Imagine a forest: The art of Gond artist Jangarh Singh Shyam and its enduring legacy twenty years after his death

Artist Venkat Raman Singh Shyam distinctly remembers the morning of July 3, 2001, when he received the news that his uncle and mentor Jangarh Singh Shyam was no more. He was in the middle of painting a hoarding in Bhopal and found it difficult to believe that a homesick Jangarh had committed suicide during a three-month residency at the Mithila Museum in Japan’s Niigata. This was Jangarh’s third visit to the country. He seemed to have been enthralled by Japan and had even named his daughter Japani, but he had been reluctant about this trip.

“He wasn’t really keen to go. He was also displeased when the trip was extended. He was missing his family and friends,” says Venkat.

The death of Jangarh at only 38 shook the art world. It was also a personal loss for the younger artists of his tribe of Pradhan Gonds who had been following in his artistic footsteps.

Jangarh Singh Shyam’s Krishna Leela (2001), acrylic and serigraphy on canvas, will be on show at the 2022 India Art Fair, April 28-May 1. (Source: Fabuleux Arts)

Until then, most of his kin had been assisting Jangarh, as he brought global recognition to the largely oral myths and legends of the tribe by transforming them into visual narratives.

Through dotted lines, he created jagged patterns to tell the tales of their gods and goddesses and the waves and squiggles embodied movements of the animals that inhabited the deep forests. He single-handedly established a new school of painting: “Jangarh Kalam”.

In the year that marks his 60th birth anniversary and 20 years after his demise, Jangarh will be celebrated at the 13th edition of the India Art Fair that begins on April 28 in Delhi.

The event will have a special section devoted to his works from the private collection of Delhi-based art collector Ajay Kumar Gupta. Several booths will showcase works of other practitioners of Gond art, including those of his protégés. In addition, an exhibition at Delhi’s Ojas Art Gallery features works of artists Bhajju Shyam and Durgabai Vyam, contemporary artists such as Ranbir alongside Kaleka, GR Iranna and Jagannath Panda. Another parallel exhibition at the India Habitat Center will include Jangarh’s works from the collection of Niloufar and Mitchell Abdul Karim Crites, who knew him for over 15 years, from the time Mitchell first met him at the Surajkund Mela in Haryana in 1987. “One of the first Gond to use acrylic on canvas, his artists unconventional colors for the time were distinctive of his style. Ahead of his times, he had a contemporary take on what was a traditional art form,” says Jaya Asokan, director, India Art Fair.

Though Jangarh received acclaim during his lifetime, in the last decade, Gond art has flourished and taken diverse trajectories, on canvas and beyond. While urban themes are now commonplace, the repetitive lines and minuscule dots have come together to illustrate several books and also entered homes in the form of murals and everyday objects.

Venkat Raman Singh Shyam’s Mother Earth. Connected with nature and natural elements, Gond art often depicts man and nature as one. Portraying the five elements — including fire as black, air in green, water in red — the work emphasizes how earth is the giver that provides. The thin white edges of the canvas represent the immortal soul and the figure of the young boy within whom the elements are painted, depicts how Mother Earth treats everyone as its child whom it nourishes. (Source: Venkat Raman Singh Shyam)

Born in Patangarh in Madhya Pradesh in a family of Pradhans, the bards of the Gonds, at a young age Jangarh was forced into manual labor due to financial compulsions. A flautist, he liked to play Ram in village Ram leelas and painted murals with natural pigments on grainy walls that the villagers often admired. It was serendipitous that around the same time artist J Swaminathan was sending teams to the interiors of Madhya Pradesh to scout for talent, ahead of the opening of Bharat Bhavan, a multi-arts center in Bhopal in 1982. During one such excursion, artist Vivek Tembe spotted 17-year-old Jangarh’s Hanuman in peeli mitti and requested him to paint on paper, taking the sheets back to Swaminathan, who invited him to work in Bhopal. A keen learner, he soon became adept with acrylics and the techniques of printmaking. Though his narratives often centered around indigenous traditions and folklore, the urban surroundings were also embraced and imbibed and his palette ranged from paints in vivid hues to black ink line drawings.

While his innate talent garnered attention and monetary appreciation, it also led to resentment. In his book Jangarh Singh Shyam: A Conjuror’s Archive (2019, Mapin Publishing), art historian Jyotindra Jain writes, “He (Jangarh) said that when he was initially appointed as an attendant at Bharat Bhavan, he was rudely asked by some of his modern-art colleagues to serve them tea or clear away empty cups and plates, often with a sarcastic comment that ‘you have now become a big artist.’ Jangarh found these insults difficult to bear and often complained to Swaminathan, who was the director. Eventually, Jangarh was given the position of ‘artist’ at Bharat Bhavan, a special designation created for him.”

Jangarh’s works traveled the world before him. In 1988, the artist made his first trip abroad when he visited Japan for the opening of the traveling exhibition “Art of the Adivasis” at Museum of Modern Art, Saitama. Next year, he was one of the five Indian participants in the landmark exhibition, “Magiciens de la Terre” at the Center Pompidou in Paris.

Bhajju Shyam’s Mitrata (Friendship). Several Gond artworks are based on animal tales. In the above acrylic and ink on paper in bright hues, Bhajju Shyam depicts the special relationship shared between an eagle and a snake. Though eagles usually eat snakes, according to Gond folklore at the time of birthing, an eagle protects the snake and its eggs from predators. The story signs that enemies can also be friends in times of need. (Source: Ojas Art Gallery)

However, even as the dotted patterns made headway in contemporary art spaces overseas, closer home Jangarh found himself caught in the delineation between the mainstream and the marginal. Few modernists attended his first solo at Dhoomimal Gallery in Delhi in 1984 and his work customarily found space at craft museums rather than art galleries. Even today, though he is recognised as an established master and his works are in prestigious international museum collections, including London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in India does not own a single work by a Gond artist. “We have been promoting folk and tribal art through other initiatives and have reached out to artists pursuing the genre in recent years. It is important to give artists pursuing indiginuous art forms their due and we are considering acquisition of works that we hope to have in our collection soon,” says Adwaita Gadanayak, Director General of NGMA.

The cornerstone of Gond art might be the oral tales of the tribe, but over the years there have been reinventions. In his short career span, a prolific Jangarh himself produced a substantial body of work, experimenting with themes and mediums, including illustrating for a children’s publication Chakmak and illustrating maps for the Dastkari Haat Samiti. Much larger than his own work, his contribution extends to the numerous artists he trained to carry forward his idiom. At all times, his studio in Bhopal had apprentices who would assist him in filling fine patterns and fulfilling his pictorial vision. The mammoth murals he was commissioned to paint for architect Charles Correa designed Vidhan Bhavan in Bhopal in 1996, for instance, involved a team of artists he tutored. Some of them are now prominent names to reckon with – including Ram Singh Urveti, Subhash Vyam and Bhajju Shyam. “He encouraged us to develop an individual language of expression. He would say, Bhajju bano, Jangarh nahi,” says Bhajju, 51. He was working as a night watchman when Jangarh asked him to work for him as his apprentice for Rs 600 a month. As the 2018 Padma Shri awardee prepares for a solo at Kolkata’s Aakriti Art Gallery in July, he recalls his first sale by Jangarh when he sold five of his paintings for Rs 1,200 in Delhi in 1994. “Most collectors used to travel to Bhopal to buy his works but he always promoted younger talent,” says Bhajju. He capitulated to fame with his 2004 publication The London Jungle Book, where he shared memories from his first foreign trip to London in an illustrated travelogue. The enduring metaphorical narrative depicted London as an exotic jungle and Big Ben as a giant rooster.

The art form that Jangarh birthed, ironically, found a renewed life after his death. The tragic demise of the artist in suspicious circumstances away from home drew curiosity to his art. But within his community, too, Venkat, 51, notes how the artists he had handheld were now compelled to explore independent avenues and, in the process, discover their individual talent. In the book Finding My Way (2016, Juggernaut), he writes: “It was only after Jangarh’s death that I felt the calling to be an artist.”

Durgabai Vyam’s Fireflies and Cow. In this detailed canvas, we see how a firefly helps an old lady become friends with those who inhabit the jungle. Emphasizing on peaceful co-existence and the need to conserve resources, Durgabai has elements across the canvas, from hutments to people engaged in everyday tasks. The onlookers are birds, monkeys, elephants and other members of the animal kingdom. (Source: Ojas Art Gallery)

Notwithstanding their inherited legacies, each artist in the genre has developed their individual vocabulary. “Somewhere along the line, each artist evolved a signature style based on their individual manner of creating patterns using dots, strokes and lines. Bhajju Shyam’s parallel lines and running chain, and Ram Singh’s chevron or arrowhead patterns, for example, became the hallmarks of these two artists’ works,” writes Jain.

Recipient of this year’s Padma Shri award, Durgabai Vyam states reinventing is crucial for sustained interest and growth. Though she would assist her mother in making the geometric digna patternson the walls and the floor, she was introduced to acrylics by her cousin Jangarh, after her marriage to Subhash. “The oral narratives also have various versions and each artist’s individual experience reflects in their work,” says Durgabai, 49. At the 2018-19 Kochi-Muziris Biennale, she and Subhash painted ‘Dus Motin Kanya and Jal Devata’ on wooden wall panels , narrating various incidents from the life of a girl by the same name. “It was challenging but satisfying,” says the artist. She has also illustrated numerous publications.

If in the book Bhimayana (2011, Navayana), she and Subhash illustrated the life story of Dr BR Ambedkar, she also illustrated the feminist utopia Sultana’s Dream (2018, Tara Books), by Begum Rokeya. “Books requires much more detailing due to the scale when compared to a canvas, but the reach is much wider,” she adds.

While no Gond artist has managed to surpass Jangarh’s 2010 record of garnering Rs 14.5 lakh at a Sotheby’s auction, the category has seen a steady price rise in recent years. “The demand has been increasing, as have the prices. The collectors are primarily expats and when compared to their contemporary counterparts, the prices fetched by Gond artists are relatively much lower. We are seeing increased interest among Indian institutions,” says Anubhav Nath, director of Ojas Art Gallery. He has been showing indigenous art alongside contemporary at his Delhi gallery for over a decade.

With popularity also come the downsides of the art market. Bhajju points out that several youngsters have started copying senior artists and are selling reproductions at cheaper prices. “Going forward, if people don’t learn and practice, art will suffer,” says Bhajju. He has been teaching form and taking lessons in the art. In Bhopal, much like Jangarh, Durgabai and Shyam’s house, too, is teeming with youngsters and the duo has also been taking online classes during Covid. “We want our next generation to get more opportunities, to be able to tell the world about our art and tradition,” says Durgabai.

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