Death and afterlife of a tribal artist
The circumstances in which the talented tribal artist Jangadh Singh Shyam died need some introspection to ensure that such situations do not recur, says JAYA JAITLY. This is because tomorrow, there could be another artist like him.
Jangadh Singh Shyam at Khajuraho, 1999.
ON July 3, in far away Niigata Prefecture, five hours from Tokyo, Japan, a young Indian tribal artist committed suicide. This happened towards the end of an art assignment at a private museum. The leaders of the art world in India were shocked and saddened. Some were indignant that our Government was not taking adequate precautions to prevent such incidents. Others were angry with modern western civilisations which put money and commercialisation above art and human emotions. The contribution of this fine tribal artist to the plush art galleries of cosmopolitan cities was remembered. Those who were close to Jangadh Singh Shyam as casual buyers of his paintings remembered his vibrant work and shy demeanour. Some asked indignant questions about why his host in Japan was stinting the money required to send his body home.
After the sound and the fury as well as genuine sadness, everyone went home. A few newspapers and magazines wrote about the tragedy and the usual talking heads in the art and craft world which include this writer, gave "bytes" into the metal heads of the television anchor's microphones, commenting on Jangadh's life and the tragedy of the event.
Tomorrow there could be another Jangadh and another tragedy closer to home, where it is always easier to ignore. It needs a closer look, and some introspection to ensure that such situations do not recur.
The late J. Swaminathan of Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal was apparently driving along a road some years ago in search of the village cluster where the Gonds lived. He stopped a boy on the roadside to ask him where he could find them. The young Jangadh Singh Shyam belonged to the same Pardhan group of tribals in the Dindori valley in Mandla for whom Swaminathan was searching. Jangadh said that he too painted like the others and eventually led Swaminathan to his home. Thus began a warm and sustained relationship during which time Jangadh had the opportunity to develop his creative expression with confidence and flair. He met renowned artists of India and made quiet connections with people in Paris, Australia, Japan and in the art circles of Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata.
Jangadh's gentleness was characteristic of all tribal communities living in these regions. While working on the Dastkari Haat Samiti's Crafts Map of Madhya Pradesh it was suggested to Jangadh that instead of leaving the unpainted sections of his works on paper bare and white, and sometimes grimy, he could colour the background with dark, rich tones. The delight with which he explored this idea and the magnificent results he obtained made him marvel over and over again with completely misplaced humility that he had learned something unique.
He had brought his wife and child along with him for the three weeks it took to create the required art work for our map. His wife would sit alongside, painting her own pictures or at times filling in colours for him. Their child played with colours, crayon, water, and enjoyed the freedom to explore the large office room in the residence of George Fernandes, a Member of Parliament (now the Union Minister for Defence). It had been vacated for them so that they could work and live there undisturbed.
Like all artists of India who see their work not as an individual creation but as an expression of a continuing community tradition, Jangadh worked with a serene and concentrated look on his face, not saying a word when someone came by to express pleasure or compliment him on his work. Instead, he took pleasure in pointing to his wife's paintings and explained how she too had her own way of drawing animals and birds. After their work was done for the afternoon, Jangadh's wife would cook, and then they would go for a walk to explore the locality, returning to their work after dinner when their child was asleep. In the mornings he painted under our guidance as colours had to work well together according to the specifics of the project we had jointly undertaken. Jangadh experimented for the first time in drawing potters, weavers and basket sellers. He interspersed them in his own quixotic way with snakes, peacocks, monkeys, a lion, a boar and a stag whose antlers matched the spreading foliage of the trees, giving a Rousseau-like effect which blended with his typical use of tonal and contrasting colour blocks built up from dotted sections.
Jangadh's individual talent and creative vision carried the art of the Pardhan-Gond tribals away from mere traditional expression to extend its character across profound dimensions of time. This was remarkably manifest in his depiction of the Khajuraho temples on which we worked to commemorate the Khajuraho Millennium celebrations in 1999. He went through illustrated books of the Khajuraho temple complex and finally transported the magnificent stone temples into the world of a tribal, replete with the familiar lively dots, a variety of whimsical animals and the tentacle-like portrayal of the trees and foliage around the temples. Since this painting was to be converted into a tourist map of Khajuraho, he also drew a map of the town, with its roads, water bodies, hotels and the airport, shown through an aircraft as a giant unwieldy bird. Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh Digvijay Singh released the map at a function to launch the millennium celebrations.
Sadly, Jangadh Singh Shyam was not present. Perhaps he was otherwise busy, perhaps they forgot to invite him; it is not relevant. Would a function unveiling a painting or a mural by a M.F. Husain or a Jatin Das normally happen without their presence?
The real world of a traditional folk artist is still separate and distant from that of the individual contemporary painter. The old debate about classical and folk forms, "secular" and community expressions of religious themes, festive community painting versus individual artistic expression will continue, but when a tribal artist carries his community links and traditions with him into another world, the world of art galleries, coffee table books, art launch cocktail parties and esoteric speeches in English or French about "the philosophical paradigm contained within the tribal's vision of the universe", the protagonist is bewildered. He stands listening quietly to another music of his own world, shyly doing a namaste or shaking hands and looking embarrassed if called upon to respond. When persons from closely integrated communities are involved in cultural expressions that are not originally individualistic in approach or style, nor part of isolated self-expression, they need deep understanding and continuous community sustenance.
Jangadh needed people to work with him closely. He needed his family around him as much as possible. He was unused to self-projection or self-assertion as is required by the urban art world. Hence he constantly needed to feel he had special friends and family around. He was legitimately ambitious, understandably hopeful of fame and good earnings and genuinely enterprising in his approach to his work, but a combination of all this that took him to Japan, alone, without the ability to communicate properly with his host or peers, eventually made him cut the umbilical chord that attached him to his own real world.
We may well ask why Jangadh felt so lonely in Japan. Apparently he was on a three-month assignment to paint for the private museum at Rs. 20,000 per month. Obviously each painting in Japan would be sold by the museum gallery for much more than that amount. As the three months were coming to an end, Jangadh apparently telephoned his family and asked them to send a fax saying he was required to get back home as soon as possible.
Decorative landmarks made for the Khajuraho Millennium celebrations by Jangadh Singh Shyam.
His travel documents were with his host who wanted him to stay on for another two weeks and had got his visa renewed for another three months. Desperately wanting to go home, without understanding the situation, without being able to communicate, without being able to summon the confidence to assert himself with this host, without being able to contact anyone at the Indian Embassy at Tokyo, without being able to just pack his bags, demand that his passport be returned, walk out and catch a train and then a flight home, his mind snapped, and he hanged himself.
A recurring thought is that if any of the well known, upper-crust artists had found themselves in a less than suitable situation abroad, they would have been aggressiv. Talented celebrities are always allowed tantrums, but for Jangadh, who never saw himself as anything more than a simple tribal artist way down in the social structure in his homeland, merely crossing international borders did not suddenly bring him the status and psychological confidence that he needed to communicate his wishes and translate them into action and results. In other words, he did not feel empowered.
Concern for the plight of people like Jangadh would require an honest reappraisal of our attitudes and actions towards tribals and other such persons who live in a different class and social structure from the elite of the country. A more homogenous society based on social equality if not economic equality is the first requirement. Then, a less patronising and a more embracing attitude in social dealings. Tribal communities need better opportunities for education and access to basic infrastructural development which they could pursue and grasp if they wish. Eventually, all this would have to lead to their acquiring far greater self-confidence in expressing their needs and asserting their rights in any circumstances. Economic betterment is an obvious factor that must arise out of their community art, otherwise as "development" is accessed, traditional expressions tend to disappear. In a changing world where cities become large metropolises, towns become cities, sleepy mofussils wake up to tourists, Pepsi and Hritik Roshan's gyrations, we need to see how the community art of the Gond and other tribals fit in and can not only sustain their culture but enrich the lives of others.
One such experiment was carried out by us during the millennium celebrations for Khajuraho. The town had to be got ready for the President and many tourists. I suggested making small walls, milestones, benches and partition-like structures and asking Jangadh Singh Shyam to paint on them. Bridges, school walls, bus stops all became props for artistic expression in which school children also joined. Jangadh enjoyed the project thoroughly and the townsfolk had their daily pathways enlivened by his lions, birds, flowers and foliage.
In Varanasi exists the fast dying art of wall painting usually done to decorate homes during weddings. Caparisoned elephants, kings and noblemen are seen going in procession on freshly white-washed walls. Instead of the blaring Mirinda, Limca, Coke and other such advertisements lining the walls that run along the ghats of the Ganges, such paintings on these walls would not only make Varanasi's ghats magical but lift the few remaining artists out of penury and the drudgery of painting cinema hoardings. These may be small ideas to sustain peoples and cultures but such ideas may create circumstances in which the Jangadh Singh Shyams of this country will feel wanted, relevant and uplifted. The multinational soft drink companies would be welcome to sponsor their work on public facades but the art community, both folk and urban, should be the ones to contribute towards embellishing our lives.
Jaya Jaitly is the president of the Dastkari Haat Samiti, New Delhi.
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