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Gond Art & Tara Books: An Interview with Bhajju Shyam and Ram Singh Urveti Posted August 2014 by Jitendra Suman

  • pa asim art
  • ghadge sucheta art
  • ghadge sucheta art

“Books have no life; they lack feeling maybe, and perhaps cannot feel pain, as animals and even plants feel pain. But what proof have we that inorganic objects can feel no pain? Who knows if a book may not yearn for other books, its companions of many years, in some way strange to us and therefore never yet perceived?”

Elias Canetti

I still feel in my memory the shadowy sultriness of late afternoon, that rainy day in August when I was sitting with Gond tribal artist Ram Singh Urveti in the lush green Man Museum in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India talking about his paintings published in the picture book, The Night life of Trees. I was looking or more precisely touching its pages like kids do when they hold in their hands books full of pictures. The Night Life of Trees, a book for adults and children contains illustrations by three Gond tribal artists: Ram Singh Urveti, Bhajju Shyam and Durga Bai published with locally handmade recycled paper and silkscreen printing by Tara Books Publication. While talking to Ram Singh Urveti I was fascinated by the coarseness of the black handmade paper indicating night and with the flowing wavy Gond paintings of trees in vivid green, blue, yellow, red, orange, and off white colors.

While looking at the book I suddenly heard loud wild roaring. I was astonished and puzzled as we were sitting in the centre of a thickly populated city of 2.5 million people. I raised my head and looked here and there. Seeing my confusion a restrained smile spread across Ram Singh Urveti’s face and he said in a low voice “those are tigers, it’s their meal time”. “Can I see them?” I asked with an exhilarating curiosity, “you cannot, not in this season, come in May during summer then you can see lot of them” he said. We were sitting just one meter away from the barbed wire enclosure of India’s smallest national park. I felt that Ram Singh Urveti talked about tigers in a totally different tone, not having any physical vibration of wonder in his gestures which I felt. He treated them merely as animals not as a beastly threat, an evil. To him wilderness is different; it’s more a part of life than a distant exotic reality. And it comes from his life story, from the quiescent dynamics of Gond tribal life, from the physical location of his birth place, the village of Patangarh. Patangarh is a cartographically obscure tribal village situated in the deep dense forest of Amarkantak in Madhya Pradesh, a central province of India. Interestingly, the village of Patangarh finds its place among the pages of biographical annals of the famed missionary anthropologist Verrier Elwin. Patangarh figures prominently in the coming out story of Gond tribal art into the mainstream art circle. Four decades back legendry Gond artist Jangadh Singh Shyam was discovered by well-known Indian painter Jagdish Swaminathan in Patangarh village where he was painting the walls of houses. Swaminathan invited him to Bhopal. Years later Jangad Singh Shyam would commit suicide in Japan. These three Gond artists who worked with Tara Publication in the creation of these unique picture books belong to the village of Patangarh. “How do you feel working for the creation of a book, it is not common in your own culture?” Ram Singh looked at me silently figuring in his mind what to say and then he said briefly “I don’t see any difference, it’s the same for me, I just paint”. In his Pre-Descartian response doubt has no place and one could see the reflection of Gond reality of organismic unity with nature and fellow beings which they display in their paintings, quite unsuitable for our modern perception which is obsessed with techno-historical modalities of the individualized creative action. With indigenous artwork as pictorial alphabets these book play an unconventional role as they provide a worldview radically different from mainstream axial civilizations. It helps in nurturing truth of diversity.  I again started looking at the book where paintings of trees stand not merely as pictures but as stories about Gond life and their beliefs. This and the whole book itself are part of another story, the story of Tara publication.

Tara Publication is based in the ancient coastal town of Chennai a buzzing megalopolis and provincial capital of the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. For the last 16 years Tara Publication has published quality picture books for adults and children with a unique vision to promote publication with sustainable design. Recounting the tale of her 16 year association in one of her blog articles, Rathna Ramanathan explains sustainable design as the redefinition of how things – objects, buildings etc. – are designed, made and operated to be more responsible to the environment and responsive to people. Tara Publication to some degree has redefined both the process and objectives of book publishing in India. Founded by Gita Wolf in 1994 the first book of Tara Publication, The Very Hungry Lion by Gita Wolf and illustrated by Indrapramit Roy was printed in house using the silkscreen process on locally made handmade paper. Later a small silkscreen printing workshop evolved in Tara Publication under Arumugam Chinnaswamy. In one of his interviews Mr. Arumugam said that there is no hierarchy among workers involved and everyone takes a turn and does equal work, and a sense of community life prevails over individual roles.

Tara Publication is known nationally and internationally for their unique art story picture books. They publish their books using paintings of diverse indigenous art, illustrating a story or a narrative. Books always work as a bridge to cross barriers of time and space and enter another part of our world. And with their indomitable spirit Tara books have removed one more barrier that is the barrier of language. In her blog article Tara Books publisher Gita Wolf writes that “we would like to see each artist be an ‘author’, the active creator of a book”. In this way their picture books intend to transform the traditional relationship between different agencies of book creation.

It was the dark hour of 8 o’clock in the evening and the timid short old watchman of the Akaswani colony in Bhopal was eating a banana when I asked him to point me toward the house of Bhajju Shyam, a well-known Gond tribal artist living in that area. He opened his mouth and instead of telling me where Bhajju Shyam lived he said with a giggle that Bhajju is his good friend and that is the true definition of Bhajju Shyam, that he is friendly. Author of seven books from Tara Publication Bhajju is uncommon among Gond tribal artists, first he smiles a lot and second he responds quickly, traits which you will not usually find among Gond tribal artists. His book, The London Jungle Book is a colorful story of Occident, of imperial heart of pax Britannica through the eyes of a Gond tribal artist born in Patangarh, Madhya Pradesh, India. Bhajju Shyam told me that in London when he went out for food he was anxiously scared about eating beef, as eating cow is considered a mortal sin, peccata mortalia in Gond society. In his book he depicted his worldview with respect to the English eating habits by making a cow in the Gond style of painting cut into parts and displayed on plates. Similarly in order to depict time, Big-Ben through his eyes is converted it into a big colorful rooster to show that the mechanics of nature has its own organic instrument of time in Gond society. The London Jungle Book is a delightful narrative of discovery through the eyes of a Gond tribal artist in both his own words and illustrations.

I had heaps of Tara Picture books of Gond tribal art in my lap while sitting in Bhajju Shyam’s house. I asked him if there was any relationship between his dreams and his art work. He was quite inconclusive but he said that in dreams he never stays in one place, he wanders between time and place. I wondered about my own dreams and a strange thought came into my mind; can we accept that our memories are nothing but lost dreams, those we lost forever? Diversity in human society is a dreamy memory in the face of our present unbridled drive for industrialized homogeneity. But whenever you come across work reflecting the worldview of marginalized ahistorical societies the dreamy memory of diversity becomes a reality…once shared by only ancient and medieval travelers.

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