Going native

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 July, 2010, 12:00am

Delhi publisher S. Anand was immediately taken by the 1.5-metre rosewood sculpture he saw on a trip to a central Indian community last year. A three-dimensional extension of the local storytelling tradition, it was the work of village artist Sukhnandi Vyam and his uncle Subhash.

They had carved the nude figure for a visiting American some time ago, but couldn't ship it to their client after losing his business card. Deciding it was his gain, Anand asked to see more of Vyam's work.

'He went to back of his hut, where the toilet was, and pulled out more sculptures. He'd put them there because there was no space. They were so incredible, I was flabbergasted,' says Anand, who runs publishing company Navayana.

A member of the Gond tribal group, Vyam was keen to sell his totemic figure, but the publisher felt the 27-year-old sculptor's talent would be best served in an exhibition and instead persuaded him to create more pieces that could be seen by a bigger audience.

Hosted earlier this year by the Wieden + Kennedy gallery in collaboration with Navayana, Vyam's show - intriguingly titled, 'Dog Father, Fox Mother, Their Daughter & Other Stories' - was the first solo exhibition by an Indian tribal artist.

Until recently, folk paintings in the Madhubani and Kalamkari styles and art by the Gond tribes, who occupy central India, were typically displayed only at craft fairs and government-sponsored exhibitions in musty provincial centres. Such works are often dismissed domestically as 'primitive craft', while attracting growing appreciation abroad.

'I've seen women haggling with the artists at crafts bazaars. They would never do that with a modern artist, but the middle-class attitude towards tribal art is one of condescension mixed with well-meant pity,' says V. Geetha, editorial director of Tara Books, a specialist in tribal works.

In contrast, tribal art has gained attention abroad with a series of shows over the past year. In May, the Quai Branly museum in Paris held a huge exhibition of contemporary Indian tribal art curated by art historian Dr Jyotindra Jain, while the Davis Museum and Cultural Centre at Wellesley College in the US recently held an exhibition of Gond paintings. In London, Gond works are featured at galleries such as Artribal, and auction house Bonhams holds regular sales of such collections.

Most tribes don't have a written language so their beliefs and myths find expression in art, which is why Gond items are rich in form and colour. 'Most of my work, like others in my community, is woven around the traditions and lifestyles of our tribe,' Vyam says.

Known collectively as Adivasis, meaning 'original dwellers', India's tribal peoples have largely remained outside mainstream society. Many live hand-to-mouth in remote forest settlements and face considerable bigotry from bureaucrats and city folk, who consider them to be backward.

Through exhibitions such as Vyam's, Wieden + Kennedy curator Alice Cicolini hopes Indians will begin to question the relegation of tribal art to the fringes of crude country craft. 'Tribal art may be rural, but it, too, can be contemporary,' she says.

For instance, some Indian tribal artists express their sense of alienation by depicting Yama, the god of death, as a figure in a police uniform.

The Museum of Mankind in Bhopal is a rare institution in that it is trying to promote tribal work, offering space where artists can live, create and hold workshops. It has enabled painters such as Bhuri Tekam, 39, to shift from expressing their creativity on the walls of their homes to paper and then canvas.

'I paint the interaction between animals in the forest. As a child I used to watch the way birds and snakes and frogs and birds communicated with one another,' she says.

The tribal artists' inexperience of the modern world can yield refreshingly original visions. One of Tara Books' biggest successes was The London Jungle Book, published in 2004 by Bhajju Shyam, perhaps the finest Gond artist.

Shyam, 38, who had never been on a plane before going to London, gives a quirkily idiosyncratic view of the city in his visual travelogue. The London Underground is seen as a giant earthworm, Big Ben merges with a massive rooster and English people are shown as bats that come out to play at night. Yet Gond artists only began painting on paper about five years go.

'Gond art is actually the youngest tradition to transfer painting to canvas and paper, although it still derives inspiration from an ancient imagination,' says Geetha of Tara Books.

Traditionally, their art is expressed in murals and frescos, made not to express individual creativity but to drive out evil spirits, invite good energy into the home or to celebrate deities and the natural world. Paintings are also done to celebrate weddings or festivals.

But few artists have found recognition in the cities and make a living from their art. And much as he appreciates the work of the Museum of Mankind, Shyam says it must be replicated many times over for the tribes that are scattered across India.

'We need many, many places where artists don't have to worry about supporting themselves but can concentrate on painting or sculpting and developing their talent,' he says.

'Only then will they be paid 50,000 rupees (HK$8,300) for their work, instead of the 100 rupees some clients give.'