Jangarh Singh Shyam: Karmic Crossings

Rosalyn D’Mello is an art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover
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The life and lines of Jangarh Singh Shyam

BY ALL ACCOUNTS IT seems as though, before choosing to end his life on July 3rd, 2001, Jangarh Singh Shyam, then 38, must have done the following, though not necessarily in this order. He placed his spectacles and cap on his work desk. He prepared vegetables in anticipation of his next two meals and even cleaned the rice cooker. He neatly folded up a fax—his last communication from home—in an area he must have reserved for puja. He was at an artist’s residency at the Mithila Museum in Oike, Tokamachi, in the Niigata Prefecture of Japan. He was among a group of other folk artists who’d been invited by the museum to create a series of paintings on a fixed salary of Rs12,000 per month. ‘After the above situation, from the night of 30 June to 14 pm (sic) of 3 July he lost the balance and connection between the reality and he created his own world and he cut all the connection with life, wife, children and friend and he took the path of death,’ reads a detailed report from a staff member of the Mithila Museum, dated July 13th, 2001.

Jyotindra Jain, author of The Conjuror’s Archive, (Rs 2092; 148 pages) a new monograph on Jangarh Singh Shyam published by Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), Bengaluru, contends that Jangarh was ‘trapped in crossing,’ a phrase he uses to title the second chapter. He presents, as evidence of this fatal state of mind, two letters written some weeks apart by the Pardhan artist, the first to his mother, the second to his wife, Nankushiya, which tragically reached Bhopal after his suicide. Both are interspersed by troubling sentences that offer a glimpse into Jangarh’s consciousness; lines like, ‘…they see [read everything]’; ‘What should I say, I came here in ill health, but you don’t worry’; ‘I am writing this in fear’; ‘I cannot say anything, don’t know what will happen’; ‘I feel there is some foul play with regard to me’; ‘I am very miserable, now it is in God’s hands’; ‘Why am I feeling so lonely this time?’; ‘Discuss with Amma or any wise person whether there will be any mishap with me.’ Jain’s prognosis on the basis of this correspondence is that they echo a profound sense of isolation, which was accentuated when he did not receive any response from his family in Bhopal.

The minimum three-month extension of his Japanese visa—he was to stay on for only a part of that period in order to produce more works for his host museum— worried him, as he had been feeling desolate towards the end of his first three months there. ‘The Mithila Museum authorities had explained to him that he need not stay the extra three months but only about 20 additional days to finish certain works,’ writes Jain. ‘In his letters, Jangarh repeatedly asserts that he was not sure whether the bulk of the work given to him could be completed within a month or not, and this made him feel acutely disheartened.’ In fact, Jangarh had called Jain before leaving India for Japan to articulate his reluctance.

Jain’s friendship with Jangarh began when he spent a month at the Crafts Museum, New Delhi, as artist-in-residence, upon his invitation, in the early eighties, and deepened when they were installing the exhibition, Other Masters in 1989, for which he worked for a month alongside his mother and sister, Shyamabai, to create a replica of the traditional clay relief work characteristic of Pardhan houses. Jangarh had also written Jain an intercessory letter three days before his death, which also arrived after his demise. Jain advised Jangarh not to go to Japan in such an uncertain state of mind and asked whether he was going for the money. ‘He emphatically denied that factor and told me that he would easily earn more in India itself for work done over a period of three months,’ writes Jain. Jangarh said something along the lines of: ‘I could not refuse, because by temperament I am very shy, and I felt a sense of guilt that even the previous year I had declined the offer to go there.’

The episode continues to haunt Jain, and impelled him to write the book as a form of tribute. ‘It is noteworthy and therefore all the more upsetting that both Jangarh’s genesis as a renowned artist and the miserable end of his life are deeply associated with the museum—an institution that over many decades has assumed powers to establish canons of art, often launching artists’ careers, and thereby prompting the art market,’ he writes.

JAIN PICKS UP on J Swaminathan’s use of quotation marks to problematise the hierarchical dynamics concerning how Jangarh had been found by a team of artists attached to Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal, an institution Swaminathan helped found.

Before his immanent ‘discovery’ in 1980-81, he used to carry baskets of mud on his head. He also dug mud to fill other people’s baskets. They’d work in gangs and be away from the village for months. ‘Before the arrival of the museum team from Bharat Bhavan in Patangarh, Jangarh was already recognised for his painterly talent within his village and community. For them, there was no discovery,’ Jain recounts.

Jain rightly calls to question the complicated categories of the discoverer and the discovered by reproducing Swaminathan’s observation on the subject. ‘Jangarh Singh, a young Pardhan artist with an inborn genius for drawing and painting and modelling… was ‘discovered’ when the walls of his hut were found to be covered with paintings done by him,’ he had written in 1987.

Jain points out how the term ‘discovery’ as applied to encountering works by indigenous or vernacular artists by ethnographers, art historians and what Jangarh would call sheheri (urban) artists further stresses the hierarchised binary between the two and, concomitantly, the power relation inherent to the dynamic between the invasive ‘discoverer’ and the passive ‘discovered,’ more explicitly visible in the histories of colonial voyages and geographical discoveries. Jain also reproduces Jangarh’s own account of his so-called discovery. ‘I was working in another village in the fields, when I was sent for. I found these people from the city in my village. They had seen a painting I had done on the walls of someone’s house and had been told I had done it. They seemed to like it. Eventually I met Swami and told him I would like to go to Bhopal, and he agreed. At first I just went for a bit, but then Swami gave me a permanent job and I stayed in the city.’

Community-based designations such as ‘Pardhan’ or ‘Gond’ for Jangarh’s art negates the unique nature of his pioneering contributions

Jain couches this history within a larger counter-narrative his essay convincingly espouses; that Jangarh Singh Shyam was the progenitor of an exceptionally innovative artistic idiom of art now erroneously dubbed ‘Gond School’ or ‘Gond Painting’. His contention is that market forces infected the critical framework before it could be evolved. In his scholarly opinion, labels such as Gond School or Gond Art are misnomers. ‘These designations are flawed and inaccurate, as they are based on the name of a broad and largely loose conglomerate of several culturally heterogeneous tribal groups, cumulatively described as Gond by certain anthropologists,’ he writes in the book’s beginning. ‘The Pardhans of Dindori and Mandla, the practitioners of the particular genres of painting associated with Jangarh Singh Shyam, considerably differ from the Gonds. In fact, the Census of India had categorised the Gonds and the Pardhans as separate tribal groups since 1911. The social, religious and economic relationship between the Gonds and the Pardhans is rather complex. The Gonds and the Pardhans of the Dindori-Mandla regions often describe the Pardhans as Chhota Bhai or ‘younger brother’ of the Gonds, and some anthropologists have referred to the Pardhans as a branch of the great Gond tribe. Even so, in practice, no Pardhan refers to himself as Gond and vice versa.’

Jain proceeds to argue that even a community-based designation, such as ‘Pardhan’ or ‘Gond’ as a qualifier for Jangarh’s personal visual language is imprecise because it negates the unique nature of his pioneering contributions, as in the case of the Madhubani artist Ganga Devi, or Warli artist Jivya Soma Mashe, both of whom, in Jain’s opinion, drew from their inherited collective visual idioms to voice their individual subjectivities, inventing previously non-existent narrative strategies. Jain argues that there was no other Pardhan artist before Jangarh who had even remotely cultivated a pictorial style for him to draw from. ‘Beyond creatively interpreting, transforming and abstracting his community’s myths and legends, rituals and symbols, music and painted domestic clay relief work, as well as the various cultural and social practices in his painting, he evolved a highly expressive, individualistic, aesthetic idiom, which resulted from the extraordinary trajectory of his life, and particularly his conscious and discerning engagement with the various mediatory processes he encountered and openly responded to, in his work,’ notes Jain.

WHILE THIS IS a generous art historical reading of Jangarh’s idiom, its drawback is that it falls into the same hierarchical trap of negating existing craft and folkloric traditions by espousing that the artist somehow rose in status by reinterpreting and appropriating them, an injustice, considering Jain himself points out how much of these traditions were practiced by the community’s womenfolk. His error validates what Miriam Schapiro and Melissa Meyer wrote in their 1977-78 essay, Waste Not Want Not: An Inquiry into What Women Saved and Assembled—Art historians do not pay attention to the discoveries of non-Western artists, women artists or anonymous folk artists. All of these people make up the group we call others. ‘It is exasperating to realise that the rigidities of modern critical language and thought prevent a direct response to the eloquence of art when it is made by others…’ In their essay, they propose their self-invented term ‘femmage’ to include activities historically practiced by women using traditional women’s techniques to achieve their art—sewing, piecing, hooking, cutting, appliqueing, cooking and the like—activities also engaged in by men but assigned in history to women. ‘In the past an important characteristic of femmage was that women worked for an audience of intimates. A woman artist-maker always had the assurance that her work was destined to be appreciated and admired. She worked for her relatives and friends and unless she exhibited in church bazaars and county fairs, her viewers were almost always people she knew.’

Considering the abundance of existing literature that complicates the categories of arts and crafts, and in particular, reassigns cultural and art historical currency to the artistic labour of anonymous women, Jain’s scholarship comes across as myopic in its well-intentioned escalation of Jangarh’s genius. There is only one mention of an instance when he worked alongside his sister, Shyamabai and his mother to create a replica of the traditional clay relief work of Pardhan houses for the 1989 exhibition Other Masters curated by him at the Crafts Museum.

What Jangarh inherited as an artistic language through his folkloric traditions is not within the purview of this book, as Jain’s interest is more squarely focussed on establishing what constituted his departures from the tradition, as if it was those very departures that potentially legitimised his claiming of the role of the artist by asserting an authorial agency.

While Jain performs this task with élan, with several highly poetic descriptions of Jangarh’s excitement with non-traditional material, from paints to Rotring pens, his exceptional experimentation with printmaking at Bharat Bhavan, his evolution of a visual vocabulary comprising radiating dots and lines and his reliance on primordial memory when it came to colour and to animating his figures, imbuing the pantheon of local gods and goddesses with an anthropomorphic aura, he invisibilises almost entirely the artist’s relationship with his spouse, Nankushiya Shyam, who was also an artist. Jain makes a mention of her iteration of a Pardhan origin story on page 60, offering readers a glimpse into her own impressive and intuitive understanding of colour, negative space, and line. Besides that, she is mentioned only as the recipient of his last letter that arrived after news of his suicide had already spread, and as the recipient of the coffin containing his dead body, which arrived, after much bureaucracy, in Bhopal after midnight by a special flight. Jain lovingly details how the tragedy of Jangarh’s suicide was further exacerbated by the sordid details surrounding the repatriation of his body, after the Mithila Museum authorities, upon finding the costs of flying his body too prohibitive, suggested burying him in Japan.

Jain is transparent about his intimate friendship with Jangarh and his acquaintance with his artist colleagues whom he mentored, like Ram Singh Urveti and Anand Shyam, whose practices do constitute Jangarh’s legacy. So, one wonders why, if he could solicit their accounts of his practice through interviews and conversations, he chose not to dialogue with Nankushiya? Her presence in the book is spectral, at best, a definite disservice, making one question whether it is solely the job of the feminist art historian to consider making visible the roles played by women in the evolution of tribal art forms. This failing stands out in an otherwise remarkably considered, well- produced, informative book that aspires to serve as a correctional gesture.