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The deity Baradeo sits on a lotus leaf, when the idea of Creation dawns on him. He looks around, but water spreads till the edge of the horizon. He rubs his chest with pensive intent, and fashions a crow from the grime. It flies far in search of clay to further Creation, until tiredly landing atop a stump. But this is no tree—it is the claw of a mystical crab, who reveals where all the clay has gone. A giant earthworm in the nether world collects and feasts on it. The crab pulls him out of this damp abode, and forces the worm to spit out the clay. The crow quickly grabs it, and flies home. With a spiderweb woven atop the watery expanse, Baradeo fashions the Earth’s creatures from this clay.
If Indian creation myths are your cup of tea, Gond legends are a quirky starting point for the inquisitive. As one of our largest and oldest tribes, their folklore is intricate and imaginative. As retainers of animist philosophy, they are spiritual and deeply tied to the forest. Juxtaposed to modernity, Gond artists are conjuring an art legacy that is equal parts whimsical and illuminating—for an introductory briefer into their religious heritage, look no further than Ojas Art this August.
The permanent art gallery at 1AQ has curated a show titled Message from the Trees, that features six visual artists who have vibrantly portrayed their communities’ legends to trigger conversations about tree conservation. Five of these artists—Bhajju Shyam, Mayank Shyam, Ram Singh Urveti, Durga Bai and Subhash Vyam—belong to the Gond community, and have used core tribal iconography to fit complex stories into expressive pieces. Illustrator Abhishek Singh, of Ramayan 3392 A.D fame, is the welcome outlier.
Bhajju Shyam is arguably India’s most famous current Gond artist, and hails from the Gond-Pardhaan community of Madhya Pradesh. A contemporary of Jangarh Singh Shyam, who pioneered the use of of paper and canvas among the Gonds to create his own school of art, Bhajju’s canvases abound with earthy tones, embroidery-like lines, and animals small and large. In fact, his art was my first encounter with the Gond origin story described above. Jangarh’s legacy is continued by his 21-year-old son Mayank Shyam, whose work is also on display.
Trees seem too plain a subject for a visit, but city-dwellers may not be familiar with the indigenous perspective towards art beyond famous styles like Pattachitra and Warli. This makes the walk into Ojas much more delightful, as a wall of colour unapologetically hits the eye. The canvases in Message from the Trees are crowded with playful hues, textures and feeling that demonstrate the plants’ venerated position as sacred pillars in the Gond ethos. Some are giant, standalone pieces, where trunks are seen melding with human and animal figures, while Durga Bai and Subhash Vyam (a husband-wife duo) prefer sharing stories across multiple canvases with smaller tree motifs. As someone who struggles with restraint, I appreciated that the joy of being in nature was left unbridled here. You lean in, savour, and move on as required.
As the sixth and final artist, Abhishek Singh’s achromatic art blends Hindu mythology, nature and a sense of universal connectedness that emotionally resonates with the tribal artwork lining the walls. As one strolls to the end of the gallery, his background as a graphic novelist makes for a unique and youthful conclusion; Vrikshadootam is the awe-inspiring, anime-styled finale at the exhibition that underlines the traditional Gond styles on display.
Message from the Trees is tribal representation that could not be more authentic, and naturally begets educational enrichment—be it a dekko to introduce your children to tribal stories, or to enrich a class of tired sociology students. If you’re anywhere near the Qutub Minar this month, do drop in.
The exhibition will run from August 2 to September 1 at Ojas Art@1AQ, New Delhi. Entry is free.
Timings: 11am to 7pm, daily, except for Mondays. The gallery will be shut on August 15.
Address: Qutub Minar Roundabout, 1AQ, Qutub Minar Complex Rd, Mehrauli, New Delhi. See ojasart.com
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