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.”