Rituals - Where art imitates life
by Venus Vinod Upadhayaya
When one lives amidst nature, one’s life is the life of nature, one’s thoughts are the thoughts of the birds, deer and the rivers and one’s expressions are full of nature’s form and gestures.
The exhibition of Gond tribal paintings from June 5 to 15, at the Kerala Lalit Kala Akademi, Thrissur, was a portrayal of a life and culture so much in sync with nature that it cannot be expressed without it. The Gonds are tribals hailing from Madhya Pradesh. Their paintings are indeed the reflection of a culture where life and spirituality were integrated with the forest and its creatures.
Originally done with four-coloured mud found in the forest, the Gond tribal paintings were drawn on the walls of the houses and were an integral part of the tribal festivity, rituals, and day-to-day living.
Gond tribal women would go to the forest to collect these colours. “We used to go in groups and it would take us the whole day to collect the mud and return to the village,” said Nankushiya, a tribal woman painter participating in the workshop.
Gonds believe that Narmada was once a woman and was married to the Sonmura river. During the marriage rituals, the turmeric from her body fell down on the earth and created the yellow mud. The black mud was collected from within the tribal village whereas the white had to be fetched from another forest nearby.
Both men and women would paint on the walls. The original drawings on the cowdung-smeared walls were scenes from the forest and its creatures, and depictions of traditional dances and tribal deities.
Now the painters have started drawing on canvas with acrylic. The scenes range from the village life to forest and modern-day aeroplanes. “When my father first went to Japan for an exhibition and travelled by air, he drew an aeroplane, to show the villagers how it looked,” explained Japani Shyam, the daughter of the master Gond painter, Janghardh Singh Shyam. Japani was thus named because she was born after her father returned from his first exhibition in Japan.
“Till he lived, he depicted the tribal and forest life. His paintings were full of forest birds and animals and he used to say that he was not afraid of forest animals, but of city dwellers,” Japani further added.
A look at his painting of the aeroplane lets you see its bird-like features, beautifully depicted in multicolours and intricate designs. The master painter had kept the flying apparatus of the birds intact in his depiction of the aeroplane, and a close look at it can further help in understanding the mind that had such an integral picture of the phenomenon of flight. It was very much a mind tuned with nature.
Today, Gonds are fast catching up with city life, and modern-day amenities, but most of their rituals remain the same. As Japani said, “Thoughts have changed and so also the lifestyle. Houses are fast changing into concrete ones. However, the tradition of painting on the walls is still there.” The young artist further made a point, “We exhibit our paintings at many places around the country. People often tell us to take up modern art but we want to stick to our tribal painting style and the depiction of our culture and nature through it. We also would like to give our perspective of the outside world through our art.”
Probably Japani knows somewhere deep inside that an artist’s freedom lies in her own creative personality, and that both her personality and creative freedom are related to her culture and nature.
Today Japani’s and Nankushiya’s paintings depicting the Gond life with its festivity, forests and traditions are displayed in many of our urban living rooms, reminding us of the many things we have lost in the process of gaining affluence.
I am reminded of the song that Nankushiya sang for me:
In this small temple, how do I see you Lord?
The temple door is small,How do I go inside and offer you flowers,
In this small temple, how do I see you Lord…?
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