‘Mud is not just a medium but also a decoration in our aesthetics of art.
Mud is used as decoration and also as a canvas’
-Durgabai Vyam, Gond artist
It was a pleasant February morning in a village in Madhya Pradesh, when I first laid eyes on a patterned painting that had me hooked. I was trying to think of where and how this painting was made when I heard a voice beside me.
‘Gond art’ said a woman with kohl-rimmed eyes, bindi on her forehead, and some unidentifiable flower in her hair.
I stood there for a moment looking at the piece in absolute silence. There was something captivating about it. The extraordinary piece was quite simple but the visuals were beautiful. Bright yellow, reds and blues were all over the canvas depicting some mythical creature in a forest. The details were breathtaking – each and every stroke, pattern and dot brought the painting to life. It felt as if the creature and the trees were moving while being stagnant. The art piece created an illusion of motion.
That was my first time with a Gond painting. The second time, I studied it in the realms of literature.
While reading Bhimayana, a graphic narrative of Ambedkar’s life, in popular literature, I came across Gond art in some more depth. Unlike the other contemporary graphic novels that are sepia tinted, the unique, colourful illustrations were made by artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam. Every stroke, every detail added to the larger than life story of Ambedkar’s struggle. My interest in Gond art made me dig deeper into it and what I found left me in awe.
Gond art is made by Pardhan Gonds who are part of the Gond community, an indigenous tribal community found in Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Odisha. Known as one of the largest tribal communities of India, the Gonds have an extensive, well-recorded history that spans more than 2,000 years. Their cave paintings coincide with the Mesolithic age which adds a historic value to it. It is commendable how it continues to be relevant despite the ravages of time. The Pardhan Gonds, a subpart of the larger Gond community are the safe keepers of cultural lineage and heritage of the tribe. They are patronized by the larger Gond community and they, in turn, keep alive their history in the form of visual and performative arts. The Pardhan Gonds use ‘Digna’, a style distinct to them in their paintings.
Gond art takes its inspiration from Gond myths, genealogies, stories, cultural and oral history. The art was initially done on the walls and floors of the houses which signified good luck. These murals also worked as a repellent of evil energy and doubled as decoration. Gond art, like any other indigenous art form, is rooted in the Gondi culture. The beauty lies in its raw, imperfect portrayal of flora, fauna and the daily lives of the kin.
Nature is a significant part of the Gond art that bridges the pastoral and the wildlife. The intricate detailing of these animals and trees is what makes the Gond art stand out from others. The close connection of the tribe with nature produces an image that captivates the spectator. In addition to the details, the bright colours complete the stunning imagery. The Mahua tree is a significant part of Gond paintings because of its life sustaining properties and usefulness.
With the evolution of time, art too has evolved significantly. Now the Gond art is done on canvas which has led the art outside the small circle of the Gond artists. The shift from wall to canvas has made it possible for the art to travel to different corners of the world. This exposed the world to this local, indigenous art form.
Gond Paintings by Om Prakash Dhurvey (L-R): Tree of Life, ‘During Covid’ and another variation of the Tree of Life. View More.
It is not only the inspiration that comes from nature but also the colours used here. A typical Gond art is bright and catchy. Leaves, different soils of different colours, flowers, cow dung are some sources of the colours used here. While the murals and bigger canvases require extensive preparation, the small ones are done differently with paints and colours for commercial purposes.
The art form uses line strokes and a technique called stippling, inspired by Dhan and Sarso, two food grains that resemble dots and lines. These two techniques provide an illusion of movement in the paintings, giving them a unique effect. The simplicity of the Gond lies in its complex detailing. Every artist has their own distinct style and pattern of doing Gond and no two pieces are similar. When done on paper and canvas it looks as if the texture can be felt by our hands. It is, in a way, both visually and physically appealing
The Present-day Gond art is a legacy of Jangarh Singh who brought limelight to Gond.
Born in abject poverty in a Pardhan Gond community, Jangarh Singh Shyam (1962 – 2001) was a pioneer of Gond art. Scouted out by artist and director of Bharat Bhavan Museum Jagdish Swaminathan to Bhopal as a professional Gond artist in the 1980s, Shyam’s artworks were exhibited at Delhi, Bhopal, New York, Paris and Tokyo. This led to the exposure of Gond art and sparked a conversation about it.
Jangarh Singh’s global recognition not only brought Gond art in limelight but also paved a way for the subsequent generations of the rural Parhdan Gond in the career of art.
His unfortunate death at Japan by suicide in 2001 raised some pertinent questions about the situation of traditional artists in India –
Do we look beyond the aesthetic? How well do we know our tribal art forms? Do we know how important it is for the artists and the culture to be given a platform to express their perspectives? And the most important one – what about the artists? Are we doing enough to facilitate, preserve and sustain their culture through these art forms? All of these would be incomplete without looking at the ignorance of the rich tribal art by the urban elite. In an ideal world, how should we make ourselves more aware of the value of these art forms and be conscious consumers of these works?
The lack of appreciation of indigenous art forms in comparison to the other more mainstream art comes from the crudeness of the former. Also, because of the haggling culture in India, it is easier for consumers to negotiate with the local artists because it gives a false sense of accomplishment. We still have time. We can still mend our ways and educate each other.
Today we are advancing in time but are losing more than what we think. Jangarh Singh’s legacy is thriving but the scheduled tribes continue to fight for their rights. The Gond community has weaponized their art form. Their aesthetics doubles as a sign of resilience and resistance against their inhuman treatment by people in power. In contrast to their art that in a way portrays the utopian imagination through hybrid imagination, the reality is far from close to it.
The struggle as ‘outsiders’ continues and now, the artwork echoes their aspirations.