It’s been 16 years since Gond artist Jangarh Singh Shyam committed suicide, but art scholar and collector Mitchell Abdul Karim Crites can never forget their first meeting. In the 1980s, Crites had begun to hear murmurs in the art world about an exceptionally talented Gond artist from Bhopal. In 1987, Crites visited Delhi’s annual Suraj Kund crafts mela and found Shyam, dressed in a checked flannel shirt and jeans, sitting on a bamboo mat under a tree, surrounded by his paintings.

The canvases were hypnotic: dots and dashes in various hues depicted birds like the red-wattled lapwing and the brown wood owl along with an assortment of trees, gods and goddesses worshipped by the Gondi people, an adivasi tribe indigenous to Central India. Crites immediately invited Shyam to visit him and his wife in New Delhi. From that first meeting, Crites said, they became friends.

At the time, the art collector had little idea about Shyam’s origins or his incredible, and eventually tragic future. The artist from Patangarh village in Madhya Pradesh would become one of the greatest Gond artists in history, spawning an entire branch of Gond art named after him, called Jangarh Kalam. For reasons that most people that knew Shyam are still unsure about, he committed suicide while at an art residency at Mithila Museum in Japan.

In October 2017, Crites’ collection of 123 art works made by Shyam have been compiled into a book titled Jangarh Singh Shyam: The Enchanted Forest, authored by Aurogeeta Das and published by Roli Books. Selected pieces of the artist’s work are also on display at an exhibition at the Bikaner House in Delhi.

Art work by Jangarh Singh Shyam.

Shyam’s death left a pall in the world of Indian art, both because of the artist’s incredible talent and the mysterious circumstances of his passing. According to a news report, he had been persuaded to take up the residency in Japan for a low monthly fee. The artist agreed, a sign of his struggle to make a living despite his growing popularity (as is the fate of most tribal artists in India).

Crites, 73, was impressed by Shyam’s energy. “I came to India almost 50 years ago to do my PhD in Indian art history and have worked with a lot of artists and craftsmen over the years, but I had never seen anybody like him,” said Crites, 73. “He could do about anything he wanted and didn’t get intimidated if someone asked him to paint an entire ceiling or a wall. He would just sit down and start sketching. He could work with any medium – paper, cloth, walls. He was a rare talent.”

Despite the appreciation he received in Delhi’s art circles, there were not enough buyers for Shyam’s work. Crites remembers a day when Shyam showed up at his home insisting that he buy a certain number of paintings. He writes about the experience in the preface of the book.

“I asked why? He replied in a soft voice, ‘My buffalo has died.’ I put in front of him the drawings we liked and said show us which ones will ‘do the needful’ as they say in India. I had no idea what a buffalo cost, so Jangarh slowly counted them one by one and when he reached the total he needed, he stopped and solemnly handed them to me saying, ‘Mitch Sahib, THIS is a buffalo.”

Lord Ganesh (art work by Jangarh Singh Shyam).

The Enchanted Forest begins with chapters about the artist and his life and ends with a full catalogue of Crites’ collection, chronologically arranged. It was on Crites’ insistence that Shyam had begun to sign his works along with a date and title. According to Das, indigenous artists do not usually title or date their art.

A mural at Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal by Jangarh Singh Shyam showing tigers, 1997 (photograph by Charles Correa).

Shyam was first discovered at the age of 19 by one of Jagdish Swaminathan’s talent scouts. Swaminathan, a leading Indian artist and then director of the Bhopal Arts Museum, Bharat Bhavan, recognised Shyam’s genius and invited him to Bhopal to work with him.

Under Swaminathan’s guidance, Shyam stretched his creative muscles and began pushing the boundaries of what had defined Gond art until then. Shyam belonged to a family of Pardhan Gonds, who were usually minstrels in the Gond tribal community, entrusted with passing down folk-lore and tribal stories in the form of songs. Due to its strong oral traditions, the community rarely practised visual art.

“A skilled musician, Jangarh painted tribal deities who had previously not been visualised, and the abundant flora, fauna and avifauna he recalled from his childhood spent as an inmate of Madhya Pradesh’s forests, close to the majestic Narmada river.”

— 'Jangarh Singh Shyam: The Enchanted Forest' by Aurogeeta Das.

Shyam was one of the first artists to include images of Gondi gods and goddesses like Bada Dev, the great god and Medi Ki Mata or the protector of the grains, Mashwasi Devi and even Raksa the Gond demon.

A Gondi goddess (Art work by Jangarh Singh Shyam).

“I found that fascinating,” said Crites. “The images of gods and goddesses were not committed to paper till then and he would say to me that he would get scared that as he drew them, they would get power and come after him. He was born and raised in the village, so he was very connected to his roots, his enchanted forests and gods.”

“The enchanted forest”, writes Crites in the book, “existed both in nature and in his mind.”

The exhibition is set up in a way that the visitor is greeted by a row of art works at the entrance, that depict Gondi deities. The luminous and brightly coloured dots that make up various figures almost look like delicate bead work. In his monochrome works, he used black ink to make dashes, squiggles, scallops, curlicues, waves, hatches and other lines.

A snake (art work by Jangarh Singh Shyam).

Jangarh Singh Shyam: The Enchanted Forest is on display at The Bikaner House in New Delhi till October 24.

All images are from the Crites Collection.