Community Of Colours

 Bhopal-based Gond artist Bhajju Shyam on his journey from being an electrician to winning the Padma Shri, and telling visual stories

Out for sundry work, Bhopal-based artist Bhajju Shyam recalls picking a call from an unknown number, late January, that turned out to be an official from the Ministry of Home Affairs informing him that he had been conferred a Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian honour. Rooted in the folk tales and culture of the Gond community, Shyam feels the award belongs not just to him, but also others from the tribe. “I could not even dream of this award and it is a matter of pride for all artists pursuing the genre,” says Shyam, 46.

Before the news could sink in and between congratulatory messages, Shyam was on a flight to Hong Kong, for a solo at Bonhams gallery where he dressed the walls with his works as thin brush strokes consolidated to form endless compositions. On the event, in conversation with Edward Wilkinson, executive director of Bonhams Asia, he shared stories of the lore that he grew up listening to. These were tales narrated to him by his mother, whom he would assist in decorating the walls of their mud house with traditional Gond motifs. “This is usually done by women during festivities. We were three brothers, and our eldest sister had got married, so I used to help my mother with digna (geometric patterns),” recalls Shyam. Finances were meagre. So after he completed his class X, at 16, Shyam boarded a train to Bhopal, in search of livelihood. Several menial jobs followed, including earning a living as an electrician, a handyman and a watchman, until, in 1993, his uncle Jangarh Singh Shyam recognised his talent and asked him to apprentice under him. “I would fill in the colours and patterns after he did the main drawings. When he saw how much I loved doing the work, he encouraged me to paint on my own,” recalls Shyam.

Confidence surged when in 1997 he sold five of his works during an exhibition in Delhi. “I thought now maybe I am ready to design my own work,” says Shyam. In 1998, his works travelled to an exhibition of indigenous art in Paris in 1998, and in 2001 he was on a plane to London to paint the interiors of the restaurant Masala Zone, with fellow Gond artist Ram Singh Urveti.

He painted the experience in the celebrated publication The London Jungle Book, where Shyam presented a visual catalogue of his two-month trip. The wonder began at the very onset: boarding a plane for the first time, he noted how “a plane taking off is as much of a miracle as an elephant flying”, giving the mammoth mammal wings to fly in an accompanying painting. The London Underground was a giant worm, with the different coloured lines represented by snakes, and spiders as the busy stations. The iconic Big Ben was a giant rooster, and the English pub the sacred Mahua tree.

“Everyone was a foreigner — all kinds of skin colours and all kinds of hair. I had seen foreigners before — some of them had visited my village to look at our paintings, but now I realised that something strange had happened. My colour was different, my language was taken away from me,” he wrote in the publication that released in 2004, alongside an exhibition in London. Several publications followed. If in 2006, we saw Shyam painstakingly handcraft The Nightlife of Trees, where each painting was screen-printed, in the 2009 publication The Flight of the Mermaid he painted the mythical mermaid. “In a storybook, what children like is kept in mind, not my own preferences,” says Shyam.

Winner of the 2001 state award for Best Indigenous Artist (Madhya Pradesh), CRESCER Magazine 30 Best Children’s Book Award (Brazil) in 2011 and the Ojas Art Award in 2015, his first solo in India was rather belated. In December 2016, Ojas Art Gallery in Delhi opened its doors for ‘Maa Matre’, an exhibition that comprised more than 40 works that took the audience in the midst of nature, from fruit-laden trees to deer with multiple antlers. Shyam dedicated the show to his mother, his first teacher. “He is not copying anyone, there is a lot of original thought that goes into it. It is very contemporary,” says Anubhav Nath, who first met Shyam around 2001, and has been following his work since.

Shyam, meanwhile, is back in Bhopal, carefully wielding his rotring pen and paintbrush to tell stories of the past and the present. “I use an easy storytelling style that combines my perception of the world today and my tribe’s traditional visual language.”

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