Go(n)d’s Own Man: An Indelible Adivasi Legacy

Struggling through and cursing the urban hustle bustle, as me and my mother approached the Bikaner House, which sat calmly amidst one of the lush green avenues of Lutyen’s Delhi, I expected a peaceful retreat from the chaos for that is how an art exhibition is expected to make you feel.

Way to the Art Gallery at Bikaner House, New Delhi

Unaware of the mental conflict and anguish that lay ahead, we entered The Enchanted Forest, as it had been named, an exhibition of paintings and drawings from the Crites’ Collection. Those paintings and art work belong to Late Jangarh Singh Shyam, a prodigious Gond artist, who committed suicide 16 years back during his art residency at Mithila Museum in Japan. This last piece of information from history had already succeeded in sending chills down my spine and I couldn’t wait to see his art work and find an answer to his mysterious passing away.

Jangarh ShyAM at Bharat Bhawan, Bhopal

The entrance to the exhibition gallery, as I proceeded to the core venue, was flanked by a colorful rendition of a deity, belonging to the Gond tribe, on one side and the other side by a contrasting monochrome ink on paper representing a flock of birds in the form of leavesrendered in crisp strokes.


Astonished and amazed by the creative imagination and the clarity of each stroke, we finally made our way to a buffer space that served as a welcome to ‘The Enchanted Forest’.

The first two sections of the exhibit were dedicated to a plethora of Gond paintings bursting with colors, almost appearing to come to life – ready to consume one’s mind and heart. Observing each painting closely, I could not stop my eyes from widening and my lips from parting ways in awe. The painstaking detail, made whole with numerous colorful dots, the fearless hues together with the fusion of seen and unseen, had been brought to life on those hypnotic canvases. Jangrah Shyam’s paintings tackled a wide array of subjects, revealing knowledge of the deities of his tribe and the fellow creatures of the world.

A Gond painting illustrating a deer’s horns extending to become tree branches

Being born in one of the Pradhan Gond tribes of Patangarh village in Madhya Pradesh, Shyam had to battle prejudice and marginisation. But his ardent devotion towards his passion made him one of the greatest Gond artists in history, engendering a whole branch of Gond art named after him called Jangarh Kalam. He was also bestowed with the Shikhar Samman, in 1986, by the Madhya Pradesh government.

As we proceeded further to the last section, my eyes moved rhythmically with the beautiful, crisp, bold and fearless strokes of black ink on paper. Pure unmatched talent! My favorites include the ‘Birds over Clouds’ and the ‘Nest in a Cave’.

My focus on the artwork was distracted by sudden murmurings which made me turn around to see this old man, wearing simple pants and shirt, having an active discussion with a famous Indian artist. As I found out about his identity, I felt lucky enough to have ran into Mitchell S. Crites himself – the art collector to whom this huge collection of Jangarh Shyam’s work belonged and, who had personally known the great artist Shyam.

Having already read about how Mitch Crites had found Jangarh Shyam during the Suraj Kund Mela, held in Delhi, in 1987, I further got into a deeper conversation and couldn’t stop myself from bringing up Shaym’s mysterious suicide.

“But why an artist of such talent and modesty, who had flowered into a prolific artist, participating in art shows festival of Suraj Kund Crafts Mela to Paris’s Centre Pompidou, would even think about suicide?”, I asked with an uncontained sadness and anguish in my eyes.

“During his art residency at Mithila Museum in Japan, he had started feeling depressed. How could one expect an Adivasi artist from India, whose heart and soul belonged to the forests, to go to a totally foreign land and eat raw fish with rice every day and be secluded due to the language barriers at the same time? He had shown an interest in returning to India as his residency was supposed to last for three months. But the director of the museum had confiscated his passport and ticket and had got his visa extended.
Nobody had an idea, back in India, about his state of mind and one fine day, he hung himself to death in Japan. He was only 39. It was huge loss to the Indian art fraternity. I was so angry and disgusted that I had even written to the Japanese Embassy, shaming on them for a mishap that had happened under their nose. They should have kept a constant check on Jangarh, making sure if he needed any support after being aware about his depressive state.”, explained Crites as I saw his eyes full of frustration that had revisited him.

Jangarh Shyam’s death from suicide had been confirmed in June 2001.

Left to right: Mr. S.G. Ranjan, Mr. Mitch Crites, myself, with Jangarh’s biggest painting Shiv Shesh Naag in the backdrop

Thanking Mr. Crites for the beautiful gesture of remembrance for Jangarh Singh Shyam, glancing over the paintings, I walked out of the premises with a pall in my heart. And as I sat and penned the whole experience down, I couldn’t stop reflecting upon the vulnerability of the Indian Adivasi in his quest for self-realization and self-expression in a modern world.


                                                                                                                                                                          – by Ar. Neha Bhusri

                                                                                         Faculty of Interior Architecture and Design, IVS School of Design

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