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Beyond the Canvas : With Rajendra and Chandrakali

Koral Dasgupta @KoralDasgupta

Updated: November 30, 2015, 12:01 PM IST
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Sometime back as I scrolled down my social media page, I stopped automatically at two images posted by Pramod Kapoor of Roli Books. They were wall size murals with trees and peacocks and butterflies and deers, beautifully done up in Gond art form. Of course I couldn’t hold back my appreciation for Kapoor. He who hosts such murals on the walls of his home is a man of taste and has deep affection for art. I wish there were more people like him. Practically, I wanted such walls in my home too! Also, as I stared at the images for long, that feeling of inadequacy haunted me once again. Whatever is my amateurish contribution in the world of art, will never add up to stand by a fraction of this quality. And hence, I go back to that same philosophy that drives my love for the craft. “If you can’t be an artist, then spend time with those who are, listen to their stories, write about them and live their lives – either in books or through columns.”

Gond artist Rajendra Kumar Uikey and his sister Chandrakali Pusham, who painted Kapoor’s walls comes from Patangarh in Dindori district of Madhya Pradesh. Following the formats of Gond art, they paint their canvas with dense structures comprising of natural elements like animals, plants, flowers, insects, reptiles, birds, fish and Gods. Surprising it is, that even the large wall that they painted, they ensured that the work was symmetrically and geometrically pleasant for the eye; leave aside their vibrant understanding and usage of colours. Deeply rooted in the folk lore and culture of Gond, story-telling is an inevitable passion of the artists as much as the craft of their hands is. Thus, their mind and hands work in unison to bring these compositions to life. “It was in 1983 that Shree Jangarh Singh Shyam in our village started it. He painted these images with everything that constitutes the nature, and depicted them all in playful mood. It became a form of art and he wanted to take it forward. Soon he got a job with Bharat Bhawan in Bhopal and started devoting more time as an artist. The tribals there shared his passion and started following him. We belong to the same family and all of us are now devoted painters. We try to depict life very closely through our art. We paint nature because this is what our life is made of.” Rajendra tells me.

Traditionally Gond paintings are meant to be a part of the decorations for Karwa Chauth, Diwali, Durga-ashtami, Nag Panchmi and others, as they depict with very basic expressions, man’s relationship with nature and his faith in Gods and Goddesses who drive the forces of nature. The paintings are another language for various celebrations and rituals with bright and colourful images of all other forms of life. The dominant gods in this kind of art form are the incarnations of Lakshmi and Kali, hinting at man’s longing for prosperity in life and fear of death, which also becomes the span of time that this form of art chooses to capture. The artists worship nature through their art, welcome life, and prey for protection from all evils.

Rajendra explains, “Every painter communicates his own unique story, though we belong to the same family and have learnt the art by inheritance, from those who have started before us and are bigger names today. Almost two or three hundred people in the village have learnt Gond art and we all are trying to make a profession out of it. Life is more or less the same for everyone. But just like you authors tell different tales even if you are sharing language or geography, similarly, we painters talk about our own exclusive stories through our work. It is about how each one of us look at life, the experiences we may have had, a vision that we had dreamt of, or just a scene that touched our minds and remained there!”

Till a while ago, Gond paintings were created with natural colors extracted from charcoal, soil, plant sap, leaves, cow dung, and others. Rajendra takes pride in mentioning the heritage of the art, but also succumbs to the practical difficulties in continuing with that tradition. “We use Acrylic colours now. Much more shades are available in the market and it also saves us the time to experiment with things and produce new colours for ourselves. Using ready-made colous available easily in the market makes things more viable and allows us to rather concentrate on our designs”.

Gond paintings are an enigmatic art form created by putting together dots and lines, thus instilling a sense of motion in the still images. Very vibrant colours are applied and contrasted against each other, ensuring that each part of the painting stands out by its own merit and leaves its own significant mark on the complete whole.

Says Rajendra, “People have to have an eye for art to be able to value our work and understand the hard work we put into it. There are many, like you and Pramod Ji, who are in search of beauty in their lives. Such people come ahead and hire us. They take care of our needs – food, travel, accommodation, and others. Word of mouth travels through them. Each work of art that we create is meant to kill the indifference of a few souls. If two people who didn’t care about visual art earlier asks a few questions after watching my painting, I’d consider myself and my art successful!” Of course, the job of Gond artists are as thankless as any other folk artist in India. Who knows better than me, how difficult it is to sell art in a space dominated by crime and politics.

The good news is that the Indian government today is increasingly getting conscious about encouraging and preserving these art forms, lest such talent become extinct due to lack of attention. Art Galleries are opening up. Must Art Gallery in Delhi, for example, specialises in Gond paintings and Gond tribal art. Today Gond paintings on wood or metals and decorative boxes are gaining popularity across the globe. However, the economics is not yet self-sufficient. “Every month is different from the other. We engage into farming to run our families and balance that with our art-work. We try to participate in exhibitions in festivals as much as we can. When we are felicitated, the name spreads and we start getting better rates. We are hence, constantly hungry more exposure.” Confirms Rajendra. “Also, Gond art is physically and mentally demanding. We usually work is a group of two or more. I pair up with my sister Chandrakali or my wife, whoever is available to travel and work with me. When we are quoted unfair rates, it affects not one but two or more people.”

Chandrakali Pusham, who has lost her husband and lives with her in-laws and kids, spells the journey of that traditional Indian woman who has to balance a lot of struggles simultaneously. And yet, she has had the courage to travel to Delhi and Bangalore and other places with her brother, to add beauty into the lives of others, and bring back to her children the resources for a better life in the process. They work on paper, cloth, wall, calendar, etc. as is the demands of the market. What is her preferred canvas, I ask. “There’s no strict preference. It actually depends on the composition. Bigger canvasses throw a challenge at us, inviting us to stretch ourselves as much as we can and yet not get repetitive or boring for the viewers.” Discreetly she responds. “We are constantly thinking of designs. Even when we are in the field, growing crops, an insect we see gets translated as a design in our brain. It remains there till we have taken it out on the canvas, somewhere. We never particularly pre-plan our canvas. But when we have the brush in hand, the designs we had restored resurfaces.”

Gond art stems from the belief that good image brings good luck. This was the inherent thought that led the Gonds to decorate their houses and floors with their designs and take it further, beyond the fences of their homes. May their work, which is the biggest visiting card one can carry or leave behind, bring them luck and prosperity in return, and the colours of their art shine bright in their lives too.
First Published: November 30, 2015, 12:01 PM IST

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