Lay perceptions of tribal life remain heavily tinged with what critics of Verrier Elwin have termed the tradition of “ecological romanticism”. This has often resulted in artists from the community prioritizing the idea of the pristine over all else when it comes to representing their diverse forms of art and culture. An exhibition of 40-odd paintings by Gond artists raised the hope that it would break new ground by challenging some of the assumptions that have remained intact in the popular imagination in spite of the changes that have swept tribal societies across India (Ganges Art Gallery, September 22-October12). But the hopes were belied soon.
Among the artists, Roshni Vyam seems the most intent on unveiling a new narrative. One of her paintings depict two agriculturalists working on a field sprouting human heads as well as scrubs. Vyam’s work deserves attention, not because of its technique that remains modest, but for its political tone that highlights the deepening agrarian crisis that has crippled tribal societies in central India.
A world under siege — from both the State as well as dissenters — is, however, not one that has been stripped of resilience. This seems to be the message of Devlal Tekam’s painting that caricatures the menacing hunter/intruder into a benign figure that remains befuddled by the giant and brightly coloured winged creatures.
The weight of despair has not robbed this world of its sparkling humour. In Bhuri Bai’s comical portrayal (picture, left), one sees a crimson alligator-like creature floating with a grinning ghost atop it. Another spectre — with a dark, hairy body containing tiny white bulb-like dots — swings gaily from a tree whose branches resemble equally spectral shapes.
The rules have been rewritten for the inhabitants of this universe that remains cloaked in the shadow of myths and fantasy. A hedgehog thus gazes down fondly intent on feeding its brood, which consists of rodents (Rajendra Shyam, picture, right). This wilful blurring of lines between reality and fantasy reinforces the idea of a world untouched by the tyranny of rules. This could also be a wish to return to that mythical golden age. Hence the notion that some artists have distanced themselves from an overtly romanticized depiction of the reality of the tribal world does not always hold true.
The organizers sourced these exhibits from a private gallery in Delhi. While complimenting their efforts, one cannot help but point out a few irritants. The missing catalogue and attendants with booming voices apart the absence of an inventory providing details of the artists was truly galling.