Bhopal, by Jangarh Singh Shyam   | Photo Credit: Charles Correa, courtesy of Charles Correa Archives

This intimate connection between artist and collector comes through in the images at the Bikaner House exhibition. The book and the exhibition bring to life the nuances of Shyam’s life, the community he belonged to, the trials and triumphs that came his way.

Shyam established himself at a time when it was uncommon for indigenous artists to be recognised nationally, let alone worldwide. Mentored by well-known artist J. Swaminathan, what made Shyam stand out was his ability to master several mediums — from traditional to modern — and to work in small scale as well as giant formats. His spectacular murals still stun audiences who haven’t seen Gond art on such a scale.

After a brief but brilliant career spanning 20 years, Shyam committed suicide in 2001 in Japan at the remote Mithila Museum at Niigata Prefecture, while on an artist residency, a great loss that is only partially mitigated by books and exhibitions such as these.

The writer is a critic-curator by day, and a creative writer and visual artist by night. When in the mood, she likes to serenade life with a guitar and a plate of Khao Suey.

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 9:18:16 AM |

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