Oral traditions, revamped for today

As Venkat Raman Singh Shyam seats himself at Cafe Samovar at Kala Ghoda, it is hard to miss the rustic tattoo of a sun on the back of his palm. Though he isn’t a Mumbaiite, he personally knows the artists who line the pavement around Jehangir Art Gallery. He hails from the tribe of Pardhans in Mandla, Madhya Pradesh. Preparations are on for his works to be exhibited at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa in 2013.

The collection comprises autobiographical works and selections from his series on the Mumbai terror attacks. He has worked as a cook, a manual labourer and a billboard painter and yet, he admits, “My struggle for art awareness began after my first exhibition in Bhopal.” Since then, this award-winning artist has been part of over 30 national and international exhibitions.

All Bengal scrolls are the result of a joint effort of an entire family. Seen here is Laltu Chitrakar (centre) with his family at an exhibition organised by Paramparik Karigar. Pic/ Benita Fernando

Shyam, whose distinctive painting named “Udtha Haati (Flying Elephant)” went under the hammer for £ 25,000 in the UK in 2009, is the new face of indigenous art in India. In the last five years indigenous artists have become more adventurous in their use of materials and expression of themes. The audience, especially in India, has become more aware of indigenous fine art. Shyam continues the trend started by his uncle Jangarh Singh Shyam, who contemporised Gond art and provided it the opportunity for international recognition in the 1980s.

Oral tradition turns modern
Gond literally means “green mountains”, and the art that originates from this tribe is a repository of origin myths, folktales and nature themes. These paintings supplement an oral tradition of storytelling. Traditionally, Gond art was depicted on the walls of homes using natural dyes. Today, with the use of canvas, modern colour schemes and acrylic paints, the art form that dates back to the pre-Aryan era has navigated from walls into frames. In August 2012, Shyam’s works found expression as part of the decor of a fine dining restaurant named Zitar in Powai, Mumbai.

Chaitanya Modak, who designed Zitar’s interiors, chose to use Gond art as it perfectly met the demands of the restaurant — ethnic yet modern. Pointing to a work that shows an anteater eating flowers (and the flowers become part of the anteater), Modak says, “A new perspective and a sense of wonder is available in Gond paintings and Venkat’s work is particularly philosophical. The strong themes traverse the divide between rural and urban, modern and traditional.”

Contemporary themes have emerged alongside contemporary media. Traditional Gond art is part of an oral tradition that has nature tales and myths. Venkat Shyam’s paintings reflect both — a belief in the traditions of his tribe and a desire to innovate. Having witnessed the 26/11 attacks, he created a 19-piece series that captures various aspects of the terrorist attacks, Gond style. It uses the fluidity of Gond forms to depict bombings, funerals and the regal hotels. The series was exhibited in Bangalore and Boston in 2010. Shyam philosophically explains, “My technique has remained the same but I have embraced subjects apart from the traditional ones. This evolution might just lead me to create something entirely new.”

Osama, AIDS on scrolls
Gond art is not the only form manipulating media and themes. Other indigenous art forms in India reveal similar intentions to innovate. The Chitrakars, or Bengal scroll painters were originally wandering minstrels who sung stories of gods and heroes. Their stories were supported by scrolls that were as long as 12 feet, with vibrant panels. Khadu Chitrakar and his family, who belong to the Santhal tribe, may not be wandering as much as their ancestors did, but are keeping the craft alive, and very successfully, in Medinipur, West Bengal. Their paints consist of cow dung, turmeric, flower extracts and mud — very much how it was done in days gone by.

Except that the Chitrakar family is painting stories besides those of Nagmata and Durgadevi. Events such as the tsunami of 2004 and the Bengal floods of 2011 are featured prominently in their works. A scroll depicting the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center shows a George W Bush and an Osama Bin Laden that are Indianised amidst ammunition. Fifty pieces of this scroll have been sold. Laltu, Khadu’s 23 year-old son, who has been working on scrolls since he can remember, proudly says, “There is a demand for both kinds of scrolls — traditional as well as the ones like the tsunami one. But, I love the purana katha. It is what fed us for generations together.”

Timely too are the works curated by Nandita Palchoudhuri, a veteran folk arts curator. In 2002, the 50 year-old came up with a practical solution to spread AIDS awareness in rural Bengal. She initiated six Chitrakars into a learning module that oriented them about AIDS. As a result, he Chitrakars made scrolls that narrated stories related to AIDS awareness and travelled across villages spreading the news. Palchoudhuri says, “Their skill set was connected with contemporary society. Their scrolls on mythology had lost relevance to rural folk who now had access to television. More competent artists such as Khadu Chitrakar have realised there is a market for contemporary themes. Their work is used extensively by politicians for canvassing.”

Warli in a bank
Closer home, Warli art has been embracing and suffering contemporary interventions. “Warli has been a much abused art form. Anyone makes stick- like figures and calls it Warli without knowing the rich cultural heritage behind it. It has become too common to my liking,” confides Ramesh Hengadi, a 36 year-old artist from the Warli tribe in Dhanaou, Maharashtra. He was part of an artist residency programme at the Here and There Project in 2006-07 in Nottinghamshire, UK. Observations of English life led him to show in his art the cultural distinctions between the West and his own community. He observes, “Their houses are closed while ours are always open.”

Warli art was done on the walls of houses for occasions such as harvest, birth, or marriage with rice paste and gheru mud. Today, the materials have changed. Hengadi has also made paintings that depict modernisation and perhaps the evils associated with it (the mobile phone being one).
Hengadi also collaborates with designer Shibani Jain, who founded Baaya Design in 2009. She works with almost 40 tribal and folk artists across several art and handicraft forms to produce some highly intricate and refined work. For many Gond and Warli artists who work with her, these are avenues to improve their design knowledge and monetary situation. Jain has introduced into their work new materials and techniques. “There is a range of skills not available to urban populations and we seek to bridge that over here,” she explains.

The desire to bring indigenous art into contemporary spaces is also seen in the interiors of the Mumbai head office of Axis Bank at Lower Parel. Baaya Design finished the project in 2011 and the office now features nine floors, each with a distinct folk or tribal wall art piece. Jain is proud of this massive work that she and the artists undertook to provide a “truly multicultural look” to the office.

Public demand
Everywhere you look, there is a revival in the demand for tribal art. Shyam, Hengadi and the Chitrakar family gained business and exposure to the exhibitions and workshops organised by Paramparik Karigar, an association of craftspersons that seeks to preserve the country’s rich heritage and tradition started in 1996. Over the last four years, they have increased the number of exhibitions to four every year to meet public demand.

Anu Chowdhury Sorabjee, a member of Paramparik Karigar, is exuberant about the changing trends in tribal art. “It is a big turning point and the artists are finally getting appreciated. We are at the cusp of a big change right now,” she says at an art opening at Jamaat Art Gallery in Colaba. The show features works of indigenous artists and Shyam’s work is among them. Sorabjee continues, “But we have a long way to go still. People take tribal art for granted and we need more such platforms for them to showcase their work and meet prospective buyers.”

Artistes such as Laltu Chitrakar want to make sure that even if their children become doctors or engineers, they should continue the family tradition of making Bengal scrolls. Hengadi and Shyam in fact notice that more youngsters are learning the art from their respective tribes seriously and see this as a viable source of income.

When asked whether his success makes him feel like some of the artists who have a solo show in Jehangir, Shyam responds, “Do we rate art by the price it sells for?” Many tribal artistes still don’t get market prices for their works because their work is termed “craft”,” he rues. Then he muses, “ A tribal artiste does not go to an art school to study. It runs in our blood.”

Tradition at home
Savitha Rajiv, a homemaker with an avid enthusiasm for Indian handicrafts, got the interiors of her Borivli house decorated with Warli and Gond art. The living room is predominated by a permanent 10 x 10 Gond mural painted by Hiraman Urveti in April 2012. He depicted birds coming to a tree to roost. Rajiv, who lives in a joint family, indicates that there are 11 birds, one for each family member. The implications can’t be missed as she says that the home is where everyone finally retires to at the end of the day to seek solace. Her kitchen is lined with Warli art and shows women engaged in various food processes such as rice threshing or transporting sacks of grain. Where sweet treats for children are stacked, panels depicting children at play are thoughtfully placed alongside. This art is made on high quality stickers and glass. Rajiv believes, “This is where the root of all our traditions comes from.”

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