Traditionally, art for Gonds had a ritualistic, ceremonial role; they painted on the walls and floors of their homes — patterns, lines and geometric designs in four basic colours. Practically everyone in the village painted. To them, art not only has aesthetic value but is also a means of sharing stories and sustaining traditions.
The ‘discovery’ of Gond community’s visual expression having artistic value is as recent as 1981, when Dr Swaminathan, director of Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, sent his assistants to the hinterlands to identify master artists, and if possible to bring them or their work to back to Bhopal. One of the assistants spotted Jangarh Singh Shyam’s aritstic talent, and he brought him to Bhopal to create mural for Bharat Bhavan. Thereafter, Jangarh’s career took off as an artist – he created murals for the state’s Legislative Council building (Fig. 2), exhibited in Paris in 1989 and travelled twice to Japan. He became the first person to practice Gond art on canvas and ceramics. He also applied it to non-traditional imagery including a tourist map and Khajuraho temples.
Jangarh encouraged his extended family members to come to Bhopal and taught them basic techniques of modern media and helped launch them as artists. Two of the artists groomed by him, Bhajju Shyam and Ram Singh Urveti were commissioned by a restaurant in London in 2002. This overseas journey inspired Bhajju Shyam to create an illustrated travelogue, The London Jungle Book, in which London’s landmarks are seen in Gond art form. There have been a few more similar books after this including ‘The Night Life of Trees’, manually printed using silk-screen process.
The next leap in development of Gond art came with a short animation film titled ‘Best of the Best’ in 2006 made in Scotland using the work of 15 Gond artists made in a workshop held in Bhopal. This project truly internationalised Gond art as it was a collaboration of the artists with overseas producer, director and animator. It also saw a collaboration of artists and designers to create together.
Gond tribal paintings have come a long way from the traditional walls daubed with patterns in natural pigments to celebrate festivals or wedding. Unfortunately these have rarely been documented or photographed, so a study of their art is necessarily contemporary, starting with Jangarh Shyam’s works. Jangarh experimented for the first time in drawing potters, weavers and basket sellers. He interspersed them in his own unique way with snakes, peacocks, monkeys, a lion, a boar and a stag whose antlers matched the spreading foliage of the trees, with his typical use of tonal and contrasting colour blocks built up from dotted sections. While Bhajju Shyam too used such traditional visual vocabulary in his work, he has pushed this imagery in new ways drawing urban elements in traditional ways. Though present-day Gond art uses bright hues, the original art on walls and doors comprises only three mud-based colours and white.
Simple and easily understood symbols are the link between imagination and the everyday in Gond art. Its defining characteristic is an intricate, laboured upon nib-and-paint work. The canvas paintings, thick with a base colour, have images from folktales and family-inherited snippets about nature and its whims.
Each Gond artist develops his or her own decorative patterning, which is as unique as a signature. One can look at the detailing in a Gond painting and tell who the artist is. Unlike other tribals, they tend to sign their work. The personalised style is acknowledged respected as an intellectual property of the artist by others in the community: only the family members of an artist are allowed to use his/her style.