“In the beginning, there were sky and water,” Japani Shyam, a Gond artist and Jangarh Singh Shyam’s daughter, said on the phone from Bhopal.

One of the most popular creation myths among the Gond tribe, this origin story is key to Japani’s art. It begins with the supreme Gond god Bada Dev creating a crow from the dirt and sweat he rubs off his chest. The crow looks for a place to rest but finding no earth to sit on, he finally spots a perch, only to find it’s the claw of a giant crab. The crab agrees to help the crow find clay for land, and calls the earthworm up from the depths. The earthworm coughs up a bit of clay, which it would otherwise eat. The crow flies back to Bada Dev who tries, and fails, to create land out of this clay. Bada Dev calls upon a spider to weave a web on the water, and then spreads the clay on it. This time, it sticks. There are now sky, earth and water.

Reinterpreting the same story

Japani said she has heard this tale thousands of times though she has never lived in her ancestral village of Patangarh in Madhya Pradesh. She has internalised it, and elements from it appear in her artworks often. As they did in the works of her father, the late pioneering Gond artist Jangarh Shyam. Yet her artworks themselves break away from tradition in a significant way. Jangarh Shyam worked on a range of mediums, from walls to silk screens and paper. The background in his works was almost always white or at least light coloured. “I prefer to work on a black background,” Japani said. “It has become my signature.”

Japani Shyam.

Japani and her brother Mayank Shyam may have learnt Gond art from their father, but they now have strikingly different styles. And works by all four members of the family (Jangarh’s wife Nansukia is also a Gond artist) are set to be a part of on a new website, Tribalartforms.com, which will, from February 8 onwards, offer works by 20 folk artists for sale. The website launch will be part of India Art Fair’s Platform section, which promotes South Asian art. Among other artists represented on TAF will be renowned Warli artist Jivya Soma Mashe and his children Balu Jivya and Sadashiv Soma Mashe.

Rasika Kajaria of New Delhi-based Exhibit320, and Mandira Lamba and Ridhi Bhalla of Blueprint12 Gallery jointly conceptualised TAF and had at least two stated objectives in doing so. First, they wanted to create a “more formalised” channel for showing and selling folk art. Second, to demonstrate that the traditional arts are living, dynamic forms that are evolving in dialogue with changing socio-economic and cultural contexts.

Japani Shyam.

Where it started

In December, Exhibit320 and Blueprint12 showcased an exhibition called Given Power: From Tradition to Contemporary, to announce the website as well as to suss out interest in folk art. Predictably, the first painting visitors saw on entering Exhibit320 was a work by Jangarh Singh Shyam, who was arguably the most well-known tribal artist from India. As you walked further inside, works by veterans Ram Singh Urveti and Bhuri Bai were juxtaposed with those of next-generation tribal artists Mayank and Japani Shyam. In another section, the gallery hosted works by the Mashe brothers and their father.

To be sure, Mayank and Japani Shyam and Sadashiv and Balu Mashe have made a name for themselves, and been shown in galleries before. Their works have sold on platforms such auction house SaffronArt’s StoryLtd, and at the time of the show, Sadashiv Mashe was on an art residency in Japan. Yet, what Given Power was able to achieve through this juxtaposition of works was to signal how their art vocabulary is different from their famous parents’. How even as there is renewed interest in making tribal and folk arts more mainstream, these artists are contemporising the forms further by filtering them through their experiences of living in a city, and travelling to residencies and art fairs abroad.

Jangarh Singh Shyam.

A fine example is an untitled work by Mayank Shyam that pictures an androgynous spider, an important figure in Gondi tradition. Compare this with Jangarh Shyam’s Landscape with Spider, which sold at a Sotheby’s auction for Rs 14.5 lakh in 2010. Where the spider in Jangarh Shyam’s painting is tiny, weaving a small web on a giant tree surrounded by peacocks and grass, Mayank Shyam’s spider is huge, androgynous and resembles a multi-legged god. The colours seem to be bleached from the entire canvas, except a spot of bright blue around the spider itself.

Similarly, Warli painters Sadashiv Soma Mashe and Balu Jivya Mashe are examples of second-generation folk artist. Sadashiv Mashe is known for his intricate renditions. The themes he paints are often the same as his father Jivya Mashe and brother Balu Mashe – there are fish caught in fishing nets and ant hills by the dozens. But Sadashiv Mashe’s canvas is more thickly populated. The scales on the fish and the mesh of the fishing net in which they are caught are somehow tighter in his work. “You have to see them together to appreciate them,” said Kajaria on the opening day of Given Power. “There’s something about their strokes that’s different.”

Mayank Shyam.

Balu Mashe said in a phone interview from Thane: “My art is like my father’s, with one difference. My akshar (vocabulary) is different.” Balu, the younger of the Mashe brothers, was referring to the basic unit of dots and dashes, and the weight of each line in his art.

Mainstream again

Efforts to bring traditional and folk arts into the mainstream are not new. In the 1970s, Mumbai-based artist Bhaskar Kulkarni met Jivya Soma Mashe. By 1975, Jivya Mashe had his first show at Gallery Chemould and a year later, his work was shown in Paris.

Sadashiv Jivya Mashe.

Across state boundaries, in Madhya Pradesh in the 1980s, Jagdish Swaminathan, the first director of Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, had sent out scouts who discovered Jangarh Shyam. Soon after, Jangarh Shyam was invited to paint a wall of the state secretariat. In 1986, the state recognised him by conferring the Shikar Samman award on him and three years later, he was one of the artists in the Magiciens de la Terre show at Centre Pompidou, Paris.

If anything, a major push to promote the tribal and folk arts has come and gone, leaving an imprint in places such as France, which continues to have an annual showcase for folk art. In 2014, Sadashiv made seven murals at India House in Cite Internationale Universitaire de Paris. And some of the biggest collectors of the country’s folk art, from Frenchman Hervé Perdriolle to American Mitchell Crites, are still not Indians.

Given Power 1

“Efforts [to mainstream folk arts in the 1970s and ’80s] were partially successful,” said Padmaja Srivastava, India coordinator of Duppata, an NGO dedicated to folk art in France. “It definitely brought Indian folk art on the international map by organising various exhibition, [and by] collaborating with well-known museums in Paris and Tokyo and other places. But the approach towards folk art in the Indian market was lukewarm.”

Perhaps the experiment that is Tribal Art Forms has got off to a shaky start. None of the tribal artists represented in the show at Exhibit320 were present on the opening day – an unusual, if not unheard of, thing in a mainstream show. Whether TAF is a commercial success or no, whether it finally manages to mainstream these arts or no, it is a reminder that contemporary folk art is evolving in strange and wonderful ways.

Jangarh Singh Shyam.
Sadashiv Soma Mashe.