Finding My Way
By: Venkat Raman Singh Shyam and S Anand
Price: Rs 1,499
Aboy wants to buy a pinwheel; his father teaches him to make one instead. He watches the rumble of distant trucks, so his father makes him a wooden one with wheels to ride to school. A bicycle after passing class eight helps him with odd jobs that whet his appetite for knowledge. The boy learns that steel in crude is used to make steel-belted tyres for a better grip and you’ll know that knowledge isn’t something that only schools and urban environments impart. Instead, it can be acquired through curiosity.
In Gond artist Venkat Raman Singh Shyam’s illustrated story of his life (told in collaboration with journalist-publisher S Anand)—an autobiography would be too lofty a term for someone as rooted and humble as him—it is difficult to tell what you enjoy more, the accomplished illustrations that make up the book, the simple, accompanying text, or the snatches of poetry and folk tales that punctuate it. Established with the help of mythology that his community of artists, the Pardhans, “sing” about while making murals and owe their success in great part to another artist, Jangarh Singh Shyam, who became so famous for “playing with the dot and the line” that he was sent off to Japan on a government cultural exchange programme. So far away that he felt adrift and killed himself.
But what Jangarh left behind was a sense of pride in his community of fellow-artists, a journey that had begun with J Swaminathan who had fought for their dignity and ensured a platform for tribal and folk art at Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal. Before him, the anthropologist Verrier Elwin had married within the community and settled here. Venkat Raman’s interesting interplay and illustrations mix the routine and everyday with this history and a rich mythology alongside vignettes from his own life to build the tempo to give us a crash course about a childhood and upbringing that one can only call privileged for being so different from our own prosaic lives. Yet, it is not without its struggles or strife. To hear Venkat Raman speak of the medieval sant Kabir and classical artist Rembrandt, Florence and Bhopal in the same breath is to understand that the world is the same irrespective of its longitudes and latitudes. His uncluttered breadth of vision remains free of useless trivia or experiences.
As India’s tribal art gains respect around the world, we have to learn not to differentiate between high and low art, between the contemporary, the classic and the folk, consigning them into silos, when all the time, as Venkat Raman so sensitively points out: “Brick by brick you build a house, say it’s mine / The moon does not claim the night with its shine.” If we too learn, like him, to view the world, mankind, nature and the universe as one, then we must be thankful to Venkat Raman for serving it well—but only if we pay heed to it.