by Dhiraj Singh
IT WAS AN EPIC MOMENT IN 1981, in many ways like that of the shepherd boy David who was pulled out of his daily duty of grazing sheep to be anointed as Israel’s new king. Jangarh Singh Shyam too was grazing his buffaloes when Jagdish Swaminathan, a modernist painter and then director of Bhopal’s upcoming and exciting art venue Bharat Bhavan came to see the prodigious talent of a young village painter. Jangarh’s work had first been spotted by Swaminathan’s ‘art scouts’ when they had visited his village Patangarh in Dindori district. These were murals that the Gonds had been making on their walls to celebrate festivals and family occasions. While most houses in Patangarh had these murals what was special about Jangarh’s works was his unmistakable virtuosity and imagination.
Swaminathan urged the teenager to recreate his works on paper using artists’ colours instead of the vegetable and earth pigments he had used in the murals at home. What Jangarh created on paper and later on canvas amazed Swami enough to invite him over to Bhopal. Like the shepherd David, Jangarh too loved to sing and play his ‘bana’ (a kind of fiddle) before he was ‘discovered’ and turned into a star by the outside world. Jangarh was a Pardhan Gond, a community whose traditional place in Gond society was to retell their epics and legends by singing them out at community gatherings.
‘A Conjuror’s Archives’ is a beautiful show of Jangarh Singh Shyam’s monumental talent currently on at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi. The show has been co-curated by cultural historian Jyotindra Jain who as Director of National Crafts Museum had personally been witness to the blossoming of Jangarh’s genius. It is through Jangarh that the occulted mythology of the Gonds was revealed in all its elegance and its counter-intuitive rejection of Western and Vedic archetypes and heroes.
Jangarh’s works takes you into the quaint forests of his people where man doesn’t rule by divine right but is at par with the other creatures both imagined and extant. There is a painting of a crab holding an earthworm which is taken from a Gond creation story where the crab (Kakramal) and the earthworm (Gichwamal) together get a ball of mud from the underworld to give to Bara Dev or ‘Great God’ from which he creates the Earth once again. The visual narrative of this story Jangarh bends ever so lightly to create a hybrid straight out of a sci-fi novel. The crab and the earthworm are so entwined that the crab appears to have a trunk. In another pen and ink work (which incidentally was a medium Jangarh only discovered later and became quite adept at using) the ‘elephant-crab’ has transformed some more as it stands holding aloft a striped bird in its pincers while talking to a striped snake. In yet another painting the ‘elephant-crab’ has transfigured into a half Ganesha-half crab godlike being.
The beauty of being Jangarh was the remarkable ease with which he incorporated unfamiliar ideas like silk-screen printing and poster making into his practice. This coupled with his ability to headline the drama and the uniqueness of his culture created a magic mix that artists spend years practicing and perfecting. The birds and animals of his pen drawings are often accompanied with an aureola of fine lines as if he means to consecrate all beings as divine. There is one work called ‘Birds in Copulation’ which is beautiful precisely because it evokes the act in the form of a flower where the pair is expertly concealed in the centre like seeds that their combined haloes circumscribe like petals.
Jangarh’s natural skill made him draw and paint like an absolute pro despite the fact that the much of the Indian contemporary art establishment remained smug about his outsiderness, about his ‘tribal’ identity. It was ultimately government setups like Bharat Bhavan and National Crafts Museum that gave wings to his creativity. A mural he painted inside the Vidhan Sabha in Bhopal is today one of his few remaining legacies.
Many art writers and commentators have attributed Jangarh’s suicide during a residency in Japan to the pressures of the art market but to me the larger issue seems to be the ‘tribal artist’ label that kept him in extended poverty when he was in all senses a ‘contemporary artist’ unlike any before or after him. This posthumous recognition by the contemporary art world is great but it would’ve been nicer if it had come in his lifetime.
Dhiraj Singh is a well-known journalist, writer, TV personality and artist who has shown his abstract paintings and X-Ray works in India and abroad.