Internationally tribal

Internationally tribal

Drawing inspiration from tribal Gond art, Bhajju Shyam has taken the forests of his tribe to the international stage. With exhibitions the world over, Bhajju has reinvented Gond art whilst retaining its principal motifs, finds out Preeti Verma Lal.

The walls are stark, the colours acrylic, the inspiration deep. On the paper, wild purple, blue, brown boars look menacing; their teeth gnashed, their hair spiked, their stripes black, and their eyes dripping with ferocity. Musa, the little boy, is alone in the forest, scared. Terrified of the animals and desperate to go home. Cows look benign, boughs are burdened with red fruits, monkeys hide in tree hollows, and butterflies flit mischievously. Musa is alone in the forest.

Bhajju Shyam, one of the most prominent Gond tribal artists, empathises with Musa. He knows the fear of being alone in a forest. Alone in the Forest is Shyam’s latest picture book. Shyam is not Musa, but he knows all about the forest for he grew up near one in Patangarh, a village in Madhya Pradesh which is dominated by the country’s largest indigenous tribe, the Gonds. The Gonds are a community of highly visual people; their mud floors and walls embellished with decorative patterns painted with coloured soil. Shyam grew up doing exactly that — helping his mother colour the motifs that she sedulously drew on the walls.

The beginnings

From that little boy who left home at 16 to find work in Bhopal to the artist who has what seems like a million awards on his mantelpiece, for Shyam, it has been an arduous journey. Over a long-distance telephone interview, Shyam’s voice quivers as he relives the poignant moments when he hung up his satchel because the family could not afford the education of five children; of that long ride to Bhopal where, still a teenager, he worked as a labourer and a night watchman; to that first glimmer of hope when his uncle Jangarh Singh Shyam, the most brilliant Gond artist of the time, coaxed him to join him as an apprentice. Life, thereafter, would change for Shyam forever.  

From that childhood love of painting with yellow, red and brown soil, Shyam stepped beyond the walls to paint on paper — his favourite motif being deer, and his favourite colours orange and yellow. Soon, his art became known throughout India. His first international exposure came in 1998 when he was part of a group exhibition at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. That was merely the proverbial foot in the door as his works have been exhibited in the UK, Germany, Holland and Russia. In 2001, he received a state award for Best Indigenous Artist.

Walls and paper were Shyam’s canvas so far. A 2002 trip to London to paint the interior of Masala, an upmarket Indian restaurant, was destined to change that. Chennai-based Tara Books turned his travelogue into a picture book titled The London Jungle Book, in which, with radical simplicity, he reverses the anthropological gaze. Published by Tara Books and the Museum of London, it was released in November 2004, along with a three-month exhibition at the museum. It has now been published in Italian, Dutch, French, Korean and Portuguese, and the exhibition has since toured the UK, Germany, Holland, Italy and Russia.

With The London Jungle Book, Shyam gave his art a new, book-ish dimension. He contributed several paintings to The Night Life of Trees, a handbound and screen-printed collection of traditional Gond images of trees and spirits. An accompanying exhibition, featuring original paintings from the book by Bhajju and his two co-artists has travelled to London, Paris, Anchorage and Alaska. The book has, to date, sold over 30,000 copies worldwide. Since then Bhajju has co-edited a compendium of Gond art named, Signature: Patterns in Gond Art, and has been the sole artist behind two more visual picture books for Tara Books: The Flight of the Mermaid and That’s How I See Things.

In all his works, his captivating visuals and easy storytelling style fuse his perceptions of the modern world with his tribe’s unique visual language. While experimenting with innovative subjects and new ideas, Shyam uses inherited forms of the Gond art tradition in very contemporary and expressive ways. “There are new influences in my work, but my art is still the same,” he says. “I never expected this kind of response; I thought people would find my way of looking at the world odd.”

Shyam’s contemporaries

Shyam, however, is not the first tribal artist to have used Tara Books as his canvas. Dulari Devi, a Mithila painter, narrates her journey from being a domestic worker to a painter/storyteller in Following my Paintbrush. Similarly, in Waterlife, Rambharos Jha created an artists’ journal about his memories of growing up on the banks of River Ganges, winning a 2012 Bologna Ragazzi Mention. Do! thrives on Warli art, while the Patuas of Bengal turn their art into an accordion of books titled Tsunami: The Enduring Ark.

Picture books are the new canvas for countless indigenous artists. Tribal art is redefining itself in its purpose, meaning and character.

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