On 2 July 2001, on the Japanese island of Honshu, Jangarh Singh Shyam hanged himself from the ceiling fan in his room. He had been living at the Mithila Museum on an arts residency. He was 37. Two worlds mourned Jangarh — artists and central India’s Gond community. The rest of us barely noticed the passing of the prodigious Adivasi artist who had made Paris gasp. Nine years later, few of us still have a sense of how much Jangarh’s life and death has wrought.
On the morning of 12 July 2010, Mayank Shyam steps out of his black Santro and waits for his mother Nankusia to emerge in her best sari. The 24-year-old had driven 12 hours from Bhopal to Patangarh village the previous week. Patangarh is the bright green village in the hills of eastern Madhya Pradesh, where his father Jangarh Shyam came from. Several admirers have gathered here to unveil a bust of Jangarh.
A local DJ, instructed to play items with gravitas, has unleashed his Independence Day playlist — Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon is blaring over the village. Everything has been organised by Jangarh disciple Suresh Uruveti, and while everyone is polite, standing on the main street, the event has boiled up all the intense rivalry in this motherlode of Gond art. Who is Suresh to take all the decisions by himself, Jangarh’s clan want to know. Why aren’t their names on the invitation card? They all want Jangarh honoured. Haven’t they too — all of them — been transformed by what Jangarh had done?
The market for Gond art is swelling — everyone wants a piece. Sotheby’s auctioned a Jangarh painting for Rs 6.3 lakh last March. Nankusia is antsy that right now, someone somewhere might be selling her husband’s work. Mayank, insouciant in his dark sunglasses and jeans, chats about this and that — his big car woofers and the post-monsoon landscape here — seemingly nonchalant about the unveiling today or the larger battle for his father’s legacy.
It seems easy enough to be Mayank Shyam. His name has cachet. Buzz around his work has grown. His juvenilia was auctioned for KMOMA, Kolkata by Sotheby’s for over $5,000. He’ll have his first solo in Paris next summer. It seems to be easy — easy enough — to be the heir apparent of an Adivasi art that’s beginning to make money. Except for a few catches.
First, the ‘tradition’ is only 30 years old. Secondly, Mayank’s art bears little resemblance to the tradition. And third, if he’s unwilling to do the dance of ethnicity, he may not be able to sell his work. Even now, the most global Indian arts and literature still require some stylised elephants to sell internationally. Even two decades after his father’s Paris launch, the response to indigenous art remains patronising. Mayank may be a prince, but he may yet become a prince of nothing. What is a 24-year-old to do?
You may not have heard of Jangarh but you’d recognise Gond art if you saw it. Step up close. Dot after dot of brilliant colour, needle-fine lines mesh into light and shade. Step back and the morse code bursts into fables, cityscapes, big-eyed figures. Step back further and you feel the fierceness — every playful figure leaps tiger-like at you.
This month’s Adivasi art exhibit at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, curated by Dr Jyotindra Jain, created a stir with its showcase of Jangarh’s work. You may have seen Bhajju Shyam’s travelogue called the London Jungle Book, or seen snippets about Venkat Shyam’s recent solo US show, or of Sukhnandi Vyam’s sculptures shown in Delhi. Later this year, expect Bhimayana, a stylish graphic novel about Ambedkar’s life drawn by the Gond couple Subhash and Durgabai Vyam — it’ll be published in four languages.
At the Patangarh event, Nankusia speaks of her husband gravely. Suresh watches nervously as everything goes smoothly, although Mayank has disappeared just before the event begins. Jyothi, a farmer who lives across the street, has sold two paintings to visitors. A younger artist circles nervously around a collector with a reputation for rapaciousness.
At last, the bust is unveiled. It gleams, it is unmistakably Jangarh, but rather amateurish. No one, not even Suresh remembers the Kolkata sculptor’s name. Why not a Gond sculptor? Subhash Vyam, Jangarh’s brother-in-law, squirms a bit. “None of us know fine art,” he says. A statement that baffles till you realise he means that theirs is not the realistic style that village squares demand. The odd moment makes you reconsider what your eyes expect to see, and how little we want to be challenged. Gond art is verging on becoming a household name. So why is it still treated like a precocious child — with either piousness or condescension?
Mayank can trace his current situation to its roots more easily than most contemporary artists. The history of contemporary Gond art is the history of his family, of his father.What we know as Gond art is not a traditional art. Like the rice powder kolams drawn every day in south Indian homes, the wall drawings in the Gond houses were not things people thought much about before Jangarh. Today, you see them very occasionally in the villages — simple in line and usually in white or yellow. What we know as Gond art is a whole new beast called Jangarh Kalam — the style of Jangarh. Jangarh’s clever dots, delicate lines and lively menagerie of animals catapulted dozens of artists to the façade of the Madhya Pradesh legislative assembly building. Udayan Vajpayi and Vivek argue in their book Jangarh Kalam, that if Jangarh’s style came from anywhere outside his fertile mind, it came from the pointilistic tattoos that Gond women sport.
As a Pardhan Gond, Jangarh was supposed to be a bard — to remember and sing the Gond history. But the highly musical Jangarh was desperately poor. In the village everyone tells amusing stories of Jangarh and Nankusia’s several attempts to elope while still in school. They married at 15. The youngest of a large family, Jangarh tried everything to make some money. He quit school and tried his hand at farming. He grazed buffaloes and sold milk in the nearest town. Then and now, these Gond villages, staggering in their beauty, had little opportunities or conveniences cherished by modernity. Even today, there is a severe shortage of water and electricity. You could spend the day in a haze of mahua and memories of Gond glory or work very, very hard at farming. Or you could take your genes for granted and follow Jangarh. In Patangarh, Sanpuri and Gaar-ka-matta, many young people do.
The Gond art world, like any other, is a potent mixture of talent, avarice, in-fighting, self-fashioning — and bullshit. In 1981, Nankusia had never dreamt that her husband’s wall drawings would change everyone’s destiny. That year, 17-year-old Jangarh’s turn for art was discovered in his village by a team led by the artist J Swaminathan. He was brought to Bharat Bhavan, the cultural centre in Bhopal. He was encouraged to try new (and traditional) materials and techniques. He became an international hit when his work was shown at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Money followed fame and he encouraged cousin after cousin to apprentice with him. If you meet a Gond artist, it is highly unlikely he or she is unrelated to Jangarh. Every Gond artist has a story of being found in the shy shadows by a teasing Jangarh.
Jangarh’s death is still a mystery. It was not his first time abroad. Generous with time, money, music and good humour, he made friends wherever he went. In the beginning he had written home. He was enjoying himself. He missed them. He would be back soon, he had said.
Outside his family, there are those who tried to understand his death with what little they knew or assumed about Adivasi culture. Some worry even now that he had not been culturally equipped to deal with loneliness. Others speculate he must have felt enslaved by the Mithila Museum, which paid him a small stipend and held his passport. Still others comment casually ‘that these Adivasis are impulsive and tend to think of consequences later’. Among Gonds, whole villages mourn him. His death created a fresh surge of interest in the art and today there are nearly 100 Gond artists in Bhopal.
Today Gond art is sold in galleries and auctions, not obscure handicraft shops. Gond painters are not anonymous. They’ve crossed the artificial ravine between craft and art largely because Jangarh, groomed in Bharat Bhavan amidst modern artists, put a signature to his work and encouraged other Gond artists to do so too. The idea that the modern art market demands individual identity is strong among the group. It is the market that demands individualism, though the artists themselves don’t mind younger people (untested except by their genes) trying their hand at their canvasses.
And sometimes it is simply necessary to have extra hands. In the new house Subhash and Durgabai Vyam live in with their massive clan, everyone is an assistant. Upstairs, downstairs, everyone who can hold a brush, paints. The Vyams have an eye on the demand curve. In Delhi, even recently, respectable collectors have tried to buy their work at bargain- basement prices, arguing, “I used to buy Jangarh’s work for Rs 500!” Faceless buyers ordering in bulk on the phone or email are much easier to deal with than the seemingly wellintentioned promoters who want free samples.
Back in the villages where Jangarh’s clan lives, every lane has an artist. Take for example, 23-year-old Dwarka who has trained with Nankusia in Bhopal. He has come home to Gaarka- matta to swiftly assemble a portfolio between grazing cows and farming. Right now, he depends on the arrival of the curious, the determined and acquisitive. One story he tells is illustrative, “Once a collector came here looking for me and I was grazing buffaloes far away. There had been no electricity for days so my cellphone was dead. By the time I came back at dusk, she was gone. Never heard from her again.”
Jangarh wore a safari suit and felt great. But someone yelled, ‘Why are you not wearing your traditional clothing?’
Like any other art world, the Gond artist community is a potent mixture of talent, avarice, in-fighting, self-fashioning — and bullshit. Not that there aren’t enough facile characterisations of Adivasi art coming from outside. In Mayank and his younger sister Japani’s Bhopal home, with its trendy orange and purple walls, it’s embarrassing to remember the KMOMA website which describes Mayank’s cityscapes as ‘confrontations of the ancient with the modern’. At home, the siblings talk endlessly about art and technique. They giggle at the aberration their younger brother is. Bablu has no interest in art and has recently found hip-hop dance classes in Bhopal.
The Gond artists may in the future become savvy enough to avoid the exploitative. But it is more difficult to avoid the tendency to self-exoticise. Man Singh Vyam (20, city-slick and verging on fat) frantically tells fables of simplicity, sentimental tales about how his art is inspired by the memories of playing on the swing in his grandmother’s village. These stories can make you wince. So can meetings with old people in the impoverished Gond villages. Calloused by decades of greedy researchers, they now catch the unwary and say, “Don’t you want to hear traditional Gond songs? Turn on your recorder, buy me mahua and I’ll sing for you.” The feeling of being stuck in porn for anthropologists — a pool of excessive and perhaps fake ethnographic display — is unavoidable. This is a distinct departure from Man Singh’s mother, the award-winning Durgabai Vyam who slips from prosaic conversation into the story of the river Narmada’s failed wedding as if she were a compassionate eyewitness, so real is the myth of Narmada maiyya to her imagination.
Mayank is not an obvious victim of self-exoticisation. He and Japani are untroubled by questions of identity or politics. Mayank recently met the artist Subodh Gupta and admires him for using the innocuous steel bartan to create spectacle. Sprawled in shorts and a T-shirt that says, ‘I have a drinking problem. I can’t afford it,’ Mayank gently mocks the art world. In Kolkata he told people that ‘Nice to meet you’ is a phrase one should only use when one is saying goodbye. When Shireen Gandhy of Chemould Prescott Road gallery, Mumbai, asked him to stop calling her ‘madam’, he asked if he could call her bua instead. He has a taste for short-circuiting the polite nothings of the cocktail party circuit.
“I am an Adivasi child,” Mayank says as often and as casually as he talks of Paris. He is sure that Paris — the site of his father’s first international success — is waiting. His buttersmoothness is upset only by ignorant people who assume his art is primitive. “When I heard people saying, ‘Even I can draw this’, I became determined to develop a style that stumps people.” His first innovation is the absence of primary colours. Also, unlike the others’ free-floating figures, Mayank’s black-and-white drawings are anchored in a sea of tightly packed grains of ink that takes months to create. His human and animal figures emerge out of a lush, modern imagination. There is no sense of the harried workshop in Mayank’s house as in the Vyam household. Mayank’s sights are not set on the anonymous buyer on the phone.
But Mayank too is complicit in why his art is condescended to. He tells an intriguing story about the young Jangarh. “For his first show, he bought a safari suit and felt great. But when he arrived someone yelled, ‘Why are you not wearing traditional clothing?’ He ran and changed.” What would he have done in his father’s place? He and Japani smile pragmatically. “If someone thinks that for a show we should wear our traditional clothes, we’d wear it. No problem.” Japani says she has dressed up for shows and enjoyed it. How often do they wear their traditional clothes otherwise? Almost never, says Mayank. For Mayank, what he wears or the extreme challenges of rural living — a transition he makes effortlessly whenever he visits Patangarh — has nothing to do with being Adivasi. But he knows that the occasional performance of cute ‘authenticity’ is what the world wants.
You may quarrel with the recent deployment of Jangarh Kalam in children’s books, if one considers art for children intellectually irrelevant. You may wonder how Gond artists feel about adapting their style for graphic novels or animation. But what you can’t think is that Jangarh Kalam is unsophisticated and address it in unsophisticated terms, as if all of it is equally pretty or dull. We need the intellectual apparatus to understand contemporary Gond art on its own terms, in its visual vocabulary, with its own inventiveness.
The way in which the form has rapidly developed in Bhopal in just under three decades can show a way forward for fading traditional arts. Beginning with Jangarh, every Gond artist has taught younger people to paint. Perhaps this convention came about from backbreaking deadlines. One need not ascribe altruism here but the practice makes the form robust. Painting, as critics wandering Delhi and Mumbai galleries will tell you, is dying because successful artists cannot or will not spare the time to teach the young. Mayank, who has so far not allowed anyone else to dabble on his canvasses, may be the next big thing in Gond art but if he does not teach younger artists, he will cripple the art form.
The social conventions among Gond artists have larger implications. Until recently, they shared everything they knew — brushstrokes, homes, learning to deal with cities, government institutions and galleries. It is a generosity Jangarh Shyam put into place. In a hive of bees, what one bee knows the whole hive knows. However, like the rest of India, Gond artists too are increasingly subject to the competitive demands of modern living. It is a juggernaut one cannot deplore or quarrel with, only watch. It might well improve the work of individual artists but whether the form will stay robust without the communal backbone is questionable.
Press Mayank again on what is difficult about being him, being a young Adivasi in a Bhopal house with purple walls, with an eye on Paris. When he is not thinking about art, kinship is what is on his mind. “What I sit and think about is how we should be dealing with people. How can I speak with sweetness, deal correctly with my family, my elders, my people? Things are changing but I want to know how to behave. This is what I think about.” Mayank’s future and whether he will have to ‘do ethnicity’ depends on how we value contemporary Gond art.
Jangarh Kalam is important beyond the pleasure afforded by its piquancy.