Titled Baghbana Dev, this painting by Venkat Raman Singh Shyam was commissioned for the year-end special of Lounge. It represents the tiger god that is worshipped by the Gond tribe. While the predator is considered to be a wild beast, in many indigenous cultures it is thought to be a watchful guardian. Every three years, on an auspicious day, the animal’s spirit is invoked by a Gond family. The kalash in the painting symbolizes the earthen pot which the family prays to, in order to call upon the spirit.
“We place a diya (lamp) inside the kalash and light it, before praying to it," says Shyam, a Pardhan Gond artist. After praying for a few hours, the tiger’s spirit is said to possess a family member. “We call this individual the savaari (medium)," says Shyam. The other members of the family then ask the savaari questions relating to their financial well-being, their future, as well as other problems they face. The savaari, who is in a trance, answers the questions one by one and provides solutions. It is said that the savaari acquires animalistic superpowers. “For instance, it is able to kill a sacrificial piglet and drink its blood," says Shyam. “The tiger’s spirit can possess any family member. I’ve even seen a young woman being possessed once."
In the painting, the tree branch running vertically across the tiger’s forehead represents the animal’s significant affiliation to the forest and the tribes that live there. Born in a village near the Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh, Shyam began painting at the age of eight. Like the other members of his tribe, he can smell the trail of a tiger, when the animal is 500m to a kilometre away. “While we worship the tiger, it is the outsiders who want to kill it for their greed. Adivasis have the knowledge of how to protect the animal, and I feel that we should be brought forward in conversations that revolve around its conservation," he says.
—As told to Radhika Iyengar