President Kovind presents Padma Shri to Smt. Durga Bai Vyam for Art. She is a Pardhan Gond artist hailing from Madhya Pradesh. She has worked hard to regenerate the tribal art form. Her paintings are mostly drawn from the folklores and stories of her tribe and their myths. pic.twitter.com/iisPpE0QgF
— President of India (@rashtrapatibhvn) March 21, 2022
On Monday this week, the well-known revered Padma awards were conferred to 54 personalities from various disciplines by the President of India. This year, the list included 4 Padma Vibhushans, 17 Padma Bhushans and 107 Padma Shris — the latter also included several artists.
Among them was Durga Bai Vyam, commemorated for her outstanding work in art. How many urban art aficionados are aware of this leading female artist from the hinterlands of our big country? Today based in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, Durga Bai is one of the foremost Pardhan Gond artists, working to regenerate the tribal art form. Her paintings are mostly rooted in her tribes and their myths, drawing inspiration for folklore. Critics have written that she is “altering the way folk art — and the women who practice it — are making their mark in the world”.
Most of Durga Bai’s work is rooted in her birthplace, Barbaspur, a village in the Mandla district of MP. Born in 1973, it was at the tender age of six that she picked up the art of digna from her mother. Digna is a ritual of painting geometric patterns on the inner and outer walls and floors of the house during weddings and harvest festivals. Durga Bai’s early digna works were well appreciated by people in the community. And, listening to stories with her grandmother and mentoring under her mother contributed significantly to Durga Bai’s art in the initial years.
Officially, her creative journey began in 1996 at an artist’s camp organized by Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, Bhopal. At the age of 15, Durga Bai married Subhash Vyam, a clay and wood sculptor. Her artistic career flourished further not only with his support, but also the encouragement of her own cousin, veteran and renowned Gond artist Jangarh Singh Shyam.
Durgabai and Subash would together take workshops and teach participants the integral elements of Gond painting while pointing out the changes brought by modernization in their medium of painting. In the 2018 Kochi Muziris Biennale 2018, the artist couple created an experimental graphic narrative on marine plywood giving the traditional Gond wall art another dimension.
Durga Bai has also painted several goddesses — Ratmaimurkhuri, the guardian of the night; Maharalin Mata, who warded off ghouls from entering villages; Khero Mata, protector against evil people; Budi Mai, patroness of the harvest; and Kulsahinmata, a goddess invoked when crop was sown. Durga also painted male gods, Bada Dev, the supreme god, and Chula Dev, who ensured that the household chulha (hearth) always burns. She once professed that the themes she likes to paint include “rivers, trees (especially the bamboo tree, vital to life as from it is made Bada Dev’s musical instrument bana and the bansuri, flute), Diwali celebrations, kanyadan, houses and children, animals such as tiger, deer, stag with antlers, peacock, bull, garden lizard, pig, birds sitting on top of trees while animals sit below”.
Jangarh Singh Shyam always encouraged her to not repeat what was being done for years, but to use her skills to show new things. Durga Bai even did a series of paintings of aeroplanes in the Gond style to mark her first plane ride and her first visit abroad to the Frankfurt Book Fair. She has notably had exhibitions in and around India and also abroad, and been illustrating books since 2003.