Breaking Open Compartments

Sukhnandi Vyam’s art reminds us that all creative work is in some way or other an engagement with a tradition

01 May, 2010

WHAT YOU FIRST SEE IS ONE MAN gleefully perched atop another’s shoulders, weapon at the ready, while the man below seems to be shepherding two animals. It is only on reading the catalogue that you realise that the gleeful figure is of Bageshwar, the Gond god of fertility, waiting to turn into a tiger and kill the hapless bridegroom if he fails to sacrifice the traditional wedding boar. The arresting Bageshwar image is by Sukhnandi Vyam, whose wood sculptures form part of one of the most remarkable movements in contemporary Indian visual history: the rise of Pardhan Gond art. Sukhnandi’s first solo exhibition, titled Dog Father, Fox Mother, Their Daughter & Other Stories, opened at Delhi’s W+K Exp gallery the last week of March and ran through April.

As illustrated by the reference above, Sukhnandi’s work, while by no means exhausted by its historical-cultural context, cannot be understood without it. So bear with me while I take a brief detour.

The Gonds are an Adivasi community spread over Madhya Pradesh, eastern Maharashtra (Vidarbha), Chhattisgarh, northern Andhra Pradesh and western Orissa. With over four million people, they are arguably the largest tribe in India. In contrast to the traditional anthropological idea of the tribe as a homogenous, egalitarian community, however, the Gonds are internally stratified. Occupational castes include Agarias, or ironworkers; Ojhas, or soothsayers; Solahas, or carpenters; Koilabhutis, dancers or prostitutes; and Pardhans, or bardic priests. Traditionally, the Pardhan would visit the houses of his yajmaans, or patrons, every three years, playing the bana, the magic fiddle, and singing in praise of Bada Dev, the most important Gond deity, or of the brave deeds of the Gond rajas. He would also visit after a death in the household and perform the requisite functions. The Pardhans were, in the words of writer Udayan Vajpeyi, “the musicians, genealogists and storytellers of the Gonds.”

By the late-20th century, the importance of this ritualistic bardic tradition had dwindled. Unable to sustain themselves financially as performers, many Pardhans took to farming or manual labour. Into this tragic, almost inevitable narrative of dying tradition, there entered something strange and new: the national-cultural institutions of the Indian state. In the 1980s, Bharat Bhavan, a newly established arts centre created by the Madhya Pradesh government, was handed over to a visionary artist called Jagdish Swaminathan. A key figure in modern Indian art, Swaminathan decided that Bharat Bhavan must become a space as open to traditional Indian cultural forms as it was to Modernist movements. Under his auspices, teams of young artists were sent into the villages of Madhya Pradesh in search of local art and talented artists. It was on one such trip, the story goes, that they met Jangarh.

It started with a painting on the wall of a house in the village of Patangarh. They were fascinated. When they asked who the artist was, they were directed to a Pardhan Gond boy of about 12, Jangarh Singh Shyam. Jangarh agreed to go to Bhopal with them. Back in Bharat Bhavan, Swaminathan, impressed and intrigued by the boy’s talent, gave him art materials and a free hand—and Jangarh began to paint. He painted birds and animals, rivers and mountains, flowers and fruits and trees. He painted the stories of the Gond kings and the Gond gods and goddesses. He painted, in fact, the whole of the Gond lifeworld—that had, until then, been painted in song.

The process initiated by Jangarh has brought about the remarkable, almost magical transformation of a primarily oral culture into a visual one. Drawing on the rudimentary forms of bhittichitra (wall painting), he became the first to enshrine the Gond imaginary on canvas. Jangarh continued to work on buildings, however, putting his stamp on the MP State Legislative Assembly and the dome of Bharat Bhavan. Inspired by his enormous success, dozens of Pardhan men and women started to follow in his footsteps, moving to Bhopal and turning their talents to art.

Sukhnandi Vyam is one of them.

Sukhnandi’s initiation into artistic practice began with the terracotta sculptures he created at the age of eight, while taking part in a 1991 art and craft workshop at Bhopal’s Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya (or Museum of Man). “They were liked,” he says softly. “After that I started to work with my uncle.” His uncle and aunt, Subhash and Durgabai Vyam, were already well-regarded artists and Sukhnandi was a willing and able apprentice. In 1997, he relocated from his village, Sonpuri, to Bhopal, and experimented with clay, canvas and metal before settling on wood as his medium of choice.

It has not been an easy decision, primarily because the combined cost of the raw material, storage and transportation is much more than it would be for canvases. But Sukhnandi’s three-dimensional wooden pieces single him out among Pardhan Gond artists. His themes range from myths and folktales to depictions of everyday life in the Gond village, where animals are part of the landscape. He doesn’t paint on the sculptures instead, he lets the natural differences of shade and texture in the wood create the desired contrasts. His choice of medium and technique echo the world he seeks to evoke: a world where the natural, the mythical and the cultural are inseparable from each other.

In fact, Sukhnandi’s work challenges many cultural binaries we tend to accept unquestioningly: metropolitan and rural, traditional and (Post) Modern, art and craft. In being attributed simultaneously to a folk tradition that goes back millennia and to a single visionary practitioner (in whose honour it is sometimes called Jangarh Kalam), Pardhan Gond art is perhaps unique. But the really crucial thing it allows us to do is to break open the watertight compartments to which Modernist notions of art have confined us, where being part of a tradition is merely to practice a craft, which is assumed to mean that one mechanically recreates the same thing over and over, while being an artist is somehow sui generis. Neither, of course, is true. But the premium placed on originality, newness and individuality is such that we are unable to see that all creative work is in some way or other an engagement with a tradition.

Art historian Michael Baxandall, discussing the social milieu of art in the now-classic Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy, argued that while the painter may have been accepted as the “professional visualizer” of the holy stories, “the public mind was not a blank tablet on which the painters’ representations of a story or person could impress themselves.” The painter’s “exterior visualizations” had to get along with an ongoing process of “interior visualizations” by his public. But this did not mean the painter brought nothing to the table. It only meant that his originality and innovativeness lay in building upon the “cognitive style” he shared with his public.

What happens when an artist’s ‘exterior visualisations’ cannot be mirrored in the minds of his public, because they share with him almost none of his cultural context? I do not know. What I do know is that over the last two decades, Pardhan Gond artists have been slowly gaining access to the metropolitan worlds of museums, galleries and publishing houses, in India and abroad. Sukhnandi Vyam is in the slightly different position of representing a whole tradition to a world that doesn’t know it—while also bringing his own take on it to the table. And he does it remarkably well. His ‘Mangrohi’—a mandap of sal wood to which coconuts and mahua liquor are  offered—transports us to the joyous atmosphere of a Gond wedding. But next to it we have ‘Wedding Ritual,’ where the Suvash and Suvashin, representing the bride and groom’s sides respectively, battle it out over the mangrohi in a full-scale tug-of-war. The competitive glint in everyone’s eyes—and the determined set of their jaws—dispels any simplistic notions we may have been nursing of the tribal life as egalitarian and conflictless. Then there are his images of deities: Bada Deo, who created the world, or Mallu Deo, to whom one prays when children are sick. To the ignorant eye they may seem the most traditional of all, but in fact they are a radical departure. Because, as Sukhnandi points out gently, they are traditionally formless, “Inka koi aakaar nahi hai. Yeh toh hum man se banaate hain, bhaav se.”

Even as the artists’ imaginations soar beyond the assumed parameters of Gond tradition, their work retains a unique voice and vision. Crucial to that vision is an understanding of the universe not as something fragmented, alienated or alienating, but as something in whose multiplicity there is a profound and irrevocable interconnectedness. Think, for example, of Gond artist Bhajju Shyam’s exquisite, playful re-imagining of the Western metropolis in The London Jungle Book (Tara Books, 2008) where Big Ben is a rooster, by whose call one times one’s day—while a red doubledecker becomes a dependable canine companion called Loyal Friend No. 30.

Within Sukhnandi’s work, it could be his ‘Thinking Man’ that best represents this vision. The piece is a wonderfully idiosyncratic re-interpretation of the artist as Rodin’s Thinker. Instead of the abstract form of thought that we are invited to imagine by Rodin’s legendary sculpture, here the concreteness of the things thought about presses in on us.

The world crowds in around the artist, even as he sits quietly there hunched, the paintbrush in his hand pointing upward like some ersatz spear—an improvised defense against the world, should it choose to attack. But it is when you start to look at the objects that float about his head—like thought bubbles in a cartoon strip—that you begin to see the playful conjunction of multiple worlds. At first glance, there appears to be an aeroplane at one end and a jungle at the other: human civilisation juxtaposed with nature. Then one begins to see that the plane is much like a fish, down to the tail and fin-like wings. And perched on the man’s forehead is a bird, resembling the plane in form—and of course, in function. But even as it seems to gently mock technology as nothing more than the mimicry of nature, what ‘Thinking Man’ retains is a sense of wonder about the world—and keeping that intact has got to be the most challenging task of our times.