Speaking in tongues: The language of Picasso, Dali and our tribal artists

Speaking in tongues: The language of Picasso, Dali and our tribal artists

By BHUMIKA POPLI | | 21 May, 2016
Book cover of Finding My Way, published by Juggernaut Books. (Right) A work of Gond art by Venkat.
One of the leading tribal artists of our time, Venkat Raman Singh Shyam excells in Gond art, an indigenous form of painting practiced by the Gond tribes of central India. A new book sheds light on this little-known artist’s work, writes Bhumika Popli.

Gonds or the Gondi people are a part of a tribal community spread across central India, mainly around Madhya Pradesh. Their indigenous art, called Gond art, comprises decorative flora and fauna paintings done on the walls of houses, especially during some festival or traditional rituals. The use of natural colours is dominant in these dot-and-line drawings, and the lines are said to impart a sense of movement to the still images portrayed. 

Some artworks of the renowned Gond artist Venkat Raman Singh Shyam — who practices what’s called Pardhan Gond art — are published for the first time in book form, which might seem an alien context for Gond paintings. But Finding My Way, published by Juggernaut Books, is an excellent compilation of Venkat’s artworks and a fine introduction to this form.

The book is a collaboration between Venkat and a journalist turned publisher S. Anand. It traces the artist’s journey beautifully, telling us from where the artist’s work had originiated and where it has reached now.

The book magnificently captures the story of the artist who was once a rickshaw-puller. It traces his journey from his village to Delhi and then to the world. As you read the book and marvel at the wonderful Gond art accompanying the text, you actually feel that you are part of a thrilling story. The well-crafted tale takes you through the ups and downs of the artist’s life. It describes the innermost feelings of a man who is a true artist, including his desires, hopes and fears.

The various stories you encounter in the book deal with the artist’s childhood, his adult life, and the time he spent with his mentors. The text and the artworks here depict the many stages of the artist’s life. The book is divided into five parts,  titled “Songs of Life”, “Songs of Art”, “Songs of the Self”, “Songs of the World” and “Song of Songs”.

The first part, presents a portrait of the artist as a child. Here, we’re also introduced to another celebrated artist, Jangarh Singh Shyam and his mentor Jagdish Swaminathan. Venkat is the nephew of Jangarh.

The book magnificently captures the story of the artist, who was once a rickshaw-puller. It traces his journey from his village to Delhi and then to the world. As you read the book and marvel at the wonderful Gond art accompanying the text, you actually feel that you are part of a thrilling story .

In subsequent chapters, the book tells about how Gond art developed and how Pardhan Gond art — Venkat’s stock-in-trade — differs from its other variants. “It is as old as the line and the dot,” writes Anand, referring to this form, “from which comes the formlessness that Kabir sings to form.” We are also told that Venkat was always fascinated with Kabir.

“I grew up close to wild animals,” Venkat tells Anand. “The jungles of Kanha were right behind our village. Deer grazed close by. I tried many times to catch one, learnt to still myself near them. I have seen tigers, hyenas and jackals at a close range. I began drawing on walls, paper, floors, on whatever surface I could find as a child.”

There are several accounts in the book of the struggles Venkat had to face as an artist, doing odd jobs to make a living. In Venkat words, as told to the author: “Poverty clothed the streets. The music from the Nizzamuddin Dargah-a resplendent giant onion-soothed me as I learnt to do any job that came my way to keep my body stitched to soul.”

Jangarh had committed suicide. The reason for this is still unknown. After Jangarh’s death, the local community of Gond artists was left to fend for itself. “It was only after Jangarh’s death, Venkat says in the book, “that I felt the calling to be an artist. In fact, I told myself: who else but I could take Jangarh’s place? Perhaps this occurred to some of my compatriots too, most of them my kin.”

Venkat also touched upon the issue of external influence. About other artists whose works he finds similar to Adivasi  artists, he says: “In Barcelona, when I got to see the works of Dali and Picasso, I felt their language was no different from the work we Adivasi artists did on walls and canvases. It was as if a little child was perceiving the world around them like an adult. The architecture and imagery of Guadi, especially in the extravagant church of Sagrada, Familia, reminded me of scenes from madai, fairs that happened in our villages.

Venkat, who started drawing at the tender age of eight, is a celebrated Gond artist today, one of the most original in contemporary arts. Guardian 20 got in touch with Venkat, who, over the phone from Bhopal, had the following to say:

“An artist is influenced through all art but it depends upon the artist if he includes it in his practice or not. I was not influenced by any form but I tried to bring about a new form of art. Gond art is related to tradition but it is new and fresh everytime. Still, I was inspired by my uncle Jangarh, who was the father of Gond art and by J. Swaminathan. I also admire the works of Dali and Picasso. I found my way looking at these artists.  Most of all, I am inspired by my own local art forms, which derive from my tradition, environment, songs, stories and myths.”

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