Curated by noted art critic and curator Uma Nair, Van Katha is set to present 30 artworks of indigenous art of the Gonds.

Padma Shri Bhajju Shyam’s work stands tall as a practitioner of Pardhan Gond art, characterized by a uniqueness that embodies the entire range of human emotions through animal imagery. For the uninitiated, Pardhan Gond is an ancient tribe whose work and lifestyle is defined by a community of bard (singers) or Pardhan who invoke their Great God, Bada Deo, while playing the Bana instrument. Through the incantation they are able to fulfill the crucial task of keeping alive the legendary tales of the ancient Gond kings. Every story, song, dance, and painting brings the community together in a shared celebration of nature and the universe. Bhajju Shyam has carved a space for himself in the country’s art landscape by combining tradition and simple beliefs with acquired techniques of expression, often using folk motifs as urban metaphors. His work has been exhibited at galleries and museums around the world, including the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, Galleria Arteutopia, Milan and the Museum of London. He has also published several books.

Jad, acrylic on canvas.

Kolkata’s Aakriti Art Gallery is presenting a solo show of the celebrated Gond artist titled ‘Van Katha’. The show opens on 30th July 2022 and runs till August 20th 2022. Curated by noted art critic and curator Uma Nair, the exhibition is set to present 30 artworks of indigenous art of the Gonds. “Bhajju Shyam is important in terms of the work he has done in the continuation of the Jangarh Singh Shyam School. I have followed his work since 2015. In curating the show I wanted works that were created in medium as well as larger 7×7 ft format. Bhajju has lot of experience in paintings large walls for corporates and real estate agencies. So in the show we have smaller canvases as well as Imperial size paper works and 3 works of 7ft x 7ft. His scope and vision in creating is imperative. I have always believed a curator is a bridge between art lovers and artists. A curator adds the spine of historical documentation to a series of works,” explains Nair.

Riwaaz, acrylic on paper.

In this suite of works, Bhajju Shyam creates lots of animals and birds. The elephant, the fish, the deer, the pigs/swine, the water creatures each one has their own space in the firmament. Bhajju states that their foundation is built on a forest of stories that speak of the beauty and bounty of the earth. “My uncle, Jangarh, encouraged our community members in the village of Patangarh to take up the art form that he had experimented with at the instance of Swaminathanji and it went by the term ‘Jangarh Kalam.’ My uncle exemplified the natural theme of Pardhan painting. He taught me that on the forest floor, snakes and birds, tigers and deer all come together in creative visualization,” reveals Bhajju.
Interestingly, all the works that are a part of ‘Van Katha’ were actually created by the famed Gond artist during the pandemic. “I told Bhajju Shyam to send me images as he kept creating. This show took 3 years to come together. As an artist he is diligent devoted and scrupulous in discipline. I gave him full freedom to create all his menagerie of the jungle. I also thought about his title and asked if he liked it. I feel ‘Van Katha’ embodies India’s oldest principle of the holy books, of manushya aur prakriti, man and nature. It speaks of the acceptance of the universe and the power and eternal impact of nature in the world,” reveals Nair.
The Dravidian term Gond comes from Kond, which means green mountains. The community is naturally focused on the preservation of nature. Without green mountains, wildlife habitats and water tables die out. And without the bees and the birds, plant cycles are affected. The Gonds understood it so does Bhajju. “The notion of animals and birds and their importance in our culture and community has been passed down verbally through our forefathers. It is on the basis of this that we make our art works/drawings. Tigers, for example, have been an important part of our culture. We belong to the Pardhan Gond tribe / community and are of the Kushram clan. And so, our deity is Bagh Van Devi, to whom we pray for protection before we (our Adivasi friends) go into the forests to hunt/acquire fodder. And hence a depiction of the same is seen in our drawings/art pieces. Besides, during marriages too, special offerings are made to the Bagh Van Devi,” explains Bhajju.
Out of the 30 artworks on display, 20 paintings on canvas and 10 works are on paper. “These artworks are unique expressions of Bhajju’s mind and imagination and encapsulate the history and contemporary times of the regions. The artworks are significant for their historic and academic relevance as well as for their aesthetic value,” Nair explains. Sharing her thoughts about the traditions around trees, she adds, “Bhajju’s world of forest tales stems from traditionally inspired narratives that have been passed through the ages, transforming simple subjects into sacred beings. Themes of tradition and simple beliefs… are clearly comprehended in all the works and sketches displayed. But through it all we glimpse a love of trees and nature. Bhajju is important for the many stories he tells as well as his finesse with creating Darwinian dialogues in Indian indigenous intuition. The birds, the horses, the swine, the elephant all throb in the rhythms of the forest.”
Nair feels that the Kolkata based Aakriti Art Gallery is ideal for an exhibition like ‘Van Katha,’ which essentially is a celebration of Gond art. “I knew it was going to Aakriti Art in Kolkata. Hungerford Street is an upscale neighborhood with beautiful trees. I have always loved the bones of Aakriti in design placements. Vikram Bhachawat is a distinguished name in the art circles. I wanted a show that will be inviting as well as one that fills the senses with a love for nature. After all, no one loved nature more than Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray—the two icons of Bengal,” rejoices Nair whose next show is Muzaffar Ali’s 50 year retrospective at Bikaner House in Delhi in January 2023.