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How Jangarh Singh Shyam Put the Gond Tribe and their Art on the World Map

Gond art consists of paintings of Pardhan Gond tribes that reside in Central India. Historically, the members of the community were bards who sang about devi devtas using a three-stringed instrument called Bana. Through their music and songs they educated the younger generations of their villages about Gond mythology, stories and culture.

The origin myth of the Pardhan Gonds starts with seven brothers. The youngest brother was named Pardhan. However, the six brothers did not accept him as their brother because the seventh brother was not born inside the house. He was born outside in the paddy field and hence, came to be called Pardhan. One day, Bada Dev (an important Gond deity)appeared and told the six boys that Pardhan was in fact their brother and that they were to take care of him. He also declared that from then onwards, Pardhan would sing songs for Bada Devand other devi devtas. It is believed that from then on the Pardhans remembered the devi devtas in bhajans and other rituals.

Jangarh Singh Shyam was born in the Gond Tribe of Patangarh, Madhya Pradesh. His early life was plagued with poverty, he took to farming very early on and quit school. He married Nankusia Bai at the age of 16. Hetook part in singing like other members of his tribe but while singing he also began to make terracotta figurines of devi devtas. He also decorated the huts in Patangarh with traditional motifs which were part of the lives of the Gonds. In 1981, it is while decorating a hut that Jagdish Swaminathan discovered him. He was impressed by the forms in Jangarh’s art and invited him to Bharat Bhawan. Jangarh immediately jumped on the jeep and left for Bhopal. From this point onwards, a series of events transformed Jangarh’s life.


In 1983, there was an art camp in which Manjit Bawa gave Jangarh an etching plate and asked him to etch. What Jangarh produced turned out to be better than any other artist present at the camp. Soon, Jangarh began to paint all deities, and his painting of Hanuman was showcased at Bharat Bhawan. In his work, he captured the whole universe of the Gonds. His works became pictorial representations of stories for Madhya Pradesh and its flora and fauna. He also painted the major deities of Gonds such as Bada Dev and Medi ki Mata (protector of grains).


His works came to be exhibited widely and contemporaries such as M.F. Husain regarded him as a great artist. Eventually, he and his works came to be recognised internationally.


However, on 3rd July 2001, Jangarh Shyam took his own life in the Mithila Museum in Japan. The art world was left devastated and no one could understand what had made them lose Jangarh. Before this trip he had been to Japan twice and returned alive but in 2001 he had left for a 3 month long assignment. In his autobiography ‘Finding My Way’, Jangarh’s nephew, Venkat Raman Singh Shyam, writes that, on July 2 Jangarh had called home and talked to his wife Nankusia and his daughter. The next day he hanged himself.


In his lifetime, Jangarh had succeeded in amassing a following and a sort of Jangarh club had taken shape. He established a whole new school of art called ‘Jangarh Kalam’ in Indian contemporary art. He encouraged his family members to recognise their talents and produce their own works. Most practitioners of the art form today come from the Gond Pardhan clan. His wife, Nankusia Bai and children, Mayank Shyam and Japani Shyam are all well-known Gond artists. His house in Bhopal is a hub of creativity. Today, Jangarh kalam is not only practised by members of the Gond tribe but even outsiders and other aspiring young artists have taken inspiration from these works. Jangarh’s legacy lives on.


A mural by Jangarh at Bharat Bhavan, 1997 (Photo Credit: Charles Correa/scroll.in) Source: ArtiseraHowever, what is worth pondering upon is that, despite being regarded as a great artist even by the likes of Husain, why could he never match the other stalwarts in terms of price or in repute? Is it to do with the inferior lens through which tribal art continues to be viewed in comparison to contemporary art that is churned out by \”trained\” and \”academy-educated artists\”?

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