In the September auction of South Asian art by Sotheby’s in New York, among the modernism of Husain and Padamsee, will lie a relatively unknown folk idiom. In a bold move, the auction house has included works by the Gond tribal artist Jangarh Singh Shyam in the same collection.
Hailing from a small village in the Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh, Shyam is the poster boy of Gond art, and arguably of contemporary Indian tribal art itself. Before him, there was no Gond art; not in the manner that it is known today. What was there was relief work on clay walls painted with rudimentary colours, traditionally done by women on the walls of their own homes.
In 1981, the painter Jagdish Swaminathan came across 17-year-old Shyam, with an extraordinary sense of form and style, decorating village huts. Swaminathan brought him to Bhopal, where he worked on a giant mural in the Charles Correa-designed arts complex, Bharat Bhawan. It was there that Shyam took his native art to canvas and paper, using watercolours and acrylic paints to create works that would circulate in galleries not just in India, but in France, the US and Japan.
For these reasons, the cultural historian Jyotindra Jain, member secretary of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, believes that what has come to be known popularly as the “Gond idiom” should, in fact, be known as the “Jangarh idiom”.
“Jangarh chose to transform his community’s fables and myths into images,” says Jain, adding that these images were mediated by references from the new art world he had entered. The images born of this cross-over were transient: birds morphing into airplanes; or a stag’s horns turning into a vast forest. Jain was part of the board that selected Shyam for the Bharat Bhawan mural and curated Shyam’s works in the Autres Maîtres de l’Inde (Other Masters of India) exhibition at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris that concluded in July.
The first major and most significant exposition of Shyam’s work was in Paris as well: Magiciens de la Terre, a historical exhibition curated by Jean-Hubert Martin at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1989.
But the Sotheby’s sale will be the first time that a canvas by an Indian folk artist has been estimated at $30,000-50,000 (around Rs14-23.4 lakh), and the sale price may exceed that range. The work, Paysage avec Araignée (Landscape with Spider), was part of the Pompidou show. This is the third time that Sotheby’s has included Shyam’s work, the first being in its March auction, when a 2001 work estimated for $5,000-7,000 was sold for $13,750. Two large paper works executed in 1988 and 1989 were sold in July for $15,000 and $18,000.
Though he was feted in his lifetime, Shyam’s canvases are experiencing this sort of commercial success only posthumously. The 37-year-old artist’s tragic suicide at the faraway Mithila Museum (outside Tokyo) in July 2001 points to a frightening trend of exploitation of folk artists at the hands of commercial agents. The privately owned museum was paying him a monthly salary of Rs12,000 for creating works in residence at a time when each of his works was already selling for close to lakhs.
With an increasing interest in Shyam’s work, these trappings of disparity might change for other Gond and tribal artists. The list runs long: Mumbai galleries Chemould and Pundole held two exhibitions in August 2009 that focused on tribal art. Earlier this year, the Delhi outfit of the London-based W+K Exp gallery had an exhibition of Gond sculpture called Dog Father, Fox Mother, their Daughter & Other Stories. And in November, the Devi Art Foundation will host a show called Vernacular, in the Contemporary. The show will have works by 60 folk and tribal artists, including works by Shyam and his family. There are also efforts to push the Gond idiom into unexplored media: The anti-caste publisher Navayana has just published a graphic novel by Gond artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam.
The art market for Indian contemporary tribal and folk arts, however, is still in its infancy. The highest price achieved so far is $13,600 for Warli artist Jivya Soma Mashe’s painting on canvas, far removed from the record price of $2.4 million achieved by the Aboriginal artist Clifford Possum.
A lot of the credit for the global curatorial relook goes to Paris-based Hervé Perdriolle who started his pursuit as a collector in 1996. Now, as a gallerist, he is an active agent in promoting artists such as Shyam, as well as Mashe and the Mithila painter Chano Devi. Over an email exchange, he says he is interested in these artists in the same vein that he is interested in Warhol, Basquiat and Ravinder Reddy.
Shyam’s early works show a rare primitive force that depict the animist imagery of the Gonds; his last works show a fabulous graphic mastery. His own life is the stuff of a mythical tale: from a poverty-stricken childhood to sudden fame.
In his success, Shyam encouraged his cousins and village folk to follow him. He even helped sell their work. Today, Shyam’s 24-year-old son Mayank is an artist in his own right. One can only hope that his father’s story will help him get the recognition he deserves in his lifetime.