Art News & Views

A Tryst with Art in Madhya Pradesh

Stopping by tribal Madhya Pradesh

"Thou art everywhere but I worship thee here;

Thou art without form, but I worship thee in these forms;

Thou needest no praise, yet I offer thee these prayers and salutations.(Hindu Prayer)

When man's power of imagination becomes so strong that reality seems unreal and strange to him, then the unseen takes shapes and forms and starts communicating meanings and becomes the source of his multifarious expressions and ideas manifested into varying expressions. In the rendering of these expressions, he unknowingly enters into the realm of art. In our tribal world this unseen prevails everywhere, in every form of life, in everything they do, in everything they believe. This unseen is integral to their life and so to their art. Once we enter into this magical world we can feel how strong their association is with this unseen. So in our quest to explore and understand all the possible dimensions of tribal art we need to fathom deep into all that inspires and informs tribal art.

When the tribal artist started creating something, his centre of imagination was always his deities and his own life or both. All that was related to his life became the medium of his artistic expressions. He started painting on the wall of his dwellings with a piece of cloth wrapped on a wooden stick or simply with his bare fingers. He started realizing his imagination into visual terms with the colours gifted to him by nature. Emerged out of it, are the scenes of singing, dancing, drumming. In them one can feel a sense of an absolute joy of celebration. Scenes of ritual performance and sacrifice lead you into a world of awe and wonderment.

Delineation of such scenes is the clear expression of how their life is inseparable from their myths and beliefs and how inevitable it is to perform rituals and sacrifices to appease their deities and seek their divine help to ward off the evil spirit from their lives. About the rituals, a tribal artist says, "Whenever some calamity comes in the village or whenever somebody falls ill in our family, we perform a sacrificial puja in which we offer the sacrifice of a certain number of animals and have to feed the villagers. We do all this to please our deities and to seek their help to protect us from that calamity. As this is a costly affair and if we don't have money, we borrow it by keeping (as a mortgage) a piece of our land to the village moneylender. We make arrangement of grain, animals and all other things essential for the sacrificial offering." In fact, even today these practices continue to persist in as much the same spirit and religiosity as observed by their ancestors. All this we find clearly in their artistic manifestations.

Their artistic manifestations are also found in their tradition of raising memorial (Gatha) to their dead. This tradition is common among Bhils and Muria and Maria tribes of Bastar. They raise memorial tablets in memory of those who die an unnatural death. The Gatha, is in fact an invocation to their dead elders (clan god) on all important family occasions like the birth of a child or a marriage. On such occasions, to appease the dead they offer the sacrifice of a cock or a goat, country liquor made from Mahua fruits etc. The main motif depicted in the memorial tablets, is the horse which is inevitable of Gatha depiction. The other usual imagery for the Gatha is cresent moon, sun, a horse rider, peacock, tiger, dog etc. Traditionally, earth colours were used to paint the Gatha, now oil colours are also used to add shine to it.

Their creative exuberance is also seen in their rendering of other rituals like the myth of creation of Pithoro and Ind into paintings. This myth has a great ritual significance for Bhils, Bhilals and Rathwa of the Dhar and Jhabua regions of Madhya Pradesh. It is also done to invoke their deities to bless them with prosperity and fertility. The ritual wall painting Pithora is done on the inside walls of a house, generally before the advent of Rakhi festival. The main character depicted in the Pithora is Ganesh, painted inside the rectangle at the left hand corner. (Interestingly it has no resemblance to the Hindu deity, Ganesh) Other characters are Kathiya Ghoda drawn in black colour with a horse rider called Kathia Kunwar, who is believed to invite all the deities and villagers for the Pithora ceremony. Other images are of sky, sun, moon, snake, scorpion, water-carrier (near the well). In Bhils these memorial pillars are made of stone and erected under a Mango or Mahua or Banyan tree (as these are sacred to them). The images are executed in an animated and random order but generally, the tree is drawn in the middle, as they believe it to be a temple under which the clan god resides. In the depiction of Pithora by different tribal communities we find slight variations, caused due to various versions of the myth regarding the god, Pithoro.

Like other tribal communities, Gonds also have a rich tribal tradition and vast treasure of lores and tales. They are the largest tribes found in India living in the vast expanse of dense forests. In fact the word 'Gond' means green mountains. They have a tradition of decorating their houses with mud relief and wall paintings. Though they do not have the tradition of drawing images of their gods and goddesses in paintings, they make clay images of their Kul Devta (clan god) on all important festivals like Holi, Diwali, Rakhi etc.

The Gond wall paintings are noted for their simplicity of forms. Outside walls are painted with a border in yellow, red, black colours and on inside walls they make reliefs. Usually geometric patterns are drawn like rectangles and inverted triangles. Images of fish, deer, peacock etc. are drawn in the rectangles. Among Gonds, Gudna (tatoo art) is also commonly found as a decorative art. Gond women generously decorate themselves with gudna on their face, hands, everywhere, all over their body.

When we talk of Gond artists, the name of Jangash Singh Shyam comes instantly to our minds. Born in Patangarh (Mandla), Jangarh was the first Gond artist who used canvas and chemical colours for his paintings. Jangarh's art can be considered as an unconventional tribal art, in the sense that it has an interesting amalgam of traditional and modern imagery; (gods, goddesses, animals, and aeroplanes find place in his paintings) also because the tradition of drawing images of deities is not common among Gonds. Moving away from this convention, Jangarh created his own magical world of deities. With the brilliant use of bright colours of red, pink, yellow, green along with dots and free flowing lines, Jangarh's paintings always leave an indelible impression upon us.

Jangarh's immense creative ability was recognised by the discerning eyes of J. Swaminathan, who had always acknowledged the artistic talent latent in the remote recesses of Madhya Pradesh and wanted to bring it to the fore. So at the time of setting up of Bharat Bhawan, he sent a team of young artists to the tribal intensive regions to find such talents and collect their art works for the Roopankar museum of Bharat Bhawan,

Jangarh Singh was not the only artist whose talent got recognition. Along with Jangarh other artists were also invited to Bharat Bhawan. Among them was Narbada Prasad Tekam who was also a Pradhan artist and Jangarh's friend. His journey of art started from a construction labourer. His art greatly reflect his attraction towards the world of animals for which he has his own symbolic vocabulary. Initially, like other tribal artists he used the traditional materials like brush made from the branch of Sal tree, natural colours of soil and colours extracted from flowers, (like Tahsu, Umralia flowers). Now he is using acrylic colours with equal finesse.

When I talked to him, like any other tribal he had an interesting tale to tell about the myth of Pardhan deities, Bada Dev and Thakur Dev who are believed to be the head of villages and their protectors. To appease them Pardhan Gonds perform a puja once in three years. For the puja they invite people by telling the story of Gond Raja and their bravery called Gond Raja Ki Katha. All these they depict in their paintings.

Like Narbada Prasad, Bhuri Bai and Lado Bai had also come to Bhopal to work as day labourers at Bharat Bhawan. They are the Bhil artists came from a small village, Pitole, Mauri, Bauri in Jhabua district. Simple and shy by nature, Lado Bai can impress you by her mild smile and innocent way of talking. She reminisced, when J. Swaminathan brought her to Bharat Bhawan to work as an artist, Mrs. Indra Gandhi was invited for its formal inauguration, recognising her immense artistic talent she gifted her a cheque of twenty-five thousand rupees. Her naivety didn't understand its worth and thinking it a piece of paper she put it in a grain container. Later when people asked her about it, she realized it was something important but by that time it was feasted upon by the insects.

Lado Bai is among such tribal artists who are keeping their traditional identity alive in their works and lives. Her paintings reflect all the aspects of a Bhil life. She seems completely at ease while working with fine quality brush and canvas in place of a piece of jute which she would use before. Today she is working at Adivasi Lok Kala Academy in Bhopal and is contented with her job as an artist.

Bhuri Bai also working as a day labourer with Lado Bai, had never thought that one day her life would take a new direction. She recalls the day when she had first seen Swaminathan. "A man with long hair came to us and asked questions, as to which village we belong, what are our rituals, to which god and goddess we worship, how we decorate our houses." She further says, "He offered us paper and brush to draw something on it. Everyone was reluctant, as we were afraid whether we would be able to draw anything on paper which we had never done before; also we would lose our day's wage of six rupees." She adds honestly, "At first I was frightened to see the man with long hair who was telling us to hold a brush and paper in place of a loader and spade." Their simple mind couldn't understand that this great artist wanted to make their art immortal, wanted to bring before the world their traditional art heritage, for he knew it deserved to be preserved and propagated.

The main pursuits in the paintings of Bhuri Bai are the reminiscences of Bhil's traditions and customs. Whether it is the delineation of any aspect of nature--trees, animals, birds or their mythical traditions--Bhuri Bai has made her own individual place.

Nevertheless, artists like Bhuri Bai, Lado Bai, Narbada Prasad have come out of their tribal dwellings and have become a part of urban world, their roots are deep in their village soil. Their minds are still undiluted of any foreign influences. Their festivals are incomplete without their people and place. Their lives are still pulsating with the same tribal breath. Today with their families they are taking forward their traditional form of art and have a firm belief that their progeny will not only preserve it but will take it to new heights.

  Saba Gulraiz 



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