The artist and the museum

At once it’s a deity, a harvest field and a tree that bears many fruits — folk and tribal artists visually describe a museum for a new book titled Between Memory and Museums

Kaanch mein band mat karein, lagta hai ki dum ghut raha hai,” says celebrated Gond artist, 44-year-old Bhajju Shyam from his home in Patangarh, Bhopal. He says he finds glass cases for art works claustrophobic. “The visuals have our deities, they should be left open, free,” he says over the phone.

Museum gate created by Gond artist Rajendar Kumar Shyam

Bhajju’s artwork will be on display at Colaba’s Artisan’s gallery later this week for an exhibition, titled Made By Hand, to accompany the launch of Tara Book’s Between Memory and Museums: A Dialogue With Folk And Tribal Artists.

The book is the culmination of a five-year project by Gita Wolf, founder of the Chennai-based publishing house, which started off with Bhopal’s Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, calling for Tara’s help to conduct a workshop with artists where they’d visually translate their idea of a museum. The five-day workshop saw 38 artists participate. Later, the museum, which has a collection of art and artefacts from folk and tribal cultures across India, invited artists and artisans in building the galleries and setting up the exhibits.

Bhil artist Malli Bai at the Tara Books workshop in Bhopal. pic courtesy: Courtesy Tara Books
Bhil artist Malli Bai at the Tara Books workshop in Bhopal. pic courtesy: Courtesy Tara Books

A 20-minute film to document the process followed in 2013. “But the intention was to come out with an extensive book,” says Wolf’s son Arun, who has co-edited the book along with her.

“The book documents conversations with artists on what they feel about museums. Each chapter is a dialogue with an artist, his/her imagery depiction, and our meta commentary at the bottom,” says the 29-year-old filmmaker.
While Gond artist Rajendar Kumar Shyam created a museum gate that was guarded by a lion, pillars of elephant and decorated with deer, Gond artist Dawat Singh Uikey’s depiction compares a museum, which stores cultural objects, to a mouse that stores grain. For a nomadic tattoo artist, seeing his work on a canvas, saved for posterity, was like acquiring a new life.

“It was interesting to know what they felt about their works being put in the space. It played a validating function of pride and honour and they were happy to be part of a broader identity. On the other hand, they dealt with the alien format, which left out their rituals,” says Wolf.

“At the workshop in 2010, we were asked to visualise a museum, and I had traditional tree, animals, gods and goddesses, farming tools. It gave us a sense of pride that institutes wanted to conserve our works. It was a gesture of appreciation,” adds Bhajju.

The exercises exposed Arun to a larger dialogue surrounding museums. “There are two existential questions: Why aren’t we going to museums, and why do museums even exist today? We are not doing enough to attract people into museums. But academics are discussing it, and there is deep potential, thanks to our diverse cultures,” adds Arun, who is now rights manager for the publishing house.

Arun, who will be here for the exhibition, says one can buy art prints from their popular books, including The Night Life Of Trees, at the gallery. “Most of our books are handmade and we realise buyers wanted to cut them and hang them as art works,” he adds.

Where: Artisans’, 52-56, Dr VB Gandhi Marg, Rhythm House Lane Kala Ghoda
When: Nov 24-28, 11 AM-7 PM
Call: 9820145397

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