A leading Indian modernist, renowned internationally. A tribal artist painting his Gondi heritage. A photographer on a mission to document India’s living traditions. Different mediums, world-views and with seemingly little in common; these three artists somehow ended up together in the same city, responding creatively to a shared landscape.
If you detect the hand of fate in bringing about this confluence, the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), Bangalore would agree.
At our recent excursion at the India Art Fair, we bumped into the folks from this upcoming museum. A short chat about their interesting exhibit at the fair turned into a longer conversation about friendship and artistic collaboration. And the thing about good stories is that they must be shared. Here’s bringing you the highlights-
A Stalwart and his Centre: How it all began
The story begins in 1982, with the establishment of a new cultural centre in Bhopal by the name of Bharat Bhavan. Its artistic director, Jagdish Swaminathan, was a prominent Indian painter. He envisioned the space as a hive of cultural activity, open to talented individuals of all kinds. Thus, within the same complex, you could find poets, writers, performance artists, as well as visual artists working in different mediums and styles.
Curating a ‘Folk and Tribal Art gallery’
Perhaps Swaminathan’s most striking intervention was the creation of a Folk and Tribal Arts gallery within the museum of ‘fine arts’. It marked a shift from how indigenous art was conventionally displayed. Indigenous artists rarely got the same recognition as those practicing ‘fine art’. Thus, while you would know a Picasso or Gaugin on sight, you couldn’t distinguish or name a tribal artist in the same way.
There was a preconceived notion that folk or tribal art was more about the community of the artist than an example of his/her individual excellence.
Folk art was considered as a continuation of a tradition; thus, it was archaic and rooted in the past. This was worsened by the fact that many regarded rural and tribal cultures as ‘backward’. How could their art be considered ‘contemporary’? However, for Swaminathan, art was art, no matter where it came from or who made it.
With this gallery, he set out to discover the artistic genius tucked away in the rural heartland of Madhya Pradesh.
The Meet Cute, or how an artist met another
In the 1980s, Swaminathan organised several tours of Madhya Pradesh to document its indigenous art forms. On one such tour, he came across a brilliant mural and was instantly captivated.
The artist in question was Jangarh Singh Shyam, a resident of the village of Patangarh and a member of the Pardhan Gond tribe. Traditionally, his community served as bards to tribal kings. With change in times, the social structure that supported them broke down. Without royal patronage, Pardhans had to turn to agriculture and labour to sustain themselves.
At the time when Shyam met Swaminathan, he was barely out of his teens and working as a daily wage labourer. However, in his free time, Jangarh would paint the walls and floors of houses in his village. Gonds used to decorate these surfaces during weddings and other occasions. However, Jangarh had a unique vision and talent as a painter which Swaminathan recognised. At his encouragement, Jangarh Shyam left his village to come to Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal and pursue his art. Throughout his life, Swaminathan remained a close friend and mentor figure who helped him harness his potential and showcase his work internationally.
A Photographer as Witness
The image above was taken by Jyoti Bhatt. The last artist in this trinity, he also came to Bhopal on Swaminathan’s invitation. Bhatt had previously cultivated an interest in photographing rural Indian culture. The result of this three-decade-long passion project was a collection of over 30,000 photographs, accompanied by copious notes. Swaminathan wanted him to document the artistic forms of Madhya Pradesh. Bhatt wanted to capture living traditions which were endangered by inroads of modernity. We already noted a similar case with Pardhan-Gonds’ loss of their livelihood.
#Padmashri Jyoti Bhatt, in his note on Wall Paintings: The Living Tradition in Indian Villages said, “Village women in various rural and tribal regions in India practise a kind of interior decoration which has its roots in ancient traditions and basic human desire to look attractive. Drawings that village women make on walls are not mere decoration for them, but are also essential rituals related to various vratas and seasonal festivals. Vratas are the rituals that women usually observe without a priest’s presence. It is believed that a house with a beautiful drawing on its walls would attract Lakshmi – the Hindu goddess of wealth to reside in there.” Pictured: Interior of a Rathwa tribal house, Madhya Pradesh, Jyoti Bhatt, c. 1981 @mapbangalore will be at the @IndiaArtFair at institutional booth G01 between 31st January – 3rd February 2019 at the NSIC Grounds, New Delhi. #JyotiBhatt #PadmaShri #Award#Artist #India #Gujarat #ModernArt #Indian #Art #ArtGallery #ArtistsOnInstagram #indiaartfair2019 #IAF2019 #jangarhsinghyshyam #jangarh #jswaminathan #bharatbhavan #bhopal #tribalart #MAP #IndiaArtFair #MAPatIAF #artmuseum #museumofartandphotography
Bharat Bhavan: Where it all came together
For us, Bharat Bhavan is the real hero of this story. It provided the space and opportunity for these three artists to come together and work with and along one another. The creative exuberance of Bharat Bhavan allowed all of them to mature as artists.
Jangarh Singh Shyam
For Jangarh, it gave him the opportunity to truly nurture his innate ability. He experimented with different pigments and mediums and developed his distinct point of view. He took on several high profile projects like teh murals in Madhya Pradesh’s legislative assembly. His work was exhibited in Paris and Japan, and he made several international visits.
Indeed, his time in Bhopal led to the formation of the Jangarh Kalam. It refers to a style of painting that draws from the Gond idiom, but allows individual expression within it. Several members of his family apprenticed with Jangarh, and today are artists in their own right.
In the case of Swaminathan and Shyam, it was difficult to decide who inspired whom.reflects Amit Kumar Jain, Head of Exhibitions at Museum of Art & Photography
Swaminathan’s art readily reflected his close association with Madhya Pradesh’s indigenous art forms. He used materials like sand, natural pigments, linseed oil, and beeswax and applied them with his fingers, like a traditional artist would. He used his position to take a stand for tribal culture, brought Gond art to the world and facilitated its global recognition.
Even though Swaminathan provided Jangarh with institutional support and early recognition, the heady spirit of collaboration is visible in their work.
From behind the lens, Jyoti Bhatt contributed a rich visual archive – a testament to Madhya Pradesh’s cultural vibrancy. For this abundant documentation, along with the rest of his body of work, he was recently awarded the Padma Shri. His investigations of village and tribal life also influenced his printmaking. However, he considered these photographs to be an art form in themselves.
A reunion through MAP’s exhibition
One can’t help feeling a kind of serendipity in this encounter. The three artists happened to work together in one inspiring environment- Bharat Bhavan, and by extension Madhya Pradesh. They expressed that inspiration in their own styles, before moving ahead on their own paths and achieve great heights in their own careers. Years later, we get to see this unfold again in the Museum of Art and Photography’s exhibit.
The museum successfully pulls together the different threads of this story through a tremendous visual journey. By bringing together these different artists and diverse elements, the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) offers a newer, more expansive way of of looking at art which aims to educate and entertain.
At a time when we tend to put things in neatly labelled boxes, institutions like Bharat Bhavan and MAP Bangalore challenge such straight-jacketed categories. If these boundaries stop us from thinking inventively or learning from one another, then what is their point?
The exhibition is a testament to the possibilities that emerge when a group of people with very different worldviews collaborate. We hope this inspires art leaders and practitioners today as well. The Museum of Art and Photography truly made us think and we can’t wait for what they put up next!