Sunday Herald: Global stories, desi art

Bhajju Shyam's artwork

It was Digna originally, painted with white, black, yellow and maroon-coloured mitti. Like swabs of paint, the colourful mitti gets applied on gobar-plastered walls and floors of the mud houses that the Gonds live in. A few such villages still exist in Madhya Pradesh, in areas in the vicinity of River Narmada.

A dynamic proponent

When Digna was brought on to canvas, it allowed for more detailing and colours. It opened up the possibility of dots, dashes and other strokes, and allowed for artists to develop their signature styles. This also widened the scope for storytelling. This is Gond art as we know it now, and Bhajju Shyam is one of its most dynamic proponents, someone who fully deserves the Padma Shri conferred on him this year.

Since Digna tends to fade away, break away or get washed away over time,
doing and redoing Digna became an intricate part of Gond festivals and Gond life itself. It became a Gond identity. Everybody in the family does Digna, especially the womenfolk.

“I remember how my mother would ask me to do the portions of the wall that she couldn’t reach,” says Bhajju. He elaborates, “We painted with rags of cloth. Among other kinds of mitti, we used white mitti dug up from the jungles until the practice was banned. Now, pucca houses are favoured in Patangarh, as maintaining and repairing a mud house is no easy task. With that, Digna is disappearing too. My house in Patangarh is a pucca house too,” says Bhajju, who is now looking at ways to create new platforms for Digna.

Digna prevailed in Patangarh in Dindori zilla of Madhya Pradesh, a Gond village that lies around two-and-a-half kilometres from Amarkantak, from where River Narmada springs up. Patangarh is the unofficial cradle of Gond art, it was home to the late Jangarh Singh Shyam, one of the pioneers who took Digna from walls and floors to the canvas.

It was Jangarh who encouraged Bhajju and several other Gond artists to develop their own signature styles within the ambit of Gond art. Incidentally, Bhajju is Jangarh’s nephew. Jangarh had taken Bhajju under his wings after Bhajju had run through a number of jobs, (getting fired on the last one, a security job, for falling asleep on duty!). This was in 1993. Initially, Bhajju would just fill in colours for his uncle’s drawings. Soon, Bhajju was creating his own paintings, with his uncle’s encouragement. Bhajju sold the first of his works at an exhibition in Delhi. Next, he was invited to exhibit at a tribal art exhibition at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, curated by Rajat Sethi.

Bhajju’s fame began with The London Jungle Book (2004), which was published in five languages. This book was Bhajju’s version of a travelogue which happened thanks to curator Rajeev Sethi who roped in Bhajju to paint a mural on the walls of a restaurant in London. This was in 2001. Right from the plane journey, the travel was a whole new experience for Bhajju and he interpreted the experience in his own way, with the metaphors of Gond thought.

His intriguing illustrations had the huge aircraft becoming an elephant flying in the sky, the chiming clock tower took on the form of a rooster, the London bus emerged as a loyal and reliable dog, pubs became mahua trees, and so on. Bhajju painted what he perceived, rather than what was on the surface.

For instance, this is how he perceived the London Underground metro system. “Stairs (the elevators) were collecting people and taking them deep underground. I realised there were more people underground than on the streets above. Under the ground, snake-like structures (the trains!) were tunneling through the earth. According to Gond beliefs, there is a world under the ground we walk on and I found such a world in London!” he exclaims.

These paintings had the world charmed and were published as a book. There were also exhibitions of the original paintings that figured in the book. Bhajju also toured in the UK, Germany, Holland, Italy and Russia.

Folklores to cherish

Next to happen was The Night Life of Trees (2006) with Durga Bai and Ram Singh Urveti, with paintings bringing out the tree lores the Gonds cherish, the central one being that trees are busy during the day in giving food and shade to all, and at night, their inner spirit manifests. This book won the 2008 Bologna Children’s Book Fair Award. Then followed books like Alone in the Forest with Gita Wolfe and Andrea Anastasio, that explores the psychology of fear, and The Flight of the Mermaid (retold by Sirish Rao and Gita Wolf) that bring out the colours and contrasts of the land and ocean.

On cards now is a book with Bhajju as the author rather than an illustrator/painter, with his narratives on photographs of life and art in Patangarh. Then, of course, he is keen to take forward the Digna workshops he has already initiated in Raipur.

Perhaps, today, what remains of Digna in Gond art is its inner essence, its earthy hues, its intricate connect with nature, its tendency to see components of the modern world in organic terms, and the constant surfacing of its inherent myths, which touch upon creation very often. All this while celebrating the co-existence of life forms and the oneness of nature.

Born into a family of the Gond Pradhan tribe, Bhajju says the interpretations he makes in his paintings draw deeply from Gond thought and imagery. “We grew up listening to stories. These stories revolved around creation, how the world was created, how plants and animals were created, and so on. So, actually, I am just retelling Gond legends,” he remarks. In fact, this is true for much of Gond art as it exists today; and rather than a detraction, this is actually one of its charms.

Despite the adulations and awards, fame hasn’t changed Bhajju one bit. He remains down-to-earth and connected to earth. He voices, “The Padma Shri is an honour for our tradition, our village, and for all our artists. It is also a responsibility. I feel, now, our stories will become more famous.”

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Sunday Herald: Global stories, desi art

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