“Within the will to abstraction something appears that has nothing to do with objective reality. Free association supplies a key to the fantasy and formal significance of a picture. Yet this whole world of illusion is credible. It is situated in the realm of the human.”— Paul Klee
The story of the Gond artists, and the illusory world they create through their marvellous art, originated in the Patangarh, a land they knew as their own. It was situated on top of a hill in the Dindori Valley in Mandla. Patangarh was a tranquil place with slopes and valleys richly clothed in green, yellow and brown. It offered its inhabitants a peaceful existence and a serene view of the universe and life about them. All this would change, and the Adivasis would be called upon to fight to save what was precious to them, but that is not a part of their lives that we will delve into in this book.
What I would like to draw your attention to is their art, that has captured the imagination of people everywhere. My story begins with a young dreamer by the name of Jangadh who came to the attention of the elders and others in the village when he began painting in a frenzy. He painted on walls, floors, on virtually every surface he came across. He seemed to be a man possessed as he energetically painted his magnificent murals of gods and men, beasts, birds and trees. It was clear that he was dismissive of the existing traditions because his own style was inventive and original.
In the words of J Swaminathan, who set up Bharat Bhavan and the Tribal Museum in Bhopal, discovering many a gifted artist in the process, “Like a true Pardhan minstrel, Jangadh is not only full of Adivasi lore and song, not only does he know the deities exercising their power over man and nature and give them form, he is also intensely aware of the nature of the flora and fauna of the land. He paints trees, shrubs, birds and animals using colours and lines with a forceful abandon which makes the head reel.”
Jangadh was the uncle of the artist whose dazzling works comprise this colouring book. When you look at Venkat Raman Singh Shyam’s work you can see the influence of his uncle and the other senior artists whose work he observed closely in his formative years. It was only natural for Venkat as a young boy to pick up the brush and paint his own pictures, as he had seen others in the community do.
Chachan birds, the Katheli tree, snakes, animals, plants were early subjects of Venkat before he began to develop his own unique vernacular, confidently narrating his own parables of deities and how they navigated their way around the rapidly changing modern world. In Venkat’s world, as reflected in his art, even the Palash and Katheli trees join in the singing and revelry when festivals are celebrated. “Our gods need us to drink, eat and be merry,” Venkat says. On his canvas, mythological tales he has heard from his mother and other elders come alive, painted in radiant reds, blues, yellows and oranges. He is a compulsive storyteller, his repertoire seemingly inexhaustible. Kali garlanded with skulls stands towering in the middle of one artistic composition, her tongue a vivid, blood red. In another work, the artist draws upon the Bada Deo and Lingo myths or else the story of Eklavya, whom he, like the other Adivasis, reveres. What is unique to Venkat’s distinct style is how he melds the different influences in his work by allowing them to flow into each other. And how adroitly both ancient and modern civilizations find a place in this magical world. The cow is a mosaic of designs, the birds are patterned with geometrical designs, the deer sprout horns that have metamorphosed into branches, and the elephant is a medley of familiar old Karma songs.
While the pages in this colouring book have paintings that will challenge and draw out the artist in you, it is my hope that this book will lead you to further explore the extraordinary world of Adivasi art. The trail of Venkat’s magical flute leads to an enchanted Aladdin’s cave of art that goes back to ancient times. His work is radiant and full of enchantment and I hope it will take you over.
As Venkat Raman Singh Shyam says, “It seemed so perfect that my world sometimes appeared upside down. The treetops are clouds on earth. The clouds are treetops in the sky. The sky is earth. The earth is sky.” One day you may believe this too!
Excerpted with with permission from Magic for the Soul: An Adult Colouring Book of Postcards Featuring Gond Art, Aleph Book Company.