Nestled in the centre of Lutyen’s Delhi, Bikaner House is a pale building with a rich history. Art, historical, one-of-a-kind, and awe-inspiring find temporary residence here. This week it houses the vibrant collection of a young indigenous artist whom most acknowledge as the Father of Gondi Art — Jangarh Singh Shyam.
Born in the village of Patangarh in East Madhya Pradesh, Shyam was a contemporary artist and credited for starting an eponymous movement known as the Jangargh Kalam. His friends remember him as a quiet man “whose silence spoke volumes;” they recall his intense eyes that could “see through souls.” The world recognises him as an artist who hung himself while exhibiting in Japan in 2001. He was 37-years-old.
“In many ways, there was no Gondi art before Jangargh. Their traditions were in song and dance. It was he who started the movement and is widely credited for it,” says art historian Dr. Aurogeeta Das who has collaborated with Mitchell S Crites to write a book about Shyam’s work titled The Enchanted Forest. Das’s words are entirely accurate — the ‘tradition’ of Gondi art is only 30 years old, precisely when Shyam started painting.
In his village, Shyam was meant to join the usual path of becoming a bard — Gondis are known for singing and dancing. He, however, took to art. In 1981, Shyam met J Swaminathan who went on to become his mentor. In 1982, he astonished Swaminathan and everyone, actually, by painting the dome of Bhopal’s Bharat Bhavan opened in 1982. Prior to this, Shyam had never worked on such a large scale. “That was something that really astonished Swaminathan as well — that he made the transition from smaller art pieces to painting a dome of a building without missing a beat,” says Das.
Despite critical success, Shyam was desperately poor and took to selling his painting at the Suraj Kund Mela for money. In 1987, he met Mitchell S Crites and the two became close — a relationship that appears to transcend a collector and artist, or perhaps one of perfect symbiosis. Crites has a flawless eye and took an immediate liking for Shyam’s work.
Nearly 20 years after the artist’s suicide, Crites has put up for exhibition over 70 of Shyam’s paintings from his private collection to honour his close friend. Resting inside the gallery room of Bikaner house, this display does a rare thing: it veers from the narrative around the artist’s death to celebrate his life. Showing from October 16th until the end of this week, these are works that have never before been seen in India.
The exhibit is unique and unlike any of the earlier exhibitions of Shyam’s work. It’s the first consolidated collection of the Gondi artist’s work from his early days selling unsigned paintings at the Small Industries Museum to the art he created towards his end. An exploration of the work chronicles — and makes recognisable on sight — Shyam’s progression from indigenous artist to a genius who could work on any scale, with any medium, and was never afraid to incorporate new concepts into his art.
Like many people, I’m familiar with Shyam’s art through the Internet. His work sells for anything between nine to ten lakh rupees and sold by all significant art dealers including Sotheby’s, who reportedly sold one of his paintings for over six lakhs in 2009. However, gallery owners have capitalised on Shyam’s tragic death and also often exhibit work that would fall into the category of indigenous art. This was a man who transcended that label, and this is the exhibition that proves it.
After walking through a narrow corridor lined with his earlier work, I walked into a vast room and am greeted by a larger than life painting of Shiv Shesh Nag made by Shyam in 1990. The pictures seen on the Internet do not do these works justice. Standing tall against a deep yellow background, multi-coloured cobra rears its fully unfurled head at me. The painting is visceral. I think it hissed. Every colour block holds a different intricate pattern that needs to be carefully examined to be seen. These details, hidden in plain sight, are Shyam’s invitation to the viewer to look closer and not take for granted that local artisans are simple or see their work as unsophisticated.
That Crites, the collector of these paintings, has a special relationship with both the art and the artist is evident from every intonation of his voice. He recalls Jangarh coming over to his home to show him work that was just completed.
“I think he would show me the best because, you know, artists also know… they want someone who will appreciate their art,” says Crites.
The collection he’s presenting at Bikaner House back up his words in volumes. From the early days of Shyam’s obsession with Gondi gods and naturalist paintings — trees, birds, insects — to his black and white drawings made using a rotary pen, Crites’ collection has it all.
The exhibition room is divided into nooks — each holding a different aspect of Shyam. You enter to his vibrant colourful undeniably Gondi art and end near his black and white works, which were made between the years 1990 and 1997. Many of the paintings were dated or captioned when I visited Bikaner House, but the transition from artist to master experimenter is apparent. In some of the work, I could feel Shyam’s restless hands skating on the paper, his sharp strokes cutting away at any preconceived notion of what his work should be or would be.
The black and white work’s exhibition is significant because these paintings are rarely seen. The story of a suicidal artist who made folk art sells and so most people have not been confronted with the true extent of Shyam’s artistic versatility and virtuosity.
These sketches were made after Shyam had been living in Bhopal for a decade or more. They cannot be politely boxed into indigenous art. With all the qualities of modern contemporary art and skill that jumps off the parchment into your heart, these works are masterpieces. And more so because Shyam was a self-taught artist; a natural.
Where did he learn to use a rotary pen?
“He picked up one at Vidyan Bhavan one day,” recalls Crites, “He was a sponge like that. Whatever you showed him, he found a way to execute it but with his special touch.”
The sketches could also be a reaction to Shyam’s frustration at being pigeon-holed as an adivasi. Crites remembers a day when the artist called and through tears described how a gallery owner insisted that he wear loin clothes and hold a spear during the showing. Was Shyam part of a hunter-gatherer tribe? No. His people are farmers.
“He was devastated. He said, where I live we just dress normally. And he had been living in Bhopal then for ten years, he was urbanised, and it showed in his art.” Crites marched down to the gallery, held the owner “by the collar” and “explained” how condescending the ploy was.
His fondness for Shyam still knows no bounds. It has taken some persuasion for Crites to show his collection. “I used to sit with boxes and boxes of his work. Take one out, stare at it… take another out… and so on. People asked me to lend them art for exhibitions, but after what happened (the death) I couldn’t….” Crites’ voice trails off. He is visibly upset. As he reaches out for his black coffee, he avoids my eyes, and his hands are shaking. It’s been nearly 20 years since Shyam’s death, but for his friend, the memories are as fresh as a raw wound.
He was convinced by a dear friend — Malvika ‘Mala’ Singh, the publisher of celebrated monthly journal Seminar and known around Delhi as the Grand Lady of the Capital’s Elite.
Though he has opened up his collection for the world to see, Crites won’t talk about Shyam’s suicide. He admits to a feeling of guilt when thinking or speaking of it. “It will always be there, that you had a friend who needed you to be there and you were not,” he says.
In this exhibition — a celebration of the artist’s life — he rightly points out there should not be a need to remember the tragic circumstances of his death. “He was alive in every sense of the word and hungry for knowledge, and it is so visible in his art — it jumps out of the canvas at the viewer it is so alive.”
Along with the exhibition, there is a book release — an academic study of Shyam’s work with a focus on the Crites collection — written by Das, who was introduced to Shyam’s work while researching his nephew.
“The second I saw his work, I knew this artist was special. He was a world-class talent,” she says. Describing her first moments alone with the Crites collection of Shyam’s art, Das says, “it was a spiritual experience for me to be near great art, and as an agnostic person, this is the closest to God or spiritual that I have ever experienced.”
She also traced down every creature drawn and painted by Shyam to an actual animal found in Eastern Madhya Pradesh. “It’s something to be noted — how familiar he was with flora and fauna around him, that he instinctively on sight recognised different species and was in touch with the natural world around him.”
Shyam’s unique relationship with nature is also highlighted in several etchings wherein animals are drawn with what appears to be an aura surrounding them. The first time Crites saw these particular works, he remembers asking Shyam if the aura drawings were from his imagination.
“I asked him, Jangargh, is this an aura? Do you see this around the animal? And he replied: ‘You don’t?” recalls Crites.
via American Art Foundation
via American Art Foundation
Das’s favourite work is, coincidentally, also my favourite piece in the exhibition. It’s called Nests in a Cave, dated 1995, a mere six years before Shyam would end his life. To understand the skillfully shaded, almost abstract shapes, one needs to focus and look close.
In all of Shyam’s work, looking close is a theme — it is his challenge to a viewer. A way of saying: see the unseen, don’t accept the bigger picture at face value. It may well be his way of communicating with a world that so often turned his heritage into a gimmick and ignored his art for what it indeed was: art. Not localised, not indigenous, not Indian, but art that broke barriers from an artist who had a natural talent to do so.
Today, the artist’s son Mayank and daughter Japani — named so after his first trip to Japan in 1988 — are both artists, as are many members of his family including his wife. The market for Gondi art is burgeoning. Much of this is Shyam’s doing.
Crites recalls how much economic burden the artist was under after his work starting gaining recognition. “He had mouths to feed — not just his family but also the village.” Once Shyam approached Crites with several paintings and insisted he buys some. When asked why the rush, Shyam replied, “I have lost my buffalo.”
Towards the tail end of his career, Shyam also engaged other Gondi villagers to help “mass produce his art,” says Crites. This was his only choice given the financial pressure on him. “He would make the designs and then there would be a line factory of sorts of younger artists filling in the patterns under his guidance,” Crites recalls.
Shyam’s death remains a mystery. Some say that he was enjoying himself abroad, that he wrote letters filled with mirth and humour to his family. Crites believes Shyam was unhappy and homesick. Das, who visited the gallery where Shyam’s last living exhibit took place says she uncovered details suggest this as well. “I hesitate to blame any single person because that is a burden too heavy to carry for anyone,” she says.
Meanwhile, his life, his love of nature and the spiritual; his eye for the unusual and the mathematical in all aspects of life are on display at Bikaner House for a week. This writer would urge you to visit and celebrate the lust for experiences and adventure that Shyam’s vibrant, skilful work offers up.
Where: Bikaner House, Pandara Rd, Pandara Flats, India Gate, New Delhi, Delhi 110011
When: From October 16th to the end of this week. From 10 am onwards