Painted songs

‘My ancestors played the bana, sipped mahua, smoked marijuana and sang songs. Art was their labour; it was never sold’

May 30, 2016 04:40 pm | Updated 04:40 pm IST

One of Venkat's works.

One of Venkat's works.

Celebrated Gond artist Venkat Raman Singh Shyam talks about his literary jugalbandi with writer and publisher S. Anand in an autobiographical work called Finding My Way . The book is as much about the Pardhan Gonds as it is about his life, and in this interview Venkat talks about his ancestral art and about finding kindred spirits in Dali and Gaudi.

How will you describe your art, and has traditional art been influenced by other forms of art?

I trace my ancestry to the worker-artists of Bhimbetka, the oldest gallery in this part of the world. All of us do. Each of us has indigeneity in us. The indigene is truly universal. Anand often asked me why I showed myself or Jangarh in the book with a tail — he seemed worried. You too once had a tail, I reminded him. Soon, he asked me to add a tail to one of the few depictions I had of him in the book. I do not much believe in ‘traditional’, though the past is always with us. It is mostly humbug, and leads quickly to claims of authenticity, which can become a serious trap. Yes, I am Gond, but I am not just that.

While you use black and white predominantly in your work, why are colours used for some figures?

Black was the colour I began with. As a child I painted on walls with charcoal. This was considered inauspicious but I persisted. If you mix all the colours what you get is a rich, deep black. Black subsumes all colours.

Take the palash tree. Its bark is grey-black; its leaves are olive green; its sap is Indian red; the buds spring from a black whorl, and its flowers are sun-orange.

Did you draw first and then the text came, or the other way around?

The writing and drawing processes were almost inseparable. We jammed and improvised. Come to think of it, this seems a false distinction. You know the word Madhubani artists use for drawing is likhna — to write. The first words human beings made up were images. Each letter in the alphabet of every language is an image. Seen this way, language in itself is art, a fiction. Kabir says this too. Even as the word and image appear to physically occupy their distinctive places around each other, this book seeks to collapse such distinctions. Often, the text itself functions as an image, best seen in the Ekalavya page, and there are times the images tell you what no words can capture.

The drawings in the book weave the magical and the factual together.

I’d see it more as a mixture of the magical and material worlds. All of us carry a little magic in us. Only some of us are foolish enough to believe in this magic and doggedly hone it and even show it to the world. I manage to keep alive the magic within me. The day this magic dies, Venkat will die as an artist.

Your art works are minimalistic yet very effective in expression.

Thank you. I believe in leaving a lot unsaid. Both Anand and I are capable of excesses and silences. In this book, we have kept a close eye on each other.

From pulling rickshaws to flying planes, from making hoardings to fine paintings – how will you describe your life?

Like a pinwheel. It blows the way the breeze does. And a pinwheel can change hands, and move in all directions. It even shapes the breeze.

How did you find your muse and this book?

After my uncle and chief among gurus, the legendary Jangarh Singh Shyam, committed suicide in 2001 in Niigata, Japan, I began thinking about art seriously. Having been a signboard and hoarding artist, I keenly observed not just Gond art and the world I come from, but I also saw what the other masters in India and the world over had done and were doing. That M.F. Husain too started as a poster painter inspired me.

A trip to Barcelona, along with four other indigenous artists, to attend the 2004 ‘Forum’, a cornucopia of art and culture, was a turning point. Rajeev Sethi facilitated it. I encountered Dali and Gaudi and found them to be my kindred. Then I read the autobiographies of Raza and Husain. I thought I too must tell my story. I broached it with my friend and arts enthusiast John Bowles, an American who has championed Gond and other less-visible art practices from across the world. He told me to approach S. Anand of Navayana, the man who published Bhimayana , the graphic biography of Ambedkar using Gond art. After a few false starts, we began work on the book in February 2012.

How would you describe it — an autobiography or memoir? And why is your contribution only in the form of drawings?

Call it whatever. The market demands these labels. Finding My Way is the story of not just me and my art, it is the story of the Pardhan Gonds, who chronicled time and memory with their songs and music. It is wrong to say I have contributed only the art and Anand has contributed only the text. I am in his words, he is in my colours. Though it is principally my story, we both worked as equal artists. That is why artist Gulammohammed Sheikh has called it a jugalbandi. We literally fed off each other after a point and thrived. We don’t spare ourselves either.

The book is divided into ‘Songs of Life’, ‘Art’, ‘Self’, ‘World’ and ‘Songs’. What does this signify?

In a book without page numbers, they perhaps act as mental bookmarks. These are not exactly divisions. As we worked on the storyboard and the first draft at the Sangam House residency near Bengaluru, Anand and I were trying to divide my story into certain broad phases: early life in the village, life after moving to Bhopal and apprenticing with Jangarh, then the move to Delhi to do all kinds of jobs, my return to the village, then settling down in Bhopal, followed by Barcelona and the many foreign trips that happened. About this time Anand was reading Whitman’s Songs, besides Pessoa and Borges, and together we were getting drunk on a lot of Kabir and our Karma songs. This sat well with the fact that the Pardhan Gonds were originally song-makers. Their art has been called painted songs. My ancestors played the bana , sipped mahua , smoked marijuana and sang songs — the community supported all this. Doing art was their labour. This art was never sold. These artists did not apply for residencies or haunt lit-fests. These artists were organically integrated with the community. We should remember that art is labour and labour is indeed art. How else can the same Venkat ply the rickshaw in Delhi, be invited to do a show at Khoj 20 years later, and be interviewed by you now?

What makes Kabir your favourite poet?

Right at the start, on a road trip to my village from Bhopal, Anand and I bonded over Kabir songs. He had many versions of Kabir on his laptop: from the Dalit and Mirasi singers of Rajasthan, and Pakistani qawwali singer Fariduddin Ayaz to Kumar Gandharva. And I carried in my heart the Kabir I had heard from itinerant fakirs and the weaver community (Panikas) in my village, Sijhora. Sometimes, when Anand asked a question, I’d answer with a doha . He’d note it down. Soon, we decided Kabir would be one of the wheels that move this book.

S. Anand helped in translating this interview.

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