Raw vibrations

Raw vibrations

Different strokes

For me, art and life are unceasing silences. Art penetrates life like an explosion of dance. I remember the forests (of my childhood).  That memory makes me paint what I paint. – Jangarh Shyam

At the time of his death, the legendary Gond artist Jangarh Singh Shyam was just 39. He reportedly committed suicide on July 3, 2001, by hanging himself from the ceiling of his room in faraway Japan. He was then an artist-in-residence at the Mithila Museum in Niigata. Adding to the tragedy, his body came back only after the Madhya Pradesh government intervened and bore the cost of its transportation.

“The entire community of Pardhan Gonds was shattered,” recalled Venkat Raman Singh Shyam, nephew of Jangarh. “We bickered over how to get back his body. We endlessly discussed who was to blame. Sometimes we blamed each other. We ran hither (to a central minister); we ran thither (to the deputy chief minister of Madhya Pradesh). The body came back after 10 days in the most magnificent coffin we had ever seen… They say Jangarh died before his time. They say had he lived he would have scaled taller peaks. But Jangarh, we must remember (since we live in time), has scaled time.”

It later came to light that Jangarh had written letters to his wife expressing misery and unhappiness of his stay in Japan.  He was apparently being paid a measly sum of Rs 12,000 per month, while all his works became the property of Mithila Museum. He was also allegedly coerced to produce more and more, upsetting his rhythm of art creation. Worse, the sponsors of his Japan sojourn purportedly withheld his ticket/passport and extended his stay, causing him distress and agony. Disgusted with these developments, the immensely talented but traumatised artist had ostensibly decided to call it quits.  

Born in a community of Pardhan Gond, customarily made up of storytellers and musicians, Jangarh’s (left) talent came out initially as a skilled flutist.
He was just 19 when veteran artist J Swaminathan noticed his special gifts and unique skills, and invited him to Bhopal.

With his death, the country lost one of the finest and arguably best-known tribal artist.  He had been the first Gond artist to use paper and canvas for his paintings. The gifted Adivasi had perfected the dot-and-line method of image-making; he was even credited as an originator of a new school of art called ‘Jangarh Kalam’.

Jangarh’s short-lived life and artistic career saw many ups and downs. Born in a community of Pardhan Gond, customarily made up of storytellers and musicians, Jangarh’s talent came out initially as a skilled flutist. He was just 19, when veteran artist J Swaminathan (1928 - 1994) noticed his special gifts and unique skills, and invited him to Bhopal. Thereafter, Jangarh’s evolution from a young tribal villager to an acclaimed folk artist was swift and spectacular. Swaminathan not only mentored him but also showcased his first sample paintings at Bharat Bhavan’s inaugural exhibition in February 1982. Jangarh was just 24 when he received the Madhya Pradesh government’s highest state award, the Shikhar Samman, in 1986. He was subsequently commissioned to do the exterior murals for Vidhan Bhavan — the new legislative building in Bhopal designed by the renowned architect Charles Correa.

Going big

Still in his 20s, Jangarh’s works got included in several major international museum shows. One such prestigious exhibition was ‘Magicians of the Earth’ at Pompidou Centre in Paris (1989), which had contemporary art from all over the world. When noted cultural historian Dr Jyotindra Jain curated Other Masters: Five Contemporary Folk and Tribal Artists exhibition at the Crafts Museum, New Delhi (1998), Jangarh was one of the chosen ‘masters’.

“Despite his success as an artist, this Gond Adivasi from Mandal, Madhya Pradesh, was shy and timid in his dealings with the ‘civilised’ world,” recalled S Kalidas, eminent art critic and son of Swaminathan. “Art had taken Jangarh far beyond his native realm — to Kolkata, Tokyo and Paris. Like a child, he enveloped the art market in a disarmingly non-discriminatory embrace. Be it the suburban melas across India or the smart big museums of the West, his fantasy images of animals, birds and trees blazed an amazing trajectory of form and colour… Art not only helped him escape the dire poverty and backwardness of tribal India but also exposed him to the exploitative grasp of forces beyond his ken.”

Hills and forests

Jangarh’s art relied heavily on his humble beginnings on the small green hill of Patangarh where he grew up amidst dense forests, colourful birds, animals and insects; and petrifying deities. “I was both amazed and terrified… I was so frightened of these deities that I thought I should try and represent them in the forms that would be personal to me… This was the only way that I could relive my fear — in the form of raw vibrations — the tiger, the luxuriant banyan tree, the venomous insects in multiple colours, all coursing with the rivers of terror, love and beauty.”

One of his ardent admirers and a long-time collector, Mitchell S. Crites considers Jangarh to be one of the four or five best artists that India has produced in the last 100 years. “His style evolved but he remained very close to the roots.” Crites, who first met Jangarh at Delhi’s annual Suraj Kund crafts mela in 1987, found his work to be hypnotic. “There was nobody like Jangarh. He painted to express himself — he could do about anything he wanted and didn’t get intimidated if someone asked him to paint an entire ceiling or a wall. He would just sit down and start sketching. He could work with any medium — paper, cloth, walls. He was a rare talent.”

Jangarh’s legacy is sustained by his prolific output as well as publications such as Jangarh Singh Shyam: The Enchanted Forest, Paintings and Drawings from the Crites Collection (Roli books / 2017).  More importantly, a swarm of Gond artists (including his own family members) have drawn on his distinctive style and continue to produce significant work. Some observers, however, feel that Jangarh’s tragic story serves more as a grim reminder of a highly exploitative, manipulative and sometimes brutal system — in which brilliant but vulnerable artists like him often get sucked into.