Throughout history, the art and aesthetics of indigenous communities have been either marginalised or appropriated by dominant groups. In post-independence India, Adivasi culture continues to be framed in ethnographic terms by the state, as an “authentic” manifestation of an unchanging sensibility. At the same time, the increase in representation of indigenous art is concomitant with its commodification by the private sector and global art market. This broad backdrop of the fraught politics of identity and capital – discussed in depth by art historian Annapurna Garimella in her essay on contemporary Pardhan Gond artists, A Tree Grows in a Painting: Tribal Artists and the Museum – should be the context to any conversation with Adivasi artists. In recent decades, the groundbreaking work of individual artists such as the late Jangarh Singh Shyam has created opportunities for Adivasi artists to claim space as contemporary practitioners. The visual artistic tradition pioneered by Jangarh Singh Shyam – christened Jangarh kalam by the poet Udayan Vajpeyi – has many heirs in his Pardhan Gond community who continue to advance the style.

Contemporary Gond art is fertile ground for understanding the political, economic and cultural factors that affect Adivasi cultural work on terms determined by the communities themselves. Shivangi Pareek, a doctoral student at the Department of Anthropology, Yale University, contextualised contemporary Gond art within their distinct cosmology and cultural memory in her essay ‘We paint stories we heard from our ancestors’: Intangible Heritage of the Pardhan Gonds of Central India. In it she notes, “Contemporary Gond art is…situated within a larger field of…intangible heritage of Gond Adivasi people…that includes oral stories, songs, wall art patterns and other forms of visual and oral expressions that emerge from and reproduce intimate and devotional attitudes towards the natural environment.” But at the same time, it’s important to acknowledge the contemporaneity and vitality of the art. In her essay Primitive Accumulation: The Political Economy of Indigenous Art in Postcolonial India, Associate Professor at the English and Comparative Literary Studies department at Warwick University Rashmi Varma writes, “But even as Gond art draws upon traditional stories and songs based on adivasi mythology and remembered village landscapes…Gond painting is very much a constructed tradition, one that had its roots in the village but came into its own, flourished and was nourished in the city of Bhopal.”

Among the foremost Bhopal-based Pardhan Gond artists of her generation is Durgabai Vyam, an exponent of the digna – stylised patterns that constitute a form of wall art or bhittichitra. Often collaborating with her husband Subhash Vyam, Durgabai has been instrumental in making Gond art prominent on the national and international stage, across mediums. Since the mid-’90s, her brightly-coloured and willowy interpretations of the traditional digna designs have been part of museum displays, rendered as book illustrations, shown at biennales and featured in animated projects. Having grown up making dignas in her native Dindori, Durgabai began her professional career with an artists’ camp at the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya in Bhopal. In almost 30 years since then, she has had her works exhibited at, or acquired by, museums within India (including the Tribal Museum, Bhopal) and galleries around the world. Vyam is perhaps best known for her illustrations of books by progressive publishing houses, work which has been critically acclaimed and awarded. In 2022, Vyam was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian award.

Based in Bhopal, Durgabai leads an expectedly busy life, both as an artist and as a member of her community. The first time I tried to schedule a telephonic interview, she was only available in the late evenings because involvement in a local festival would take up her whole day. On the date we agreed to speak, a minister’s arrival necessitated her presence and consequent postponement of our interview. But the next two times I called, she made time almost immediately, switching on the video and walking through her home and neighbourhood as she answered my questions, once even amidst a puja. She explained that it was better to do the interview “as and when I get time in between errands”. Moving in and out of the frame and light, toggling between Madhya Pradeshi Hindi peppered with Gondi words in her sunny voice, Durgabai talked to me about her artistry, its past and future.

Courtesy: Durgabai Vyam.

You have been making art since you were very young and growing up in Barbaspur village, Dindori. Can you talk about how you came to develop your artistic inclination?
It is tradition that women of the Pardhan Gond community make bhittichitra on the walls and floors, the angan (courtyard) and in the kothi (kitchen storehouse). We make geometric digna patterns with maati (mud) of various colours and in a number of different shapes, each of which have a different source and story. For example, there is chuhi (white) from dhaan (rice), geroo red, ram-raj yellow from turmeric mixed with the earth during the festival of Narmada Maiya’s wedding and charcoal black. Apart from the bhittichitra, we would use flowers to make colours for celebrations like Holi and gobar for decoration. As a young girl, I learned to make digna bhittichitra and do lipai-putai (slather and wash) for our village festivals and weddings. I learned first from my paternal grandmother in our angan, and then worked with all the other women in my village to hone this skill.

What was it like moving to Bhopal and making art in the entirely new context of the city?
In 1996, I moved with my husband Subhash and our children to Bhopal. His cousin Jangarh Singh Shyam, pioneer of a new style in Gondi art, had already established himself in the big city in the 1980s and 1990s with the support of J Swaminathan. We worked and lived with him during that early period. Subhash did screen printing and woodwork, and I too tried to keep working on my artistic skills.

As you mentioned, Jangarh Singh Shyam is such an important figure in modern Indian art. What are your memories of him?
He was a great artist, and very encouraging of us. Encouraging not just of artistic practice but all endeavours, whether it was creative work or making a cup of tea. He treated me like his sister, even though I had married into the family. He supported and inspired me to develop as an artist, always appreciating my efforts and artwork.

How did you make the transition from walls and vertical surfaces to canvas and paper?
A year after shifting to Bhopal, I started working at Bharat Bhavan with Jangarh. Soon, I began to make canvas paintings. The very first such work I made was based on the gau puja, dedicated to our deity Kharkhadev. I used brushes and synthetic paint for the first time. I was quite apprehensive initially about how I would transfer the digna aesthetic onto the limited space of the canvas but I devised a way by placing Kharkhadev in the centre and surrounding it on all four sides with traditional designs.

Where is this first ever painting today?
It was acquired by the Government Museum in Chandigarh.

Courtesy: Durgabai Vyam.

Can you talk about the iconography in your work and how it has evolved over the decades?
The visuals in my work are derived from the paaramparik (traditional) trove of motifs and symbols, related to our ancestral folklore and reeti-rivaj (rituals). Tales like the story of the basin kanya [a Gond folktale about the Bamboo Maiden], the moon and the sun, animals, trees and narratives related to Dharti Mata (Mother Nature) or our Gondi gods and goddesses are all part of my work. Of course, through my practice over the years, I have got better at making my imagery more refined and accessible to all kinds of viewers – after all, I may think what I have made looks like a lion, but everyone else may not.

You have won international acclaim for your book illustrations, including winning the Bologna Ragazzi Award 2008 as co-author of The Night Life of Trees (Tara Books, 2006). How did you first come to illustration?
I started illustrating in 2000, making chitras for little booklets published by the Eklavya Foundation [an NGO in Bhopal]. Around this time, one of these was displayed at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi. That’s when Tara Books [a Chennai-based publishing house] approached me with a commission to illustrate for them. Then, in around 2007, Navayana [a Delhi-based publishing house] commissioned me to draw for them. Since then, I, at times in collaboration with my husband, have contributed to many publications for both Tara Books and Navayana.

One of your most widely-seen works is probably the art you and Subhash contributed to the acclaimed graphic retelling of BR Ambedkar’s life – Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability (Navayana, 2011). At the end of the book, the publisher S Anand gave a detailed account of how you engaged with the material and intervened in the form of the book (including Subhash’s titling of it). An aspect Anand highlighted was your departure from the typical panel-based format of the graphic novel. Can you talk about how you arrived at this?
We were stressed about how to illustrate Bhimayana. We understood that Ambedkar’s journey was full of difficulty and challenges. Learning about his life and work against untouchability made us aware of the continuing injustices in our current time. We were able to relate what was in the book to what we witnessed in our own context and in our village, and access the content through our experiences. And so, we finally solved the problem of format by bringing our digna art into the story. We wanted to achieve the effect of a free, khula (open) space rather than the story being boxed into panels.

A fitting strategy to show Ambedkar’s fight for freedom…
Yes, that’s right. We used designs and imagery from bhittichitra to signify features in the narrative but through our own kalpana (imagination) – for example, making a train similar to a snake and using a peacock’s plumage to express community solidarity. Though we had to sometimes point these out as readers don’t always recognise these forms.

Courtesy: Durgabai Vyam.

You have illustrated across a range of genres, including children’s books (Mai and her Friends based on Gondi folklore), science-fiction (Rokheya Sakhaawat Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream), labour history (Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd’s Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land) and biography (Srividya Natarajan’s Bhimayana). Coming from responding to a tradition of oral storytelling, what is your approach to illustration accompanying text across subjects?
Our chitra have been based in village life and the old tales of our ancestors. As I described in the case of Bhimayana, it is by finding a connection between the story to be illustrated and the stories we inherited and observed that we are able to find a way to create images that accompany the text. Another example is Sultana’s Dream, in which events involve settings similar to the fields and activities of the village [Durgabai’s drawings are suggestive of the story’s ecofeminist subtext].

Speaking of village life, migration to the cities by Pardhan Gond artists of your generation and the ones after must have had an impact on your practice. How has the urban and contemporary world been brought into the themes and language of your art?
Over time, I have brought the city and urban life into my work bit by bit and responded to current events. For example, I showed a work at Pragati Maidan many years ago, which I made after hearing a radio news bulletin about planes crashing into a building in the US [the 9/11 terror attacks]. I also draw from my own life, such as making aeroplanes after my first trip out of India to Germany or showing scenes of traditional festivities and weddings now taking place in the big city. So, yes, Gond art such as mine is responding to contemporary life and times.

A major platform for Gond art was your and Subhash’s participation at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2018. You showed a work titled Dus Motin Kanya aur Jal Devata based on a folktale. How did you get involved?
The organisers of the Biennale had seen and liked our work, and invited us to participate. We wanted to try something new with our digna art. When we first came to Bhopal, Subhash used to make wood sculptures and so he thought it would be a good idea to use the medium of plywood to tell a Gond folktale through our traditional artform. We did the sketching, then cut the figures out of the plywood and outlined them in black paint. It took us about three months to actually make the works in Bhopal and then we had them transported to Kochi. We went to the Biennale ourselves for about 18 days to install the work.

Congratulations on being awarded the Padma Shri in January 2022. How did you find out?
Thank you, it’s a big honour of course. I was in a car in Bhopal when I received a phone call from the District Collector of Mandla on the afternoon of January 25 to inform and congratulate me about the Padma Shri. Very soon, my entire village had gathered outside my house with baaja-gaaja (pomp and fanfare).

Courtesy: Durgabai Vyam.

Adivasi art receiving national prominence and applause from the state brings it a lot of attention. At the same time, Adivasi land, resources and communities are exploited and harmed by state policies in the name of development. Given Pradhan Gond art’s basis in a worldview that is protective of the natural environment, how do you see its power in the present?
In our traditional art practice, we are deeply inspired by Dharti Ma and our old ways of life. In my work also I always emphasise the importance of conserving nature. We must protect the trees and animals we make in our images.

What is the way forward for bhittichitra and Gond art?
It’s an old art, but we hope to give it new direction.

Kamayani Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and podcaster based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow in Visual Culture Writing for 2022.