Finding my Way, a singular book of dense and haunting beauty, audacious, original and innovative, iridescent with startling imagery and wisdom, could only emerge from a multitude of exceptional encounters. Of Gond painting and the poetic English word. Of tribal forest village India and the big city. Of back-breaking manual work and fine art. Of tribal and European painting. Of memoir, myth and contemporary meditations.

And most of all, the unlikely but fortuitous encounter between two men. Venkat Raman Singh Shyam, a Gond artist from the thick jungles of Mandla in the interiors of Madhya Pradesh, a school drop-out who spent many years of his life surviving by backbreaking casual labour, as a domestic help and a rickshaw puller. And S Anand, who has alloyed a fine reputation as a maverick publisher in English of social justice literature, and more recently as a writer and poet.

A remarkable partnership

Two men could hardly be separated more widely, by history, geography, destiny, class and caste. And yet, the crackling, creative partnership that they forged to create together this book could only sprout from bonds of great mutual respect, affection and trust. When Anand reached out his hand to Venkat four years earlier, I am sure he knew he was walking on thin ice, vulnerable to charges of an extractive, unequal relationship, of imposing his own voice on that of a man over who he wielded far too much social power. But I am glad he took the risk, because the book that has emerged from their partnership is destined to become a classic, and neither of them alone could have produced a fraction of it.

It is indeed Venkat’s voice that dominates the entire book, first through his use of Gond art traditions to not just illustrate his story, but also to reinterpret, entirely as he sees these, myth, the city, labour, and even Picasso! But also through his recounting of his remarkable life journey, from the forests of Mandla to the streets and art-centres of Bhopal, Delhi and Europe.

However, Anand is also everywhere, never dominating, but always encouraging, probing, curious, friendly, transforming authentically and perceptively Venkat’s perspectives and memories into the word, in supple, evocative, lyrical English prose.

Venkat revisits the “strange in-between world” that he inhabits, “made anew by my jamming with Anand, seeing my story through his eyes, as I watch him see the world through my eyes.” “I helped him connect with the selves that had died within him. I scripted his life as he scripted mine. We found ourselves in a clock where the two hands moved in two directions, and sometimes met each other.” Anand also speaks here and there with his own voice, especially as he discovers his Kabir, another running presence through the book.

He explained to me, “I sort of render him anew, creatively, through a range of aural and oral Kabirs I heard from Prahlad Tipaniya to Kumar Gandharva to Fariduddin Ayaz from across the false border of nationhood, and also itinerant nameless fakirs who sing Kabir just as beautifully. Just as Venkat found his Kabir, so did I’. Take his inspired interpretation of the spirit – not the literal words – of Kabir’s Jhini Jhini in the opening pages of the book:

The cloth Kabir bears has no wear and tear
He holds the warp of love with the weft of care.

A recurring image in the book is of a clock in which the hands move both clockwise and anti-clockwise. In the Gondwana clock, they explain, time keeps spinning, and clockwise and anti-clockwise are just appearances. This inspires the spinning structure of the book, which swings back and forth from recollections of Venkat’s life to the telling and retelling of myths and meditations about art and the sickness that devours the contemporary world. They illustrate the book’s un-structure with a charming tale of a Maria Gond “who waves a government jeep and hops in. When asked which way he was headed, the Gond, perhaps high on mahua, spreads his arms and points in opposite directions.”

Struggling artist

The centrepiece of the many wefts and warps of this book of pictures and words is of course Venkat’s own story. He recalls a childhood in the forests, in which he learnt mainly from fishing, ploughing, running away from the village school in which his father was a peon. He drew pictures in black coal on whatever he could find. As he grew older, in secondary school, he dug trenches for the forest department, and also film hoardings for a village video parlour.

Two windows opened Venkat and his family to the world we know. One was that the legendary British anthropologist Verrier Elwin, who was to have a marked influence on Prime Minister Nehru’s tribal policy, married his aunt Lila. The second was the iconic art centre created by the Madhya Pradesh government of Arjun Singh, Bharat Bhavan, and a museum of tribal art in Bhopal.

Jagdish Swaminathan, in search for protagonists of Adivasi art, found Venkat’s uncle Jangarh, and persuaded him to travel with him to Bhopal and show the world “how he could play with colours, time and space”. Jangarh painted one of the domes in Bharat Bhavan, became a national, and, in time, international art icon, soaring across the art world from Paris to Tokyo – until, in a fit of depression at the age of forty in 2001, he took his own life during a visit to Japan. He had “scaled time”, but “the bird flies away, becomes its own song”.

In his visits to the village, Jangarh had observed his nephew Venkat’s talent, and invited him to join him in Bhopal. Venkat lived with him for three years, with “a lot of love but little money”. He made a living by painting car number plates, and as a domestic help in a police officer’s house. When the officer was transferred to Delhi, he decided to move with him. He slaved in his house for a year, then escaped. He resorted instead to dehadi or daily wage casual work, and then drove a cycle rickshaw.

Some of the most moving passages from the book for me are from this phase in his life, probably because I work with many homeless daily wage migrants like him. ‘My rickshaw wheel moved against the giant earth-wheel. The movement produced the roti – round like the wheel…I became wheel, roti, earth. I survived to tell my circular tale.”

He writes of the big city where “pollution extinguished the remote grace of the stars. Unceasing traffic trammelled hearts. There was insatiable lust. Unfathomable hypocrisy jostled with unspeakable crime…” And he recalls many days of hunger, days when no work came his way and how he survived such days on chai.

He almost died of cerebral malaria, and his relatives saved him, took him back to his village, and nursed him back to life. He returned to Bhopal, and lived mainly by painting hoardings, and created Gond art works on the side that sold cheap. His uncle carried his work when he travelled abroad, and in time Venkat got to exhibit his work in Mumbai and Pondicherry.

But after his uncle’s death, he decided to give up hoardings altogether, charting his way through “the clearing” Jangarh had made “in the urban jungle of art”. Without mentors like Jangarh and Swaminathan, slowly but surely he built his own reputation.

Tribal art and ancient stories

Another strand in the warp and weft of the book is about tribal art. It observes how for many this is a craft, not an art. In an exhibition of Venkat’s paintings in a premier art gallery in Mumbai, a viewer exclaimed that her child could paint like this. Tribal art was collective and unsigned, never for sale. Transplanted into the outside world, the individual signature appeared on paintings, as did commerce. Venkat was one of a range of artists India and the world discovered from the exoticised margins.

In the cavernous art market, we “learnt to farm our souls: learnt to sell our art, sell our stories and a bit of ourselves so we could make art.” Many of the artists however still had to work as domestic help or security guards: the new assembly line of “tribal art” still earned an uncertain pittance. People bought A4 sheets of Gond art for less than a hundred rupees.

The book also mourns the passing of a world in which man lived with nature, nurturing mutual respect. Among the many stunning images of the book is one I return to over and over again, discovering new details each time. This is a picture of a snake swallowing the tumultuous modern world at fatal, calamitous odds with nature.

“We lament the wasting of this earth by wasting it a little more,” the writers observe self-deprecatingly. “Let us mourn for ourselves now,” they grieve, “for we won’t be there when we are dead.”

And then throughout, the book weaves the retelling through pictures and words of many ancient myths. There is the loving retelling of many Gond legends of Bada Deo and how the world was created, and saved. One Gond fable contains extraordinary echoes of Noah’s Ark.

But there is also the subversive retelling of many better-known myths, such as the story of Eklavya. Dronacharya famously teaches his favourite student Arjun to see nothing but the eye of the parakeet through the eye of the bow. Eklavya, in their re-imagination, instead sees all of creation around him, its smallest lustrous detail, even as he sees the parakeet’s eye and dexterously wields his bow.

In another story, in idle, destructive sport, Krishna and Arjun set fire to the forest and all life that lives within it, to claim the scorched land below, just as today they “once again seek to clear the forests and hills of all people, animals, birds, trees, fishes and snakes, of all art, all stories” for what passes as development. Human sacrifice is not just an ancient ritual. Modern development projects, they argue, are built on human sacrifice.

Finding My Way sings, celebrates, creates and mourns ways of living now threatened or dead, in the extraordinary shared journey of these two gifted men as they reflect, write and paint together. Their book speaks to my soul for many reasons. One of them is that it talks of a people among whom I spent some of the best years of my life, as a district officer among the Bhils and Gond people of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

I recall walking for many days beyond the last road into their far distant forest dwellings, and how I encountered there some of the most civilised people in our world. From these people, from their life wisdom, stories and art, I too learnt – imperfectly, incompletely – also a little of how to find my way.

Venkat Raman Singh Shyam at work.

Finding My Way, Venkat Raman Singh Shyam and S Anand, Navayana (special edition), Juggernaut Books (regular edition).