How does a work of art earn the tag 'contemporary'? To some, it's about rejecting the traditional and finding new idioms of expression. To some others, it's about embracing the style du jour from Europe. For Bhopal-based poet and physiologist Udayan Vajpayee, it's neither.
While curating 24 vivid works by four artists from Madhya Pradesh's Pardhaan community for a show titled 'Jangarh Kalam', Vajpayee was looking for intellectual inspiration from a former denizen of Bhopal — painter-intellectual Jagdish Swaminathan. For Swaminathan, "all forms of social organisations that existed in a particular time, whatever their technological status, was contemporary", writes Vajpayee in the catalogue of the show, Jangarh Kalam.
It was Swaminathan, who in the 1980s set up an art museum at Bharat Bhavan refusing to look at only Europe-inspired art for a sense of modernity. While researching the artistic traditions of the area near Bhopal, he came across some paintings Jangarh Singh Shyam of Patangarh's Pardhaan community, the traditional genealogists and storyteller-singers of central India's Gonds. He invited Jangarh to paint at Bharat Bhavan and a 'style' or kalam was born out of a tradition of musicality. The four artists chosen for this show by Vajpayee owe their artistic lineage to Jangarh. In their bold use of colours and complex storytelling techniques, they are as 'modern' as modern gets. At the same time, none of them denies the folksy roots of the stories themselves, represented ubiquitously by the importance of animals in the human world.
Vajpayee thinks their musical backgrounds come through in their paintings. Today none of the younger members of the 25-30 Pardhaan families which are based in Bhopal engage formally with their tradition of singing. But at least "one or two members from each family paints", says Mayank Shyam, 23, son of Jangarh and the youngest of the four artists taking part in the show at Art Alive gallery. Perhaps it's fitting for the age that the storytellers of one of India's oldest inhabitants have shifted from an aural form to a visual.
Jangarh Kalam— on at Art Alive Gallery, S-221 Panchsheel Park. Till November 15, 11 am to 7 pm (Sunday closed). The reserve prices range between Rs 65,000 and Rs 2 lakh. For more, call 9999479947.