Indian artist commits suicide in Japan

NEW DELHI, JULY 6. In a shocking incident, India's leading tribal artist, Mr. Jangarh Singh Shyam, is reported to have committed suicide in Japan. Shyam, who was at the Mithila Museum in Niigata to produce a body of work, had been feeling depressed upon being denied permission to return home. Last Sunday, he apparently committed suicide by hanging himself from the ceiling of his room. He was 39.

His sponsor, Mr. Tokio Hasegawa of Mithila Museum, is refusing to pay for the return of the body to India. Even as the Indian Embassy in Tokyo is being drawn into this imbroglio, a meeting condoling Shyam's death is being organised in New Delhi on Saturday by Dr. Jyotindra Jain, director of Crafts Museum. A large number of artists are expected to attend.

Shyam's death exposes an unsavoury aspect of exploitation of Indian folk and tribal artists by foreign agencies such as the privately-owned Niigata museum. Dr. Jyotindra Jain, who has strongly condemned the incident, said Shyam had written letters to his wife expressing his unhappiness in Japan. However, Mr. Hasegawa had allegedly withheld his passport and extended his visa to July 27, beyond the stipulated three-month period. In Japan, Shyam was being paid a salary of Rs. 12,000 per month in return for all the work he produced. However, each of his paintings fetched more than double the amount in India itself, and had much higher value in Japan, where Indian folk and tribal art attracts a lucrative market.

Shyam was the first Indian tribal artist to work in Niigata. However, Madhubani artists of Mithila such as Ganga Devi and Shanti Devi as well as Warli artists from Mumbai have worked there, often under duress. The Mithila Museum outside Tokyo is located in a converted disused school building and the folk artists complain of working for much longer periods than agreed to, in poor and difficult conditions beset by differences of language and virtually no integration with the local population.

In Shyam's death, India has lost her finest tribal artist. As a boy who lived in the jungles of Mandla in Madhya Pradesh, he was discovered by the legendary J. Swaminathan, who brought him to Roopankar Museum in Bhopal and introduced him to the modernist mainstream. Shyam not only made the difficult transition from tribal to urban life-style but gained almost instant recognition. His paintings today decorate Roopankar Museum as well as the Vidhan Bhavan in Bhopal.

Nearly a decade ago, he showed his works at the prestigious Magicians of the Earth exhibition at Pompidou Centre in Paris alongside leading Western artists such as Francesco Clemente. He was also one of the five included in the ``Other Masters: Five Contemporary Folk and Tribal Artists'' exhibition curated by Dr. Jain in 1998. For over 15 years, he had been working at the graphic workshop at Roopankar along with tribal and modern urban artists.

In his tragic death lie several unanswered questions about the feasibility of transporting art that is essentially bound to a certain way of life and sensibility into a culture which exploits it for commercial gratification.