Surviving the odds

Painting on subjects as diverse as the Mumbai 26/11 attacks, sci-fi fantasies with minimalist designs since last 30 years, Venkat Raman Singh says, “Gond is all about innovation, difference and colour. It is contemporary with emphasis on imagination, expression and understanding.” However, he adds that problems like water scarcity in parts of Madhya Pradesh, diversion of young minds into other fields because of lack of money, middlemen in the market mar the prospects of the art’s survival.

A researcher at Research and Development wing, National Crafts Museum at Pragati Maidan, Rajinder Singh says, “Lack of education among the community also results in communication problems in the market where they are unable to sell the paintings.”

Gond art, the traditional art of Gondi tribe of Madhya Pradesh is based on the belief that “viewing a good image begets good luck”. This inherent belief led the Gonds to decorate their houses and the floors with traditional tattoos and motifs. Gond art has since transposed onto paper and canvas with talented artists showcasing their skills. It is said that ‘language of the soul’ is expressed in the brilliant hues of Gond art. The signature styles are the essence of this tribal art form and are intrinsically used to fill the surface of their decorative patterns and motifs. The individualism of each Gond artist is defined by these signa-ture styles.

Gond artist Rajendra Kumar Shyam shares the history of the art’s origins. “The word ‘Gond’ comes from the Dravidian expression kond, meaning ‘the green mountain’,” he explains. The recorded history of the Gond art goes back 1400 years, but it came into prominence when renowned Indian artist Jagdish Swaminathan discovered wall decorations in the mud house of Jangarh Singh Shyam, a tribal artist. In 1981, Swaminathan asked Jangarh to try his art on the canvas with a brush, which led to a new movement in the art.

“Jangarh began to see the potential of the new instrument —the brush,”
says Rajendra who is also Jangarh’s grandson. Many of the Gond customs include depictions of local flora, fauna and local gods such as Marahi Devi and Phulvari Devi, also called Bada Deo.

“The emphasis is on celebrations, rituals and man’s relationship with nature,” says Ramesh Tekam. The artists use natural colours derived from charcoal, coloured soil including black, red and white soils, plant sap, leaves, and cow dung.

“Dotted lines create miniatures based on folklore which carry forward the oral narrative tradition of the Gonds,” says Tekam. Radha Tekam, who annually exhibits her work at the indigenous crafts display, ‘Nature Bazaar’ at Andheria Modh, says that the art is her livelihood and helps many other women like her. “Women artists carry on the cultural and aesthetic traditions of the art while earning a decent livelihood.”

Livelihood became the major focus once Jangarh received international recognition for his talent. “The scene today is very different with 100-150 artists in comparison to a couple in Jangarh’s time,” says artist Gariba Singh Tekam. Dilip Shyam and Subhash Vyam echo similar sentiments, adding, the Bharat Bhavan museum in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh and MUST art gallery in New Delhi have stood behind them, making their art prosper
and profitable.

Meanwhile, Rajendra Kumar Shyam, who is also a B.Com graduate, adds that “initiatives have been started to raise awareness and establish links with the market by abolishing middlemen”. He sees a bright future for the art saying, “demand has to be created with efficient marketing which will increase the interest of not just the art enthusiasts but also of the future generations.”

Gond art, like all tribal art, is trying to imbibe the new while cherishing the old. Rajni Ghag, Delhi in-charge of the MUST art gallery sums up, “The art is an inherited piece of history that needs to adapt to changing times and so do the ends and means. We exhibit and sell the works of hundreds of Gond artists to truly make them global.”

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