Cycles of Gond life

What is defined as art and who defines it in the contemporary world? Are the distinctions between ‘art’ and ‘craft’ artifical?

Updated - October 18, 2016 01:43 pm IST

Published - June 12, 2016 01:07 am IST

Jangarh. — Photo: By Special Arrangement

Jangarh. — Photo: By Special Arrangement

Finding My Way , a collaboration between the artist, Venkat Raman Singh Shyam, and the writer, S. Anand, eludes easy definition, much like Pardhan Gond art itself. The artist asks: “You want to locate me, box me in a place: where exactly do you come from, Venkat? You don’t exactly look like an Adivasi, nor does your art appear to be authentically Pardhan Gond.”

The pages present a profusion of rich and diverse elements from the artist’s creative journey: the Mesolithic cave paintings of Bhimbetka; the flowering semal tree; a ‘selfie’ of Rembrandt in Jangarh kalam and Venkat himself in Rembrandt style; the bearded, chain-smoking artist J. Swaminathan who had famously ‘discovered’ Jangarh Singh Shyam, Venkat’s uncle who founded what is described as Pardhan Gond art in its contemporary form.

The book begins with a pattern of dots on the inside cover followed by the densely sketched black-and-white figure of a man riding a cycle rickshaw. At the end of the book, the man is riding the rickshaw in the opposite direction and off the page.

Life of a tribal artist

For the struggling ‘tribal’ artist, a central preoccupation is the question of how to earn a living. At one time Shyam did part-time work, including riding a cycle rickshaw in Delhi, to survive. The cycle appears often in his narrative: as a schoolboy he would play hooky from the ‘Bhumijan Prathamik’, which was the name of the primary school for tribal children in his village Sijhora, to go and work in a cycle shop. Eventually his father got him an Atlas bicycle when he passed Class 8.

The cycle rickshaw was his means of survival. “I pressed the earth down with my rickshaw, the earth held me back,” he says. The spinning wheel also becomes a metaphor in Venkat’s narrative as he finds his way, given expression in Anand’s poetic words: “This book is about how I found myself spinning inside a wheel, how I found myself being spun by what I thought I was spinning.”

In retelling some of the stories of Pardhan Gond legends, Venkat reconnects with another element of his heritage. The origin story is full of poetry: a young unmarried Gond is sent to Bada Deo to ask his advice on how to divide the harvest with his married brothers. On his way, he sits under a saja tree and sees a spider that, in the course of its search for food, creates an intricate work of art. “He sighs, and through the gossamer his sigh turns into music. All life is breath; music is the play of breath.”

Emerging from the tree, Bada Deo asks the young man to fashion a bana , a musical instrument, from the khirsari and surteli trees. “Now make music, sing your genealogy, narrate stories, and ask your brothers to give you a share of their food and drink.” This is how the Pardhan Gonds came to be wandering minstrels and custodians of the community’s legends.

At the heart of the book is the brilliant, tragic story of Jangarh Singh Shyam. Geometric motifs on murals and reliefs were a part of the Gonds’ artistic heritage. That is, until Jangarh Singh Shyam of Patangarh met J. Swaminathan and pioneered a new era of Pardhan Gond art. He achieved tremendous international success, but died alone, committing suicide.

Intertwined with Jangarh’s story is the story of Venkat’s childhood and his development as an artist. As a young tribal boy, Venkat wanted to draw on every surface he could find. His father, a peon in a government school, had also somehow been assigned to teach Hindi, geography, and history. Venkat resisted going to school. “Along with my friend Kunjam, I’d eat the free hostel food and skip classes — poor parents sent children to school for the free lunch. Soon I was expelled.”

Eventually Venkat joined the brilliant Jangarh in Bhopal as an apprentice, filling the paintings that were conceived and started by his uncle. When he was young, Venkat drew with charcoal, but his family believed that working in black would increase debts. Much of the art in the book is in black and white, executed with short, sharp strokes of the German-made Rotring pen which had been made an integral part of Gond art by Jangarh. Colour is used sparingly: for the bright paper blades of pinwheels in a corner of a fairground; the deep red of silk cotton flowers; the warm hues of Dali’s melting watch. Other sections, such as those about the rich Gond legends of Bada Deo, are presented as a vivid burst of colour.

What is art?

The book also explores what is defined as art and who defines it in the contemporary world; the artificial distinctions of ‘art’ and ‘craft’; the way they are placed in different sections of museums and galleries, implying that ‘tribal’ art is somehow incompatible with whatever is ‘mainstream’, or with modernity itself.

Venkat offers a thought-provoking story for perspective. A woman visitor in Mumbai’s Jehangir Art Gallery once told him that the work is so simple that even her child could do it. Venkat smiled and replied: “Yes. Anybody can do it. There’s an artist in everybody.” The story reminds me of Picasso’s words: that it took him four years to learn to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.

Finding My Way is an endlessly fascinating mix: part autobiography, part oral history, part ironic and playful in tone, part homage to ancestors and tradition, part graphic novel, part Kunstlerroman — and altogether a breathtaking artistic achievement.

Uma Mahadevan Dasgupta is in the IAS, and currently based in Bengaluru.

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