Time Out talks to Gond artist Bhajju Shyam about his journey from anonymity to acclaim
In 2002, Gond tribal artist Bhajju Shyam was commissioned to paint the walls of an Indian restaurant in London. Along with another artist, Shyam flew on an airplane for the first time in his life. “Everything was new for me,” said Shyam. “I was at the airport – there was so much hustle bustle, bags being checked in, forms to be filled, crowds milling everywhere. And I had never thought I would get to go aboard a plane.” Shyam sat by the window in the aircraft, taking in the busy runway. As his flight took off, he couldn’t help but think of the heavy plane as an elephant that had sprouted wings and started flying. Two years later, Shyam captured his experiences in The London Jungle Book, a lavishly illustrated book published by Tara Books and the Museum of London that includes the image of a flying elephant.
Over the last six years, Shyam has collaborated with Tara Books to create a range of award-winning books for children using Gond tribal art. His work has given a new spin to children’s book illustrations by incorporating traditional elements into modern storytelling. However, Shyam did not set out to be an artist. Born in 1971 in the Gond tribal village of Patangarh in Madhya Pradesh, Shyam remembers that his initial brush with art was his mother painting the walls of their home during festivals and marriages. At 16, his family’s poverty compelled Shyam to move to Bhopal in search of a job. “I worked as a night watchman at a forest division until I met my uncle who asked me to be his apprentice,” recalled Shyam. The uncle was Jangarh Singh Shyam, a renowned Gond artist. Shyam started out by filling in colours for his uncle’s paintings, till Jangarh Singh encouraged his protégé to strike out on his own.
Since 1998, Shyam’s work has been exhibited in the UK, France, Germany, Holland and Russia. However, illustrating children’s books happened by accident after he attended a Tara workshop in Chennai in 2003. “As part of the workshop, we organised a tour of Chennai,” said Gita Wolf, the editor of Tara Books. “We were fortunate to have the opportunity to watch Gond artists at work and note their ways of seeing and rendering.” Shyam was part of the workshop, and Tara commissioned him to work on The London Jungle Book.
On one page of The London Jungle Book, a rooster stands next to Big Ben. “I realised that people work with clockwork precision in London and look to the Big Ben for the time,” said Shyam. “In our village, the rooster is a kind of alarm clock, who crows at 4am and signals that it’s time to wake up. I couldn’t help but draw parallels.” In The Flight of the Mermaid, Shyam teamed up with authors Gita Wolf and Sirish Rao to retell Hans Andersen’s Little Mermaid. The story is familiar – about a mermaid who yearns to visit the land above – but Shyam’s rendering of the story gives it a traditional Gond look. The artist has also contributed paintings to The Night Life of Trees, a hand-bound collection of traditional Gond images of trees and spirits.
The self-taught artist now lives in Bhopal with his family. His two children often dabble in painting during their vacation, but Shyam is clear that he will let them decide if they want to follow in his footsteps. “They are still young,” he said, adding, “But when a book of mine gets published, they do get excited and show it to their friends.”
After the success of his Tara books, Shyam repeatedly gets offers from other publishers. “I only do a story if I like it and if I find that it’s connected with my tradition in some way,” said Shyam. Once a year, he meets up with the Tara editors to conceptualise a book and then works out of home. “We work together like a family,” said Shyam. “The story is in English, I try to understand it in Hindi. Once I start working on the illustrations, I send it to them for feedback. Initially, I didn’t have an idea about colours, but their team would help me with that.”
Shyam is now concentrating on planning exhibitions and popularising Gond art. “Gond art has only started making a name over the last decade,” said Shyam. “The world knows contemporary artists. We are hoping that soon they will also recognise our work as a form of art.”
By Bijal Vachharajani on December 10 2010