Author: Aurogeeta Das
"Jangarh Singh Shyam: The Enchanted Forest" | Jangarh Singh Shyam’s Enchanted Forest
This book gives a fleeting glimpse of the artist’s humble beginnings and his genius that the world lost, writes Uma Nair.
Sisteen years ago when Jangarh Singh Shyam committed suicide in Japan because he was not allowed to come home, all his collectors, admirers, patrons and people responsible for sending him to Japan to paint the walls of a museum were silent. The culture barons on the Indian map of greats had the audacity to speak of the sadness of the loss but hid their roles in sending him to his death in an alien land.
Suddenly in the aftermath, even the Indian government cared two hoots about a poor tribal artist. The only one person who wrote and expressed her anguish was Jaya Jaitley. Strangely no one wanted to dig deep into the whys and wherefores and thereby hangs a tale of the exploitation of tribal artist resources and wealth in India. Roli Books magnum opus on the Jangarh collection in the hands of art scholar and collector Mitchell Abdul Karim Crites and his wife Niloufar is a sumptuous book that speaks to us about his early beginnings and his works in their collection.
Lets never forget that Jangarh was discovered by India’s guru of abstraction the writer, critic, artist extraordinaire and the soul of Bharat Bhavan J Swaminathan who began a veritable collection and inspired the Madhya Pradesh tribals to create so that their works could be seen and collected by art buffs. There are stories of galleries who take works of these artists and never let them know if their work is sold or still kept in their warehouses. That story of exploitation of dealers and galleries who usurp artists works and pay them nothing is a chapter in itself.
The book has a series of works – both in the frenzied fervour of colour as well as ghostly seraphic black and whites. Aurogeeta Das who writes the book mentions all the elements of his genesis.
The Enchanted Forest begins with chapters about the artist and his life and ends with a full catalogue of Crites’ collection, chronologically arranged. This book explores these and various other aspects in the career of an artist who died too early, before his spark could be fanned into a steady flame. Dr Aurogeeta Das closely examines the huge body of work Jangarh left behind in The Crites Collection, enriching her study with references to works in other private and institutional collections, such as Bharat Bhavan’s in Bhopal. As such, she captures early practices of collecting contemporary folk and tribal art in India.
Jangarh 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. Visually these images are striking – their features and their bulbous eyes stoking a host of emotions and tales of incarnations that dwell within the oral traditions of the forests. One can just imagine the passion and the deep bhakti that spurred Jangarh to create these works.
Jangarh’s canvases are created with a hypnotic zest: they are powered by the richness of texture and timbre – the infinite dots and dashes in various hues depict 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. Expression and evocation both define the contours that are filled in with arduous labour and an intensity that is at once raw yet tensile and tenured in the notes of deep devotion.
Hybrid creatures belonging to earth-toned sky and living in the tangled branches of trees at once stream out and make us think of the power of trees that come alive at night and are festooned with the spirits of the Gond kingdom. Jangarh’s snake in shades of grey is as charming as his Ganesha or even the Gondi goddess.
In this land of tribals each god or goddess, each animal or bird – every little being has a story attached. And this book gives us a fleeting glimpse of this artist’s humble beginnings and his genius that the world lost.
The best example of human understanding and generosity of spirit is given by Crite himself in his preface: “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.”