KOCHI: “This is my village and the animals that live with us... that’s where the elephant takes rest, just beneath that tree... and that is churmuhi, an animal with four heads....”
Narayan Deen Tekam, a Prathan Gond community chieftain from the banks of the Narmada in Madhya Pradesh, has a lot of tales to share through the art of tribe. Pointing to a painting by Prathan Gond artist Anand Singh Shyam, Narayan says all these works, on display at David Hall in Kochi, were inspired by the lives and lore of his village.
Anand’s massive work is a marvel to look at. Elephants, colourful monkeys, trees, and four-headed beings fill the 8ft-wide canvas. Another equally mesmerising work is done by Kalavati Shyam. Her painting, about her village, appears vastly different to the one by Anand. Her village is full of people, going about their everyday lives.
The imagery captures women, children and men, who prepare food, feed the cattle, and collect firewood from forests. Domestic animals, the birds that visit them, and a ‘root map’ of Kalavati’s village also feature on the rust-shaded background.
Sadly, Kalavati is no more, informs artist Satyapal, who curated the exhibition. The 52-year-old artist died a few months ago. The ‘Narratives of Narmada’ exhibition presents surreal artworks of several popular Gond artists like Kalavati.
The Gonds spread across Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha and Telangana are one of the largest tribes in India. And Gond art is popular across the globe for its bright colours, and vivid motifs, lines and dots.
It was the famous artist Jangarh Singh Shyam who drew international attention to Gond art. He had even started a new school of art called Jangarh Kalam. However, the artist died by suicide in 2001 at the Mithila Museum in Tokyo, where he was doing a residency programme.
Artworks by his daughter, Japani Shyam, are also exhibited here. Her frames include the tree and leopards that rest under it, and animals having a small gathering. In fact, most of the works displayed here follow the Jangarh school. The frames are inspired by tales the community has preserved through folk music.
Chieftain Narayan is the ace storyteller of the community. Pointing to a frame by Gond artist Japani Shyam, he says: “That one is about the people from under the water and people above water. You can see a woman who is half fish, like a mermaid, and a man from the land. Fishes swim around her, and another woman is watching from above, sitting on a ber or Indian jujube tree with blue leaves.”
The ber tree is a recurring element in most paintings, and Narayan explains the reason. “The leaves appear among three lobes. It represents the Trimurti, the three Gods,” he says. The ber tree, he adds, appears in several tales of the Gond community. “Be it the story of a raja taking rest under a wild ber tree, or Lord Vishnu appearing as a tortoise to help churn the ocean of milk,” says Narayan. “As per our belief, the mountain used for the churning was filled with the wild ber trees.”
Artists participating in the exhibition include Kamily Kushram, Nagushya Shyam, Prasad Kushram, Ramsing Urvetti, Sachin Tekam, Shakuntala Kushram, Surendra Tekam, and Susheel Shyam. The Narratives of Narmada at David Hall in Kochi will conclude on October 23