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.
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.
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.”