Lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud

Bhajju Shyam opens up the world of Gond art and introduces you to its various ramifications

Ethnic is in today. Ethnic is the esoteric affiliation you wish to flaunt as a mark of your organic relationship with the environment you inhabit. So you display Madhubani paintings on your walls, wear ethnic Sambalpuri cottons or Kanchipuram silks. It is supremely ironical that this sort of ‘designer ethnicism’ which you display does not even spare a thought for the skilled artists and artisans who are behind those works of art. I too used to be this thoughtless ethnic collector till Bhajju Shyam — or more precisely Bhajju Shyam’s The London Junglebook — happened to me.

To say that The London Junglebook was a mindblowing experience is to say the least. I was offered the privilege of looking at the world through different eyes; it was almost like experiencing the world like a tree or a bird perched on that tree. The English Romantic poet Keats termed this ‘negative capability’, this ability to enter another living being and experience life along with it. Keats has remarked on how he lay awake one night long listening to the rain, “with a sense of feeling drowned and rotted like a grain of wheat.” Critics have later remarked that it was this ability to just not sympathise with the other but to become the other that distinguished great artists like Shakespeare and Keats from the mediocre ones.

If this is the artistic ability par excellence, then Bhajju Shyam is the artist par excellence. He is a Gond tribal artist from the tribal village of Patnagarh in Madhya Pradesh where art is not a self-conscious medium to express one’s ideas but more a language for communication. The Gonds are one of the largest tribes in India and are spread out predominantly over Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and parts of Orissa. Maybe as a throwback to their ancient Mesolithic ancestors, Gonds too paint on flat surfaces, especially on the walls of their huts. However, this is not mere interior decoration as far as they are concerned. Painting is a form of veneration to their gods, done especially on festival days and other special occasions; it is also considered to be an auspicious sign which wards off evil. The paintings are done in vegetable colours, charcoal or cow dung. Gond art is characterised by the combination of lines and dots and here gods are depicted along with local flora and fauna. Although their art appears to be very realistic it is abstract because it manages to get to the very nature of all living things; in every sense of the word, what they depict is the ‘thingness’ of things. Like all other art which evolves spontaneously from its cultural context, Gond art, also, is a manifestation of their philosophy of life, a worldview which we lost somewhere along the way as we moved away from a life linked to the soil to a more mechanised life in big cities.

Bhajju Shyam’s The London Junglebook opens up the world of Gond art and introduces you to its various ramifications — for instance, you discover that what you had hitherto thought of as mere ornamental decoration at the edges of a picture is actually a symbol for earth in the Gond style. It is difficult to categorise this book which can best be termed as a travelogue, an account of the stay of a cultural alien in the heart of the urban jungle which is London. What is striking about it is the refreshing innocence of this gaze which is a neat, although unintentional, reversal of the objectifying gaze which the west had so far trained on the orient. The foreigner is now subject to the same microscopic scrutiny with all the earnest curiosity of a child who is neither diplomatic nor eager to please. He simply looks and observes, sometimes befuddled by things which make no sense to him and sometimes with a rare insight which is deeply philosophical and revelatory.

Bhajju got the chance to step out of the comfort zone of his small village to travel to London because a restaurant owner in London had requested him to decorate the walls of his restaurant with Gond tribal art. He invited Bhajju to spend two months in London to work on this. So this tribal from a small village in India reached the city of London because, as Bhajju puts it very simply in a matter of fact manner: “An artist goes wherever there is work.”

But any part of the world outside his village is ‘foreign’ as far as Bhajju is concerned. His journey to Delhi by train and then by plane to London are equally harrowing. In fact, he finds the Delhi airport to be more menacing than the London airport where everybody was friendly and waited in queues for their turn in a very orderly manner. However, it is not the cultural difference which he not very surprisingly experiences in London which makes his observations noteworthy. It is the astonishing ability along with a breathtaking childlike simplicity to penetrate the layers of polished urban surfaces to reach the core of the human personality. For instance, he remarks on the social life of the British: “I was invited to eat out a lot, but I never saw the inside of anybody’s home. That is strange because the first thing you do with a guest in India is to take them to your home and feed them.” Or, “It’s quite strange. You don’t see many people gathering together during the day — sometimes you can even hear the sound of a lone person’s footsteps on the street. But in the evening, they all emerge, flocking to restaurants and pubs, wearing their black clothes and laughing. I had to think of bats, the way they wake up in the twilight and make loud noises. Pubs seem to set English people free.”

The book has numerous observations of this variety, accurate in representative detail and philosophically insightful. This aspect also would make Bhajju dear to the postcolonial theorists because he seems to appropriate the western method of ethnographic research in his book for which an alternative title could well be A Study of the Life and Customs of the People of the British Isles. In other words, he becomes the Verrier Elwin of the British, and not always flattering to them. Not that he is more charitable towards Indians. Look at the comparative analysis of poverty in the two countries: “Obviously there are poor people in London too, but they are not as poor as the poor in India… The main difference is this: anyone who has work in London is alright. But in India, you can work all day and still be hungry.” He has another very revealing comment on the poor of London: “The thing that struck me about people who live on the streets in London is that they look very sad and behave strangely.” But Bhajju does not make any judgemental statements other than to record appearances and present them for your benefit.

He has an animistic approach to the world around him, seeing life in even the most mechanical and banal of things. The best of this is the analogy of the London Underground or the Tube to the earthworm which rules the underground in Gond mythology. Bhajju thinks that the idea to burrow into the earth occurred to somebody because there was not enough space left above the earth! The Number 30 bus which carries him daily and unfailingly from his house in King’s Cross to his workplace in Islington reminds him of the faithful village dog that guided people through the forest. More importantly for Bhajju, London buses also looked friendly like the dogs back home! Another ‘morphing’ which has been done by Bhajju is the conversion of Big Ben into a giant rooster. Roosters are the time-keepers for Bhajju in his native village and so what better way of conceiving of Big Ben, the time-keeper of London, as a giant rooster with its “big eye, forever watching over London, re­minding people of the time.”

This is one aspect which helps you look at the world anew, with wide-eyed fascination that comes so naturally to a child and what we lose on our way to becoming old and jaded. Or perhaps on our way from the rural lifestyle to the urban. The Gond perspective does not have an iota of the complacent anthropocentric attitude, that tendency to humanise nature or animal life around you; it takes in everything, plant and animal alike, along with the human. To be happy is to revel in the rain with the tree, plod along with the caterpillar or laugh with the flowers — in short, it means to be one with nature. This appears to be a platitude for us but it is a simple fact of life for Bhajju and his tribe. However, he does not make any tall claims about this either. For him, life means truly an existence where the human and the animal and the insect have the same right to live and eat. This does not mean that he is one of those activists who insist on no violence to animals or plants. Bhajju and his tribe kills and eats, but the major difference is that they kill what is enough to eat and do not decimate entire species out of greed for their skin, horn or other reasons which occur to you as a whim.

As you come to the end of Bhajju’s narrative you are shaken enough to question your self — which is the jungle? The dense forests where a sane and serene worldview persists or the urban jungle where man hunts man? Who is more civilised? The people who live without hurting their environs or those who pretend to be sophisticated and polished, hiding rapacious greed and murderous desire?

It is natural for people who are completely out of touch with a naturalised way of life to romanticise it and to ascribe qualities where there are none. The ‘incredible India’ phenomenon of the tourist brochure which exoticises even the commonplace aspect of Indian life — is this what I sense in this book too? Gita Wolf and Sirish Rao in the epilogue How London Became a Jungle warn: “The important thing is to resist the temptation to essentialise the Gond imagination as the romantic other of our modern consciousness.” This is good advice, one which we have to keep in mind when we appreciate any form of tribal art, for we very often tend to read them as depictions of a wholesome and pristine sylvan life which is denied to us amidst the din and bustle of modern life. Wolf and Rao point out that Bhajju and most other tribal artists like him have left their villages for the city of Bhopal and that their art today is influenced very much by the cityscape as well. This is a sensible word which should rein in our overly romanticised notions about the glamour of the ‘primeval ethnic’ in tribal art.

The tendency to reduce such art to coffee table books is prevalent and The London Junglebook can very well become that like the other artefacts that adorn the living rooms of the wealthy. And one has to keep in mind that they are to be taken not as the final word but as the starting points of important journeys of discovery of art and artists. More importantly they have succeeded in changing the lives of people like Bhajju Shyam hopefully for the better. I confess that I had never heard of Bhajju before and reading this book prompted me to look up and understand more of the Gonds and Gond tribal art. It has opened up a completely new perspective, a whole new world of sensory experience which I had never dreamt of. It is also wonderful to know that Bhajju Shyam is not an isolated case and is but one member of a vast group of gifted artists. Their art might look out of place in glamorous drawing rooms or chic hotel foyers but they do have relevance in our lives. If you look at them closely enough, what they bestow upon you is the ability to be lifted along like a wave, a leaf or a cloud.

It is futile and foolishly utopian to yearn for a world where the human and animal can co-exist peacefully, a world where these paintings will find their proper place. But if the Gond tribal in the dense forests of Madhya Pradesh or the wooden toy-maker of Varanasi or the weaver in Pochampally is able to showcase her talent in a world that is increasingly driven by consumerist greed, so much the better. In contemporary times where the only caterpillar our urbanised children know is the huge mechanised one that digs up the earth, such arts and crafts become the mooring for our drifting selves. These might be meager candles which emit a feeble light in a world that is lit by lightnings or neon lights only. So it is all the more important that we guard these candle flames lest they be blown out by powerful gusts of wind.

The next time I look at a piece of Madhubani, Warli, Bhil or Gond artwork, I shall be more respectful. Because I know that it is not simply an aesthetic artefact that I am looking at, but a representation of a worldview which is much higher than what I can aspire to. As I write this, do I hear a bird chirp in satisfaction?

(The writer is professor, humanities and social

sciences department, IIT Kanpur)


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