On July 3, 2001, renowned contemporary artist of the Pardhan Gond community Jangarh Singh Shyam committed suicide at the Mithila Museum in Niigata, Japan. He was just 39. Born on the small green hill of Patangarh, Jangarh was famously “discovered” in 1981 by artist J Swaminathan and his scouts from Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal. Mentored by Swaminathan who had a reputation as a “primitivist”, Jangarh exhibited widely and came to be regarded as a major artistic force by stalwarts like MF Husain, Gulammohammed Sheikh and Manjit Bawa, though he never came to equal their price or public stature, in life or death.

Since his passing, many books and documentaries have been made on Jangarh. Experimental filmmaker Amit Dutta recently published Invisible Webs: An Art Historical Inquiry into the Life and Death of Jangarh Singh Shyam. Last year, art historian Aurogeeta Das curated the collection Jangarh Singh Shyam: The Enchanted Forest, which featured Jangarh’s artworks from the Crites Collection maintained by Niloufar and Mitchell S Crites since the 1980s. Yet, seventeen years after his death, we are none the wiser about what made this artist kill himself.

In Finding My Way, Venkat Raman Singh Shyam’s mythopoeic autobiographical work in collaboration with S Anand, we see Jangarh through his nephew Venkat’s eyes. Venkat apprenticed with Jangarh for three years in Bhopal. Seeking to make it on his own as an artist, he left for Delhi in 1991 and ended up doing menial jobs in the city, only to return to Bhopal and become a painter of hoardings. Gond art beyond Jangarh did not have many takers. The following excerpt recalls Venkat’s intimate association with his uncle, and ends with a song attributed to Kabir, “Ud Jaygea Hans Akela”, made famous by the classical musician Kumar Gandharva.

Jangarh Singh Shyam flanked by wife Nankusia Shyam and mentor J Swaminathan at Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, 1982. | Photo by Jyoti Bhatt.

In 1998, Uncle Jangarh decided to send me and Bhajju Shyam to Pondicherry to meet Hervé Perdriolle of Outsider Art Gallery. This Frenchman, passionate about Gond and other tribal art, collected some of Jangarh’s finest works and has written extensively on Gond art. We carried a large number of rolled-up canvases from which Hervé was to make a selection. It was the first time I was going to a place so far down south, especially to lands surrounded by sea – the Jalharin Mata who is bound by Bada Deo so that she makes place for earth. I told myself: I’ve never been to the sea / It has never been to me.

I had never seen tea shops where tea was brewed in large brass boilers. Then, like a magician, the tea-master mixed the decoction and milk with a flourish – the brown-white fluid traversed almost a two-metre arc before it found its destination, a glass tumbler that had no handle. The Tamils liked to do everything dramatically. They made a lot of statues, and their film posters were the most colourful. I also loved the white and coloured lungis that working-class men tied way above their knees.

In the 1980s, it was the turn of Tokio Hasegawa, an art enthusiast from Japan, to “discover” Gond art and Jangarh. He was also fascinated by art from Madhubani in northern Bihar. Uncle’s first foreign visit was to Japan’s Mithila Museum. He visited Paris in 1989 for an exhibition at the Pompidou Centre called Magiciens de la Terre where he made a mural of Bada Deo. Jangarh was now regarded as one of the finest magicians on this earth. The number of people in Paris who had an eye for Jangarh’s work outnumbered those who admired his work here in India.

Jangarh used to take our paintings with him on his trips abroad. Once when he returned from Paris, he was accompanied by a suitcase with wheels, and he had stuffed gifts and wads of francs in it. He’d sold a painting of mine. Back then, even Jangarh did not use canvas for his works. 
We used something like thick chart paper. On some leftover sheet, I had painted a ghud-ha saanp, an insect commonly found in the river Halon back home. A couple of inches long, it had the face of a horse and the body of a snake. Having sold this, in turn Jangarh got me a red wristwatch and a pair of white corduroys. I had to alter the length to make it fit me.

The day news of Jangarh’s death came, I was painting a hoarding which was to be my last. In Gond myth, Sanphadki is a cobra that, after a life of a hundred years, shrivels to the size of a rat, sprouts feathers and takes flight and announces its ascent to no-place.

Jangarh had already been to Japan twice. These visits lasted a few weeks. He loved that part of the earth which the sun kissed first. We learnt to wrap our tongues around strange place-names like Tokamachi and Niigata. A woman called Sakurako was his friend and helped him around Japan. She even visited Bhopal a few times. Jangarh seemed to love working at the Mithila Museum in the Niigata Prefecture
 run by Tokio Hasegawa. Masters like the Mithila painter Ganga Devi and Jivya Soma Mashe of the Warli school enhanced the reputation of the museum with their presence and contributions. Hasegawa also worked closely with India’s cultural establishment.

Working in a foreign environment, undisturbed by domestic affairs, seemed to provide an impetus for a range of artists from the exoticized margins. Both high-caste and Dalit women from Madhubani – Godavari Dutta, Karpuri Devi, Chano Devi, Jamuna Devi – managed to get away from their families for a while and find peace on an island off an island. The museum now boasts of over 15,000 Madhubani paintings.

In 2001, for the first time, Uncle went on a three-month assignment. His career had plateaued.

According to museum officials, they extended Jangarh’s stay by three weeks, rebooking his ticket from July 6 to July 27. He had some paintings to finish.

On June 30, after an exchange of phone calls and faxes with home, Jangarh went into a shell, according to the curator of the museum.

It appeared to them that Jangarh had lost his balance and ceased to make a distinction between the reality of the material world and his inner world. The museum also said antidepressants (Alpix, Trika) and other drugs were found among Jangarh’s effects. The Mithila Museum had all this information published on their website till 2002. But it withdrew everything when a campaign in India squarely blamed Hasegawa for the “exploitation” of Jangarh. They had their straw man. Few bothered to ask why an artist of Jangarh’s calibre worked for a monthly wage of Rs 12,000 ($300) in a foreign land, with the understanding that all the artist’s works would become the property of the museum. Or why he lived in a tin-roofed outhouse in Professors Colony, Bhopal.

In letters home, Jangarh spoke of loneliness, and being taken to an island every night to work. On July 2, he called home only to find that people had gathered there to have drinks and dinner. He broke down. He asked his wife Nankusia to give the phone to his daughter whom he had named Japani. He hung up without saying much. It is said that the next day he hanged himself in his room.

The truth died with Jangarh. Our Lingo, the man who showed us the way, had left us. We didn’t know how. We didn’t know why. The entire community of Pardhan Gonds was shattered. We bickered over how to get back his body. We endlessly discussed who was to blame. Sometimes we blamed each other. We ran hither (to a central minister); we ran thither (to the deputy chief minister of Madhya Pradesh). The body came back after ten days in the most magnificent coffin we had ever seen.

They say Jangarh died before his time. They say had he lived he’d have scaled taller peaks. But Jangarh, we must remember (since we live in time), has scaled time.

The bird flies away, becomes its own song.

The swan will fly, alone
The swan is its own song
It discerns the colours of life
It fords the barrier of light

It’s the swan’s last song
It’s the swan’s swansong
The swan will fly alone
The swan sings its own song

The leaf that leaves the tree
Finds its own destiny
It falls at some place
The breeze decides its fate

The swan will fly, alone 
The swan is its own song

When your sun sets
When you’re bereft of breath
When life goes deathly quiet
When the day dies in your eyes

The swan flies alone
The swan is its own song

The master has gone away
The pupil has to find his way
Kabir sings the formless one
Who cannot be held in song

The swan flies, alone
The swan is its own song

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