When Raja Ravi Varma died in 1906, what departed with him was a life not only of artistic success but also of immense personal glamour. Indeed, much of the painter’s triumph came from his innate skill as much as the advantage of high birth and social cultivation. Deftly navigating between the studio and the colonial ballroom, doors opened before him as he mixed with politicians and statesmen, intellectuals and maharajas. It was diabetes that seized him in the end, and much of the criticism of his style only came afterwards, allowing this “painter-prince" a career in which he was a celebrity as much as an artist. Indeed, well before these words were understood as we do today, Ravi Varma emerged as a man of network, to whom concepts such as publicity and promotion were not remotely alien.
Decades after Ravi Varma, there lived in India another man of art, with more than one parallel with the life of this painter of the Raj. Like him, the younger artist had a most exciting story surrounding his birth: where Ravi Varma’s pregnant mother was “possessed" by a spirit prophesying greatness, the other man’s birth was presided over by officials of the Indian state. While an infant Ravi Varma drew on palace walls and caught the eye of a creative uncle, it was the walls of the younger man’s village house that first won him the attention of scouts looking for talent and imagination. And where the 19th century nobleman gave new form to gods of the Sanskritic pantheon, our late 20th century tribal was captivated by his own gods, depicting Thahi Dev, Khairagadhia Dev and Bara Dev for the first time on paper and canvas.
But there end the parallels between Ravi Varma and Jangarh Singh Shyam—so named after he was born quite literally in the middle of a janaganana (census) of his people. For unlike the former, whose privilege equipped him to not only paint but also master life itself, the latter was lost when it came to things beyond art. He emerged from a village and when he moved in with shehri (urban) artists, bewilderment and competition were his companions. What he walked into was, we are told, a “ruthless global marketplace of art, whose pressures he was not equipped to cope with". And when he hanged himself in 2001, aged 40, his life folded in tragedy. As his newest biographer writes, he did not lose himself because his art went nowhere, or because success shunned him. He was, instead, “trapped in the crossing," lost between two worlds.
Jangarh Singh has found a resurrection in A Conjurer’s Archive, a splendid volume produced by the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) in Bengaluru. Written by Jyotindra Jain, the art critic who was also his friend, the pages of the book are glossy, and the images stunning. But this well-designed volume evokes also the trouble Jangarh Singh had in applying to himself the gloss that “sold" in the art market, just as he struggled with the demands of a bureaucracy and its paladins. He was an alien in a world where his work fetched high prices—and so he followed advice that did not always make him happy. As Jain notes, a gallery in Delhi once wanted him in its brochure. But because the man in jeans and a shirt did not look “authentic" enough for a master of (erroneously named) Gond art, Jangarh Singh had to strip and pose in a loincloth.
Jangarh Singh was a Pardhan, a tribal group inaccurately classified with the Gonds. In 1981, aged 20, he was working in the field when associates of Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal appeared out of the blue. Impressed by the paintings he had done on his walls, they persuaded him to join them, and for the rest of his career he stayed with the institution. Officially, he was first an “attendant" in the graphics department—which resulted in demands that he bring people tea and coffee—but very quickly it became clear that Jangarh Singh was an artist with a vision of his own, cultivating a technique nourished by the art of his ancestors, even as it drew influences from the world he observed, both urban and rural.
Jain, for instance, highlights his Pandawani work, which, despite its name, tells tales not only from the Mahabharat but also the Ramayan. His community were bards, and he too told tales in paint of their legends, heroes and chieftains. “What is noteworthy," writes Jain, “is that the characters…are shown sporting modern clothing such as shirts and half pants". There are aircraft and other motifs from modernity, in works that the market insisted had to be branded “tribal". Some pushed for him to stick to the rustic, taking it upon themselves to decide what was “authentic" tribal art and how much its painter could experiment. Jangarh Singh was naturally frustrated and often upset, but he did what he did anyway, exploring new media and becoming a master even of serigraphy.
His death in 2001 is mired in controversy. For ₹ 12,000 a month, he was deputed to an art gallery in Japan for a quarter of a year. Shy and a misfit, he grew lonelier still, writing pained letters home. When the gallery unilaterally extended his stay, it crushed a man already, perhaps, in the grips of depression. And so, as an official of the museum wrote, “he lost the balance and connection between the reality and…cut all the connection with life, wife, children and friend and he took the path of death." It is condescending to suggest that pressures of the market alone killed him—perhaps there were other factors too. Either way, after a sparkling career of 20 years, the artist decided he’d had enough—unlike Ravi Varma, who knew both art and the ways of the world, Jangarh Singh knew only to paint and couldn’t quite navigate the rest.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).
He tweets at @UnamPillai