Why doesn’t National Gallery of Modern Art have space for adivasi artists, asks Venkat Raman Singh Shyam

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By – Charmy Harikrishnan

He sits across me, in a white shirt patterned with green sprigs of leaves and brown trousers. He has an iPhone in his pocket, a tiny gold ring on his right ear, a sun tattoo on his hand and a Xylys watch on his wrist. Venkat Raman Singh Shyam leans forward, a tuft of hair falling on his forehead, his big eyes going wider in part bewilderment and part indignation, and says: “People tell me, ‘Oh you don’t look like a Gond artist.'” What should a Gond artist look like? What should Gond art look like?

These were the questions that made 46-year-old Venkat paint his life story in an extraordinary new book Finding My Way. A visual memoir, it has about 170 of Venkat’s paintings, with S Anand, publisher of Navayana, narrating it – a synchronised performance between art and words. (Navayana is publishing a limited, autographed edition in high-quality Montblanc paper at Rs 10,000 a copy, and Juggernaut at Rs 1,499.) 

Venkat’s story begins in a mud hut in the village of Sijhora, near the jungles of Kanha, about 550 kilometres from Bhopal. The green of the nearby Patangarh hill, the tigers in the forest, the blue of the Narmada. They all transform into the essential colours of black and white of Venkat’s palette, into an intricate network of wavy, squiggly and straight lines that turn into big forms and bigger stories. 

Venkat’s painting Losing My Way about his days in Delhi where he pulled rickshaw

Venkat has come a long way from discovering, as an eight-year-old, a set of pencil drawings — of clocks and dogs and Link Taale — in his mother’s jewellery box and setting about drawing with charcoal on the walls and floors of his home.
He is showing at the ongoing Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Queensland, Australia; he had a solo exhibition at the Virginia Tech, US; and exhibited at Sakahan: International Indigenous Art, one of the most ambitious contemporary art exhibitions hosted by the National Gallery of Canada; and at the Vernacular India exhibition in Paris in 2013. “There is more appreciation abroad than at home. Here I am asked, ‘Is this Madhubani?'” says Venkat, who is dismayed as much by ignorance as with the expectation that art by an Adivasi should come cheap, “They ask: ‘But how much do the paper and paint cost?’, ‘Even my child can scrawl this!'”

Not really. Venkat makes his paintings with German-made Rotring pens and cheap acrylic, but his art is an inheritance bequeathed by ancestors who drew on the walls of their houses for thousands of years in the forests of Central India, part of the proto-continent of Gondwana. His art is also a reimagination of that heirloom as contemporary concerns starkly come through his signature style.

His lines carry the story of his life as well: sweating as a cook for two years in a police officer’s house in Delhi for measly wages and secretly making 32 paintings in his cramped room; working as a labourer and pulling a cycle rickshaw on the streets of the capital; painting hoardings and driving trucks in Madhya Pradesh.

“I am a Gond and my work has elements of Gond art, otherwise I would be rootless. But my work is contemporary art. I am painting here and now about the here and now,” says Venkat. “Why doesn’t the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) have space for Adivasi artists? Why should my work be shunted in Crafts Museum and Dilli Haats? My work is not craft, it is art.”

The first Gond artist to blaze into the firmament of modernity was Jangarh Singh Shyam, Venkat’s uncle, with his gorgeously fluid and ferocious lines that seem to make every tiger and snake come alive. Venkat has painted the moment when the two continents of city and forests clashed in 1981: when the prescient artist Jagdish Swaminathan took young Jangarh to Bhopal, from where he flew to the Magiciens de la Terre (Magicians of the World) exhibit at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 1989.
A little over 10 years later, a depressed, disillusioned Jangarh, who for all his fame still had just a tin house in Bhopal and worked for a meagre Rs 12,000 a month in Japan, killed himself. That day, Venkat decided that he would not do anything but paint.

Divided Colours 

The Gond art that came after Jangarh is called “Jangarh Kalam”. While that acknowledges the grand opening made by the great magician, it is also in many ways limiting. Venkat wants to give it a new name: Pardhan Gond Contemporary Art.

When the National Gallery of Australia takes particular pride in and gives exceptional space to show Indigenous art, why doesn’t the NGMA exhibit Adivasi artists? Rajeev Lochan, director of NGMA, Delhi, says, “The NGMA is for modern and contemporary art. There is the Crafts Museum to cater to Adivasi and tribal art,” But isn’t that an unfair hierarchy? “If it needs to be changed, that decision has to be taken by the ministry (of culture),” he adds.

Art critic Sadanand Menon says, “We have adopted a certain concept of the modern in art and anything with an older provenance is called traditional or tribal.

A painting by Venkat depicts the journey of Jangarh, the greatest Gond artist, from his village to the city of Bhopal

It is arbitrary, unfair and inaccurate. Yet, a few official organisations like the NGMA and the Lalit Kala Akademi have a hierarchical attitude and tribal art figures at the very bottom.” However, as Menon adds, the moderns, from Pablo Picasso to Mark Rothko, from Nandalal Bose to Ramkinkar Baij and SH Raza, have generously borrowed from the vibrancy and vocabulary of these older forms.

The art world should ask: What makes a non-Gond artist, say a Thota Vaikuntam, better than a Gond artist, say a Venkat? Should the art establishment be grading art and, worse, artists by provenance? If the NGMA can have a gallery of Tanjore paintings, which can be as stylised as any school of tribal art, should it be closing its big doors on contemporary movements in Gond and Warli, Madhubani and Patachitra? Menon says: “After about 70 years of Independence, one would have expected that the country would have devised an art policy that dissolved these differences.”

At Khoj Studio in Delhi, where I meet Venkat, he has painted green sprigs on white walls and the thumb of Ekalavya. Adivasi artists, the modern-day Ekalavyas, are still asked to stand aside, to take their work down the road to the Crafts Museum because the NGMA only has space for the higher-caste “moderns”, for the Arjunas of the arts.


The article was originally published in Economic Times, 8 May, 2016

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