Claws bared, tigers stalk with a slow ripple of tight muscles; a fox sniffs, its luxuriant tail swept above its head, a picture of nimble cunning; two crocodiles confront each other for a fight or foreplay; tree trunks meander upwards lazily, spreading a tapestry of branches as though to protect the birds and beasts like a presiding deity. The birds and beasts, the ornate trees, reside in the collective imagination of the Gond and Bhil tribes of Central India but are, at the same time, invested with palpable reality.
These pre-Aryan communities have increasingly found their tradition and culture eroded through inevitable contact with mainstream society, their cultivation practices invalidated as their economy is merged with the world outside. Their art, meant to decorate mud walls and floors as symbols of good fortune during social occasions, would have vanished too, were it not for the efforts of people like the artist, J. Swaminathan. He discovered Jangarh Singh Shyam — who became the first known modern-day Gond artist under his patronage — and went on to awaken middle-class interest in this art.
Captivating examples of this art from five well-known artists of Madhya Pradesh are to be seen till May 18 at Harrington Street Arts Centre. They propose an alternative weltanschauung to the anthropocentric bias of industrial society. Its vision of primitive animism presumes Life/Nature as an organic weave in which every creature has a place, including man, and objects are imbued with a living spirit often conceived as a god or goddess of their pantheon. And it reveals a complex process of acculturation as Aryan elements seem to lightly overlay non-Aryan mythology and way of life.
The vision of fundamental harmony — common to ancient tribes — is reflected in the way animals and trees are depicted. From an intimate knowledge of forest life and its creatures, laced with fantasy and myths that have been passed down through the generations in folklore and songs, comes a kind of fond, somewhat playful respect for animal and plant life. Though endearingly reductionist in syntax, with naturalistic minutiae pared down to quaint, childlike forms, the zoological identities of the animals are unerringly communicated. The birds and beasts, fish and trees are fascinating characters in their own right, stylized though the forms are, and patterned with a variety of lines and dots. And it is these lines and dots that tell the artists apart for each has his/her signature pattern.
At first glance, differentiation may prove difficult, but the careful viewer can soon identity the artist from his particular pattern. Subhash Vyam, largely working with ink, prefers black and white, to which colour may be added, sparingly, judiciously, while a dense, fan-like pattern wraps the bodies of animals. His wife, Durga Bai, prefers a wealth of colours, with a pattern of broad bands that are filled in with small, close lines, resembling woven fabric. If Venkat Raman Shyam chooses an intricate scheme of overlapping scales, Rajendra Shyam combines horizontal lines with vertical dashes. And the Bhil art of Bhuri Bai is distinctive in its stippling, with its riff of specks arranged in trails.
With cities invading the tribal space, changes became inevitable. So paper and canvas replaced mud surfaces; ink and acrylic replaced earth colours; and planes and cars have begun to surface in their paintings. Subhas Vyam seems to typify the way this art endures while incorporating wondrous images of a changing world. Like a flying plane that wrests the stunned, bemused gaze of a tiger, twisting its head to look up. Durga Bai’s observation of animal forms is both keen and impish. Her flowing lines evoke the stealth of stalking tigers, the dance of trees or an amusing Ganesh as a tease with his rat.
But the tree — the tree of life, the philosophic anchor of ancient belief and iconography — acquires a majestic personality in Rajendra Shyam’s art. In its shelter congregate deer, snakes, big cats, birds and such. Venkat Raman Shyam is the most prolific, and in one particular work, indicates how he is extending the legacy of community tales and images in depicting the concept of holistic Life in the protective embrace of the Earth. Lastly, Bhuri Bai’s eye reinvents animals into neat shapes as ebulliently as it does planes and cars.
But in spite of the planes and cars, the vision of the artists remains radiant, undimmed, ever buoyant with the kind of colourful, humorous, tongue-in-cheek storytelling that you associate with the village kathakar. For their art is, indeed, about recounting lore through visual correlatives.