Jangarh Singh Shyam: The Gond art pioneer who created his own idiom, but left the world too soon

Home / Artist Profile / Jangarh Singh Shyam: The Gond art pioneer who created his own idiom, but left the world too soon

Shampa Shah

A series on talent from the heart of India, which has created new languages — the last mile artists who reinvented tradition. This is the third part of her series. You can read the first here and second here.

“Jangarh is no ordinary artist painting in any traditional manner or style. He is not just an icon maker. Inventive and innovative, he opens up vistas that perhaps have no parallel in Pardhan or Gond art. The Leela (playfulness) which Jangarh brings to his art is without parallel, yet it seems to belong to some submerged tradition.”

— J. Swaminathan, The Perceiving Fingers

Jangarh Singh Shyam at work at Bharat Bhavan

The first thing that rings in my mind when I think of Jangarh is his laughter — a peal of laughter in its most real sense, echoing exactly like the laughter with which the character of Mozart has been endowed in the film Amadeus. In the film, it was assigned the name ‘the laughter of God’. Jangarh’s, too, was the laughter of God, which unnerved you with its innocence and abandonment. It was the innocent laughter of a person unaware of the vagaries of life.

The life of Jangarh Singh Shyam has been “the stuff dreams are made of”, to borrow from the essay Dream Children by Charles Lamb. His journey from his native village Patangarh, tucked away in the folds of undulating hills and forests, to the urban city of Bhopal, and from there to some of the biggest centres of art in the world has been fraught with excitement and fears.

Durgabai Vyam, another very talented Pardhan painter, shared with me that in the village, before the discovery of his genius, womenfolk used to fondly call Jangarh ‘Kanva’ or crow, because of his wisdom and inquisitiveness. When Jangarh decided to leave the village and settle down in Bhopal, the women bidding him farewell cried, “To what unknown lands will your inquisitiveness take you dear Kanva? May you be blessed always.”

Did the women of the village have a premonition of his overseas sojourns, bringing accolades and fame to the entire community, followed by his untimely demise in the faraway land of Japan?

Usually, the exact birth date of tribal artists is not known, but it could be located in Jangarh’s case, because on the day of his birth, census officials were visiting and collecting data from his village. In fact, his unusual name owes its origin to this incident. As narrated by Jangarh himself to Jyotindra Jain, “It was they who advised my parents to name me Janagana as I was born on the auspicious day of Janganana, the census of my community. Since most of my folk were not educated, they did not know the meaning of Janagana nor could they pronounce it correctly — so eventually, it just became Jangarh.”

A team looking for and collecting art works from the rural hinterlands of Madhya Pradesh for its museum of art was visiting Patangarh village in Mandla district in the 1980s; they were directed by the villagers to a dwelling with clay relief done by a young lad called Jangarh. His work so impressed the director J Swaminathan of Roopankar, Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal, that Jangarh was invited to participate in a couple of artists camps organised there. Soon, Jangarh expressed a desire to settle down in Bhopal to Swaminathan and was thus given a job at Bharat Bhavan. Not only did he live the rest of his life in Bhopal, but encouraged by his success, a number of his kith and kin shifted there as well and took to painting.

A mural by Jangarh at Bharat Bhavan, 1997 (Photo Credit: Charles Correa/scroll.in)

In a small span of 20 years as a painter, Jangarh produced a phenomenal body of works. Initially, he began with the visualisation of the local pantheon of deities. This called for imagination as these deities had never been visualised before. There were shrines dedicated to them and special rituals conducted periodically to propitiate them, but no iconographic representation existed. Jangarh drew Mehralin Mata, Raatmai, Phulvari Mata, Narayan Dev, Bara Dev and many other deities, giving each a different character, probably taking cues from the specific role each deity is assigned with — for example, Raatmai keeps a night vigil and safeguards villagers from nocturnal perils. These initial, centrally placed, single figures also referred to the geometrical floor diagrams or chauk that the shaman draws at the time of propitiation of a deity. These renderings were remarkable in their non-naturalistic approach. The figures look charged and radiate an energy; when asked by researchers and collectors who used to visit Jangarh and for whom I often played interpreter (since I was a neighbor and a friend in the last three years), Jangarh would refer to his taking inspiration from the shaman or a person who gets possessed by the deity during the rituals, goes into a trance and gets charged with an energy they otherwise lack in the day-to-day life.

The movement from his rural ambiance to the urban city, though his own decision, was still very much an uprooting. The nostalgia accentuated his memories and perception of the natural flora and fauna of his land, imbuing his paintings with a tension generated from a sense of love and a sense of loss simultaneously. There are masterly line drawings of individual birds and animals which capture and reflect the splendor of that species as the one and only unique creation of the universe. On the other hand, Jangarh’s is also an acute observation of certain dualities that are constantly at play in the ecosystem — such as the relentless hunter waiting for the right moment to pounce and the unknowing prey, unaware of the imminent danger lurking, hovering right over and under him. In several drawings, Jangarh’s juxtaposition of the binary very succinctly brings out the precarious balance of life and death, and the vulnerability of each life, however beautiful and enduring it may appear otherwise.

Jangarh Singh Shyam ca. late 1980s Pigment on paper 210 cm x 146 cm Collection and image courtesy: Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), Bangalore
An Elephant-headed Crab, a Character from the Pardhan Myth of Creation, 1992. | Via The Sunday Guardian

At Bharat Bhavan, Jangarh learnt the techniques of printmaking and soon, experimented with multiple layering, stencilling, making textures on the screen itself, giving rise to multichromatic paintings and also serigraphs of his drawings, for which there was a growing demand in the market.

There were many facets to Jangarh’s personality. He was a good singer, loved playing the flute, took part in the village Ramleela (where he used to enact the role of Ram), had a deep interest in listening to stories and songs, and would never miss an opportunity to attend any such event in his or nearby villages. One evening at his home, when I was praising his skills as a flautist, he laughed with a twinkle in his eyes and pointed to his wife Nankusia, saying that it was the flute that won her heart! There is a painting by him in which a cowherd boy is playing the flute, sitting on the branch of a tree in the jungle. It typically reminds one of the mythical cowherd boy, Krishna. But another Gond painter, Anand Singh Shyam, had a different and more plausible take on it. He said, “Jangarh has painted himself and not Krishna. Down by the river, this was how he used to wait for his beloved Nankusia every day.”

Jangarh Singh Shyam flanked by wife Nankusia Shyam and mentor J Swaminathan at Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, 1982. | Photo by Jyoti Bhatt, via Scroll.in

In Bhopal, Jangarh got a chance to listen to Pandwani and other folk singing traditions with narratives from Mahabharata, Bhartrihari Shatak, ballads of local heroes, and also saw plays by stalwarts like BV Karanth, Habib Tanvir and others, whose rehearsals he would often attend. All this exposure went along with the fact that the Pardhans — the community to which Jangarh belonged — are traditional bards to the Gond people. They used to sing stories of Gond kings and also evoked their main deity, Badadev, to the accompaniment of a stringed musical instrument called Bana, which is played with a bow. In fact, this instrument is supposed to be the abode of Badadev and hence, has been called a ‘portable temple’ by Shamrao Hivale in his book, ‘The Pardhans of the Upper Narbada Valley’.

All these elements came into play when Jangarh started works based on narratives. Most of the narrative paintings Jangarh did are a single frame image, which refers to the myth or story in a minimalist way, portraying a few major characters or a scene that then evokes the memory of the entire narrative. The most recurring myth is the Gond myth of creation of the earth and its inhabitants. This narrative has been rendered in multiple ways, sometimes as an exuberant, flowing tree, as if brimming over with fertility on the head of a coiled, hooded cobra or Sheshnaag. In some line drawings, the same myth is seen with key characters that played a crucial role in relocation of the Earth — the earthworm, the snake, the crab, and the crow, arranged vertically one above the other.

A mural by Jangarh at the Magiciens de la Terre exhibition (Photo Credit: Deidi Von Schaewan/manoir-martigny.ch) | Via Artisera

The other narrative that caught his imagination was the myth of the River Narmada. Besides rendering it in paintings, he expressed his desire to visualize this in clay as an assemblage of three-dimensional figures. I invited him to work on this project at Indira Gandhi National Museum of Man, where he worked for three months to create an installation of a very unique kind in terracotta, which is part of the permanent, open air exhibition called The Mythological Trail.

Terracotta exhibits in The Mythological Trail at Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya (IGRMS) or National Museum of Man

The other important characteristic of Jangarh’s paintings is his use of dots and patterns to instill movement and force in his figures. In the words of renowned modern painter Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, “Jangarh has employed dots and blobs, fish-scales, semi-circles, play of comb lines and serial- rather than cross-hatching to indicate movement of forms within a form. The repetition of pattern is neither numeric nor a flattening device, it is meant to change the form, to assume volume, to expand, turn, move in directions desired.” (From ‘The World of Jangarh Singh Shyam’, in the book, ‘The Other Masters’, edited by J Jain.)

A Barasingha depicted by Jangarh | Via Alfalfa Studio

When given the chance to work on a mega scale in the Vidhan Bhavan building at Bhopal designed by Charles Correa, Jangarh gathered a whole team of aspiring young artists of his community, who had already assisted him earlier to accomplish the task. In the words of Jyotindra Jain, “It was this mega mural project that led several young Pardhan men around Jangarh to take up art as a career. They began work following the so-called ‘Jangarh idiom’, but eventually developed their own individual languages of expression.”

As pointed out above, dozens of artists began to pursue this style that was highly individual, had come into existence only recently, and yet led to the making of a ‘tradition’. Unfortunately, neither the blessings given by the women of his village while bidding him farewell nor all the deities he drew and brought to life could ward off the evil eye hovering over Jangarh. Unable to handle the tension, uncertainty, living alone and working in faraway Mithila Museum in Japan, Jangarh brought an end to his own life on July 3, 2001. A deeply attached family person, full of love and care, nobody who has known him and his laughter would ever believe that he could have done this. As stated very poignantly in his book, ‘Jangarh Singh Shyam: A Conjuror’s Archive’ by Jyotindra Jain: “ A tribal artist’s aspiration to make a decent living in an urban centre lured him into the ruthless global marketplace of art whose pressures was not equipped to cope with. He was trapped in the crossing.”

Untitled, 2001 by Jangarh | Courtesy: StoryLTD
An artwork depicting a snake by Jangarh (Photo Credit: scroll.in)

But, strangely enough, some people only bring blessings and good omens to everyone related to them, not only in their lifetime, but even after their death. The untimely demise of Jangarh, however painful, led to the opening of the doors of opportunity for other artists of his community. His wife, Nankusia, who had never touched colours while Jangarh was alive — although he constantly urged her to do so — started painting only after he passed away. All his three children were small at that time, but have now found a name and an idiom of their own. In Bhopal and in the vicinity of Patangarh, there are more than a hundred men and women pursuing art as a means of expression and livelihood. It is 20 years since Jangarh left this earth, so precariously balanced on the hood of a snake in his painting, and yet his overflowing tree of life keeps rebirthing in the paintings of the artists of his community, who have just begun and were born long after his demise. Jangarh never died — he continues as a tradition in making.

(To be continued)


Shampa Shah established the Ceramic Section at Indira Gandhi National Museum of Man (IGRMS), writes about how tribal artists and artefact makers have reimagined and reinvented an entire tradition, and created a new world altogether. These last mile creative figureheads have helped keep India’s glorious history of art relevant in the contemporary world. This is the third part of her series. You can read the first here and second  here.


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