“What do you want to represent in your work”? when I asked Gangaram, a Gond tribal artist born and brought up in the dense forest area of central India and recently shifted to the city of Bhopal, he seems not to hear this, denying homo symbolicum; a representational creature. The reluctance in his voice and the reflection of timid reddishness in his eyes, colored in the dying daylight of the silently encroaching pallid evening, created a sense of helplessness in this interaction. I learned from books that representation of visible and invisible aspects of human society; of human psyche and the natural world remains a consistent inspiration for artistic expression. Even artists in simple society, where to a large extent artistic expression always carries religious or ritualistic purpose, also to some degree represents their mental interaction with their own self or the world around them. But this was not working with Gangaram and from the incoherent coherency of his words it appears that the sense of Individualized production which we term as representation in fine art doesn’t lie in his terrain. Gangaram finds it difficult to find the right words in my language and his tribal language is totally unaware about this discussion. Gradually he helped me to understand one significant aspect about his work. It is that there is a story behind every picture which he paints and draws a story from beginning to end. But these stories are not his creation they were there when he was growing up, there before him and it was always there like the mountains and the rivers. ”Do you know that your pictures signify the world around you; the world of trees, birds, forest animals, fish, animistic gods and goddesses?” I again pressed him to put himself in the center of his work to make him liable, for what he is doing. But he seems clueless about this fact that telling stories through painting is something which categorizes his work as representational. Machari as he calls fish in his tribal dialect is making friendship with other fishes and even with the fisherman in his work. Chirriya a Gond tribal word for bird is someone who talks incessantly and thus initiates a host of conversation with human beings. All these stories happened close to the place where Gangaram grew up. Thus his consciousness never addresses people of faraway places, opposite to the modern artists whose creations or production attempt to address a wider audience. This has pressured modern artists to remove what their minds constantly weave in their personal interactions with the people close around them. And thus their personal expressions take the form of meta-expression to achieve universal representation. Gangaram’s artistic mind is unaware of such compulsions. While watching Gangaram working on small paper or canvases you will find him engrossed, not to depict but to imagine. The stories which he is weaving in color and form are something which detaches him from his worldly existence and he gradually descends into the dreamy land of talking birds and contemplative hunter, into the world of spirits and animistic gods who come to him during the night in his dreams directing him to overcome the painful fluctuation between hope and despair, between the broad daylight and the fearful uncertainty of darkness of night. Here Gangaram is not intending to represent the world around him; rather he takes a path for imagination which starts from the surface of his canvas or paper.
Lado Bai a Bhil tribal artist from the western part of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh is not like Gangaram who is puzzled by his recent shift from his forest village to the city. Lado Bai has been living in Bhopal for the last 20 years. She along with Bhuri Bai another Bhil tribal artist, constitute the internationally renowned female duo of tribal artists from India. Lado Bai’s discovery was driven by the wave of primitivism in the mainstream fine art world. Lado Bai gave me a piece of hard bread made up of corn and with a broad smile she told me to eat it. I tried badly, and then I asked her, “What are your thoughts about change in your paintings?” due to her long stay in an urban center surrounded by the vast materialistic urban life. Lado Bai was not so disturbed by this question as Gangaram was which shows that she is accustomed to hearing such questions. But instead of answering me directly she told me how much she loved to paint in her native village and that now things are getting harder for her as she is getting older. Lado Bai was more interested in telling me how burglary is rampant in her native village. Thieves become very bold as they steal her goats in broad daylight. Then she starts grieving for her late husband who was very brave and ferocious always carrying a bow and arrow. In those days when he was alive nobody dared to touch their things. Now even the village heads have gotten mixed up with these people. I waited for her to come around to my question but she went right on and narrated everything about her family, village and daily life hardships but she didn’t care to give me an answer. Contrary to the modern artists, both past and contemporary who can incessantly talk about their artistic work and issues current in the art world, interaction with Lado Bai goes in a different direction. Lado Bai smiles back after every 10 seconds but she never replies directly to my question. In her responses she gives the impression that although she understands that her work is very important in terms of artistic genius, she does not have that orientation of molding her verbal interaction in accordance to it. Even after doing tribal paintings for the last 35 years she is unaware of the debates surrounding the reception of tribal art in the mainstream art world. Lado Bai remains unperturbed by the information that her work is being displayed in galleries across Europe and in the USA.
With both Gangaram and Lado Bai you will find that there is no significant break between their primary social natural environments. Thus they still believe that their animistic gods are with them and it because of their grace that they are able to do whatever they are doing in their lives. At the end of our interaction Lado Bai was narrating to me about the snake god and god of the banyan tree and how these gods follow the people of her tribe, until appeased. When I said goodbye to her she was rushing towards a public transport vehicle. In the dusty pale street light her small timid old figure was fading away in the struggling mass of people getting on the public transport system and the night was clueless about its course or more precisely, indifferent.