A new book exploring the oeuvre of the much-celebrated artist Jangarh Singh Shyam

Here is an exhaustive book exploring the artistic expression of the feted artist Jangarh Singh Shyam by Jyotindra Jain

January 03, 2019 06:09 pm | Updated January 05, 2019 12:20 pm IST

What made Jangarh Singh Shyam the phenomenon that he became? How did his association with Bharat Bhavan and his engagement with a new world of Bhopal feed off his art along with the visual language he had inherited from his Pardhan lineage? What went on in Jangarh’s life before he took his life at the Mithila Museum in Japan at the age of 40, during an art residency in 2001? You will find answers to all these questions in Jyotindra Jain’s latest book Jangarh Singh Shyam: A Conjurer’s Archive published by Bengaluru-based Museum of Art and Photography in association with Mapin.

The former director of National Crafts Museum, Delhi and Professor of Arts & Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), discusses the route he has taken to reveal the oeuvre of Jangarhto the readers.

Jangarh Singh Shyam’s art has often been looked at with much interest and curiosity. What other unknown facets and stories of the late artist has been discussed in this book?

What is distinct about my book is the minute unlayering of the inner currents of Jangarh’s expressive processes, for example in my analysis of his narrative paintings, in which he evolved completely individualistic devices to tell his legends, converting narrative time into pictorial space. For instance, he narrates the regional legend of Draupadi and her five Pandava husbands by creating multiple insets scattered over a forested landscape in which he brilliantly unfolds the story of Parvati mocking a cow that was made to copulate with five bulls. For sneering at the scene, the cow curses Parvati to be born as Draupadi in the next birth and be married to the five Pandavas. The same painting also has insets narrating the story of Shravana and his blind parents.

Jangarh’s use of a composite narrative device in compressing the entire epic-scale Pardhan myth of creation into a single tableau, rendered in a variedly textured line drawing, is another of his narrative works that I have identified as a genre, and analysed in detail.

This book for the first time puts a critical frame around Jangarh’s huge oeuvre of paintings inhabited by gods and demons, shamans and priests, birds, reptiles and animals, by seeing the entire gamut as an archive of his loss and memory – the place from where he spoke.

He once narrated to me a poignant incident about how a Delhi-based art gallery wanted him to shun his “Western” clothes in favour of a tribal appearance for the gallery’s publicity brochure, because only if he looked tribal would his work be endowed with the halo of authenticity. Territories are neatly divided and crossing borders can be hazardous. Jangarh got trapped in crossing. His position in the world of art rested on a precarious cusp from where he negotiated his own space.

The book, by publishing his last two hand-written letters in facsimile, addressed to his wife in Hindi and Gondi, as well as a letter from his Japanese host after his suicide, hope to bring closure to the ongoing controversy about his tragic death.

How did his art which you refer to as ‘Jangarh idiom’ in the book evolve?

Truly Jangarh was almost a singular contemporary Indian tribal artist, whose work has found so much visibility in the modern and contemporary art institutions – often despite initial resistance by the Indian moderns. Though the credit for this largely goes to J. Swaminathan, it was Jangarh’s unique response to paper and bright poster and acrylic colours, and his openness to new aesthetic mediations in combination with his memory images of the whole world of nature and legends of his native Patangarh that he left behind, which led him to create works that exploded the boundaries between tradition and contemporaneity.

What kind of research went into the book?

The book is the result of my 15-year association with Jangarh and about seven years of research on his life and work after his death. Most importantly, my own small archive on Jangarh, which I built over two decades, comprising conversations with him, rare photographs and a number of insightful anecdotes about his life and work, formed the basis of the book. With regard to the myths and legends pictorialised in his paintings, I regularly consulted several Pardhan artists and his former associates in Bhopal over the years to obtain the versions that Jangarh improvised on in his work. Mark Tully’s chapter “The Return of the Artist” in his book No Full Stops in India served as a primary source for his life in the village before coming to Bhopal, and his relationship with his mentor, the artist J. Swaminathan, at Bharat Bhavan, a modernist multi-arts complex in Bhopal where his muse was moulded.

Exhaustive archival exploration of at least 150 paintings, drawings and murals from various collections and sites led me deep into the wondrous world of this matter of image and imagination.

What was your relationship with Jangarh?

The book cover

The book cover

It began with an acquaintance in the mid-1980s, when Jangarh came to the Crafts Museum as artist-in-residence for a month, and I was drawn to his immense creative energy and individualism. Eventually, it turned into a personal friendship after two of his longer stays at the Crafts Museum, once for a fortnight in 1995-96, when he came to discuss with me the scale and layout of his gigantic murals to be installed on several walls of the Madhya Pradesh Assembly Building in Bhopal, designed by Charles Correa, a commission for which I had recommended him. Later on in 1998 he stayed again for a month at the Crafts Museum to create works for the exhibition Other Masters . On both occasions, Jangarh shared with me not only facets of his creative process but also details of his personal life as well as his anxieties about working amidst some of his hostile ‘sheheri’ artist colleagues. Sharing the story of his life and the trust that he put in me led to a bond which is reflected in his last letter written to his wife before committing suicide in Japan in 2001, in which he, in a moment of utter helplessness, asked for my help to get him back to India. The letter arrived by post after he had ended his life. This haunted me so much that I thought of writing this book as my tribute to him.

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