The Gond art installation by Subhash Singh Vyam and his wife Durga Bai focuses on a folklore. It is one of the highlights of the ongoing Kochi Muziris Biennale
Photos: Subhash Singh Vyam and his wife Durga Bai.Pic by Albin Mathew. Artist J. Swaminathan (extreme right) with Jangarh Singh Shyam and Jangarh's wife Nansukia Bai during their younger days
By Shevlin Sebastian
As one stepped into a ground floor hall at Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi, one cannot but stop and gaze with the mouth open. Because all the four walls and the two pillars were covered with figures. It included men and women, plants, trees, flora, a well, a pond, snakes, birds, cows and goats. These are etchings, which bulge out from the marine plywood base. And quite simply, top-class Gond art.
The veteran artists Subhash Singh Vyam and his wife Durga Bai are telling a story, across the walls. It is called ‘Dus Motin Kanya and Jai Devata’ -- a story of five brothers and their sister.
A smiling Subhash starts narrating the tale. “In a village, there was a family. One day, the parents, when they were about to die, told their five sons and daughters-in-law that they should look after their daughter and not send her out for work because she is very delicate and a precious gem of the family,” he says.
Following the death of the parents, after a few months, the sons had to leave the village for the city to do work. So they told their wives to look after their sister properly.
For a few weeks, the wives looked after Dus Motin. But after a while, they began torturing her. One day they pushed her into a well. There were a few frogs, fishes and crabs that prevented Dus Motin from slipping under the surface of the water. A bird saw the girl and saved her. It took her to a tree where it had small chicks inside a nest.
“The mother bird flew out to get fish and seeds for the small ones,” says Subhash. “For the girl, it was trying to get some fruits.”
Some days later, the brothers, on their way home, took shelter under the same tree where their sister was staying. When the baby birds cried, the girl sang a soothing song which stated their mother would soon be back with food.
“As she sang, she began to miss her brothers,” says Durga Bai. “And a tear rolled down her face and fell on the heart of the eldest brother lying below. He looked around and wondered about the origin of the waterdrop came since the weather was not cloudy and there was no chance of any rain.”
Another brother said, “Just taste it. If it is salty, it must be a tear.” So, the eldest brother did so, and it turned out to be salty.
Then the brothers looked up and spotted their sister. “They thought the bird had kidnapped the sister,” says Subhash. “So they wanted to kill the bird. But then Dus Motin said that it was the bird who had actually saved her. Then the brothers understood what had happened and apologised to the bird.”
And the tale continued. And for every event which the couple described, it was represented on the wall. They had done the acrylic paintings on marine plywood, cut it out and pasted the various items on the walls.
“We worked for three months in Bhopal,” says Subhash. “And the drawings were done in three and four-feet sizes. There were more than one hundred pieces, which was transported by lorry to Kochi.”
The artistic couple belongs to the Dindori district in Madhya Pradesh, which is 350 km from the capital, Bhopal. “We have been painting for the past thirty years,” says Subhash. “It is a full-time profession. We earn by selling our works in India and abroad. We also do illustrations for books and take part in art fairs.”
In fact, one of their works is on display at Mumbai Airport. “Many people see that and get in touch to buy our works,” says Durga Bai.
So who are the Gonds? They are Adivasis, of Dravidian origin, who are mainly found in Madhya Pradesh, as well as Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Odisha. The word Gond comes from Kond, which means green mountains. They speak a language similar to Telugu, but some Gonds also speak Hindi.
The Gonds have a belief that if they see a good image, it will bring them luck. That’s why they decorate the walls of their houses with traditional tattoos and motifs. They believe that all natural things, whether it be a rock, tree, pond, or mountain has a spirit within them, and hence, they are sacred. So the Gonds paint the images with a respectful attitude.
About thirty years ago, the Gonds, led by the artistic Pardhan Gonds, began to use modern techniques like acrylic paintings, ink drawings and silkscreen prints. “Our guru is [the late] Jangarh Singh Shyam, who was the first to use paper and canvas,” says Subhash, who was his brother-in-law (see box).
Meanwhile, Subhash and Durga Bai have set up a school in their village to teach art to the next generation. “We want our artistic tradition to carry on,” says Subhash.
The first to make a mark
The noted artist J. Swaminathan, the then director of Bhopal’s Bharat Bhavan, discovered the 17-year-old Jangarh Singh Shyam in 1981 when he was painting on huts in Patangarh, Madhya Pradesh. Thereafter, Jangarh followed Swaminathan to Bhopal where he started working in the graphics art department of Bharat Bhavan. Jangarh became the first Gond artist to work on canvas and had his work displayed, to acclaim, in France and Japan. Thanks to Jangarh, Gond art made its mark internationally.
Jangarh was later commissioned to paint the interiors of the Legislative Assembly of Madhya Pradesh, the Vidhan Bhavan, and the dome of the Bharat Bhavan.
Sadly, Jangarh committed suicide at the Mithila Museum in Niigata, Japan, on July 3, 2001, at the age of 39. He had gone there to do contractual work. There has been no proper explanation as to why he took the extreme step. Some said he was depressed. Others said he was being exploited by the museum authorities to produce work at a faster pace.
In 2010, Jangarh’s ‘Landscape with Spider’, which he painted in 1988, was sold at a Sotheby auction in New York for Rs 14.5 lakh, the highest for any Gond artist.
Today, his wife, Nankusia Bai and children Mayank and Japani have followed in Jangarh’s footsteps and have become acclaimed Gond artists.
(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)