A wild dream and a rebellion: The sublime world of Gond artists : The Tribune India

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A wild dream and a rebellion: The sublime world of Gond artists

Gond artists paint sublime fantasies of a world where humans do not dominate or control

A wild dream and a rebellion: The sublime world of Gond artists

Work by Champi Bai Shyam - Photo courtesy: Raza Foundation



Malvika Kaul

Anarkali Shyam, Champi Bai Shyam, Rajesh Shyam, Santosh Maravi and Sanjay Pancheshwar live in the remote village of Patangarh, and in villages spread in the Mandla forests of Madhya Pradesh. Along with several others, they create the ‘Gond Qalam’ (the style of Gonds) by transforming their traditional musical memory into imaginative contemporary visuals — fairytale-like images crafted out of fine lines, scales and dots that vividly express stories based on folklore and mythology. Here animals grow into trees, and trees merge into forests that appear to reach the gods — Gond art offers a visual narrative of the deep connection between forest dwellers and their natural surroundings.

Work by Sanjay Pancheshwar - Photo courtesy: Raza Foundation

At ‘Gond Qalam’, an exhibition organised by the Raza Foundation at the India International Centre (on till May 18), works of 26 artists display the wild and wonderful art of the Gonds. The community is largely spread in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. The small village of Patangarh has nurtured several Gond artists. While many have switched from charcoal powder and plant sap to acrylic paint and ink as their medium, they continue to present the sublime fantasies of a world where humans do not dominate or control. The colours present different traits: red symbolises heat of the sun, yellow represents energy, green stands for life-giving forest and blue conveys calmness and tranquility.

‘Gond Qalam’, an exhibition organised by the Raza Foundation in New Delhi, brings together 26 works by tribal artists

Gond art appears both as a wild dream and a rebellion. It is against everything associated with human civilisation and development — urban decay, deforestation, loss of natural habitat, threat to wildlife. The animalistic shapes and vibrant colours in Gond paintings rarely have humans as the central figure — trees, tigers, elephants and peacocks are the lead actors conversing with each other in harmony. Many are intimate portrayals of forest life, spiritual and sublime in their quest.

Unlike several folk and tribal art forms, Gond art is relatively recent. Its early creators were minstrels called Pradhans, who sang in praise of their principal deity, Bada Dev, among the tribal community of Gonds. They often sang with their bana, a single-stringed bamboo instrument. Their homes were decorated with images from forests, a wildlife in bloom. One of the first Europeans to have appreciated Gond art was Verrier Elwin, an anthropologist who documented the social and cultural lives of the Gonds. Elwin was motivated by Mahatma Gandhi and lived among the tribals. He commissioned many talented tribals to decorate facilities such as clinics and ashrams with murals and figurative clay reliefs.

With time, the Pradhans lost their vocation. But some like the very gifted Jangarh Singh Shyam created in the 1980s a new medium of expression — painting on paper and canvas the musical tapestry of their community. Akhilesh, the exhibition curator, trustee at Raza Foundation and a close friend of Jangarh, says that Jangarh laid the foundation of what we today consider as Gond art. He was a Pradhan who played the flute beautifully. A prodigious talent, he was discovered by J Swaminathan, a painter, poet and key force behind the establishment of Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal in the 1980s. Jangarh’s explosive canvases, full of brilliant colours and imagery, soon became the talk of the art world. International recognition followed. One of his works, ‘Landscape with Spider’, sold at Sotheby’s for a record price.

This brilliant artist died by suicide in 2001, but left behind a school of artists skilled in ‘Jangarh Qalam’, or the style of Jangarh. Several aspiring artists apprenticed with Jangarh, learning his very striking technique of visualisation: filling in compositions with tightly drawn comb-lines, rows of ovals, narrow squiggles, etc. Such techniques resulted in creating a dazzling aura of pictographic language.

Since 2017, the Raza Foundation has supported many such artists to express their vision of ‘Jangarh Qalam’. At the exhibition, several works are priced between Rs 15,000 and Rs 35,000. The Foundation gives the entire amount to the artists. Today, many such artists have developed their own style and narrate even contemporary experiences with a fantastical touch. Besides displaying their works in Delhi, the foundation also organises annual shows in Patangarh and Mandla.

In their villages, where many tribals work as farm labour and earnings are irregular and meagre, Gond art has become a source of livelihood for many. Things have changed for the better after they have picked up a new tool, a Rotring pen, and started creating a scintillating world of images. Their art has pushed them out of poverty.

#Madhya Pradesh


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