Changing motifs

Written by Garima Pant | Updated: Nov 7 2010, 05:43am hrs
Having begun dabbling with the Gond tribal art form since the age of 15, Mayank Shyam, son of legendary Jangarh Singh Shyam has come a long way. Preparing for his upcoming exhibition in Paris in January 2011, Mayank is excited about his first show away from Indian soil and at the opportunity to take this native art form to newer heights. Though Gond art is not new internationally, as Jangarh was instrumental in putting this art form on the global map before he committed suicide in 2001, for the legendary artists son, it is a mean feat.

Having begun observing his father at a very young age, Mayank never imagined himself making painting his identity. After Jangarh, its Mayank who is doing something very different. He was born in the city, so he brings his own ideas of existence in his work. Mayank's imagery and his configuration make him very different from others. He has such new ways of painting and subjects. Also, he is also very subconscious of the fact as to not repeat his father's feat and achievements, says Bhopal-based critic, art historian and doctor, Udayan Vajpeyi. Still close to his roots, Mayank and his cousin Bhajju Shyam still like to visit their village two-three times a year to seek inspiration from their culture.

Vajpeyi, who is also curating an ongoing exhibition, titled Jangarh Kalam: Narrative of a Tradition, Gond Painting at the Art Alive Gallery in New Delhi, which is on till November 15, feels a lot has changed for the tribal art form. The participating artistsDurga Bai Vyam, Ram Singh Urveti, Bhajju Shyam and Mayank Shyamare synonymous with the 'Jangarhi' tradition, but are also known for their unique and individual styles. These ethnic artists from the Adivasi Pardhan community are also known as traditional storytellers, musicians and genealogists of the Gond tribe of Madhya Pradesh.

Though each participating artist has his/her unique style and identity, its Mayank's works that stand apart, for the simple reason of his choice of absence of the colour palette. Being the youngest of the group and Jangarh's son, has moved away from the usual primary colour palette characteristic of the style and has experimented extensively with the colour black. But why the detour Telling a story through black and white is an art in itself, says Mayank. Others still follow the footsteps of the master that brought Gond art on the world map.

Jangarh was a Gond tribesman from Mandla, Madhya Pradesh, who became a protg of artist and Bharat Bhavan founder J Swaminathan. He worked in the print studio of Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, where he created a prolific body of work. He achieved much fame in his lifetime, and became an important voice of folk and tribal art both in India and abroad. Jangarh was the first Pardhan youth to pick up the paintbrush and canvas to interpret his flock's music and stories through vibrant motifs. Ram Singh Urveti, Bhajju Shyam and Mayank Shyam, who have now become synonymous with the Jangarhi idiom, were tutored by the late Jangarh himself. Mayank has developed a unique language quite different from the rest of the family. His lines are deliberate and precise, rather than free-flowing. Almost always working with pen and ink on canvas or paper, he explores urban yet quasi-mythical landscapes.

The Pardhan art of 'Jangarhi tradition' is more stylised and lyrical than the primal ethnicity of the ancient tribal art of Madhya Pradesh. It is sought after worldwide and commands formidable prices in international auctions. In March 2010, Sothebys London sold one of Jangarh's works for 13,750. Two of his large paper drawings were sold for 15,000 and 18,000, respectively, in July 2010. In the September 2010 edition of the south-Asian art auction at Sotheby's, Jangarh's works went under the hammer along with those of modern Indian masters. They were valued between Rs 14 lakh and Rs 23 lakh.

Clearly, what Jangarh began was similar to a mini revolution. When he started painting, a lot of people in the community started following him. It is as if the obstructed music got a way out into painting. And they were never trained to be painters. But it runs deeper and connects all of them. They evolved their unique style; from songs about god and nature, they moved on to painting, says Vajpayi.

But with tribal art finding historical reference and competition, what made Jangarh different The kind of work he started doing was neither archaic nor extremely modern. It is of today, and was not imitating any Western school of painting. It was new, yet traditional. It's this strange combination that had come up that might have caught people's eyes. Even if one compares him with any contemporary painters, he can stand tall, as his work is extremely good, adds Vajpayi. While Ram Singh Urveti, Bhajju Shyam and Mayank Shyam are students of Jangarh Singh Shyam, Durga Bai is self-taught, having developed her own idiom influenced by Jangarh Singh's trademark style. Vajpayi also feels that Bhajju and Ram Singh Urveti are also extremely talented and poised to make bigger marks in the global market. Bhajju Shyam and Durga Bai are also skilled illustrators with picture storybooks to their credit. There is a certain style that they all share that makes them belong to the Jangarh Kalam tradition. And yet they are individuals in their own right, says the curator.