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Book review: The fantastic story of a Gond artist’s life

The story of Pardhan Gond artist Venkat Raman Singh Shyam’s life told through fantastic art and writing that approximates the truth of poetry leads the reader to a fresh understanding of ever-contentious issues.

books Updated: May 21, 2016 08:52 IST
Manjula Narayan
The story of Pardhan Gond artist Venkat Raman Singh Shyam’s life is told through art and writing that approximates the truth of poetry.
The story of Pardhan Gond artist Venkat Raman Singh Shyam’s life is told through art and writing that approximates the truth of poetry.(Finding My Way )

When John Berger calls a book “special and beautiful”, you take notice because, well, as a student, you were bashed on the head with his Ways of Seeing. But Venkat Raman Singh Shyam and S Anand’s Finding My Way would have caught your attention even if it came without adulatory comments from a range of eminences grises including BN Goswamy, Gulammohammed Sheikh and Shuddhabrata Sengupta. The first print book published by Juggernaut, which mainly focuses on “fresh original books tailored for mobile”, is magnificent both visually and in terms of the intellectual depth of its text.

Venkat Raman Singh Shyam and S Anand’s Finding My Way would have caught your attention even if it came without adulatory comments . (Finding My Way )

At the simplest level, this is the story of Pardhan Gond artist Venkat Raman Singh Shyam’s life, of his family, his people, their world view, their myths and race memory, and their art. By itself, the story of Singh’s rural childhood, his travails as a young rickshaw puller in Delhi, his sense of growing closer to his métier, his art, and of honing his craft through painting signboards in 1990s Bhopal, the examination of his family ties and the account of how he found his wife make for compelling reading. This is Aman Sethi’s A Free Man told by the free man himself and so devoid of that refraction through the class lens. The Gond stories, the creation myth of Bada Deo, the story of Pemal Shah and his rediscovery of the millets kodo and kutki, of Lingo the liberator, woven into the warp and weft – a metaphor as dear to Shyam as it was to 15th century mystic poet Kabir, who is quoted at exactly the right points throughout this book – of the narrative of the artist’s own life are fascinating too. And all of this is told in a voice that is, at different points, wry, laugh-out-loud funny, shamanic, and wise:

In the Gondwana clock, time keeps spinning. Clockwise and anti-clockwise are appearances. The sun merely moves from one freedom to the next. Yet we try to trap time inside a clock. We try to come to terms with time by dividing it into seasons, days, hours, minutes, seconds.

Even his harrowing experience of plying a cycle rickshaw in Delhi has fed into Venkat Raman Singh Shyam’s work (Finding My Way )

Some parts of Finding My Way recall abstruse religious texts and hymns and the tone makes you think of Eliot in those bits of The Wasteland inspired by the, ah, dare you say it? the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

I’m just a dot, but every dot is a circle in itself, every dot is the end, every dot the beginning, every dot is the beginning of a word, or a letter of the alphabet, the beginning of every beginning, the beginning of nothing, of everything, the beginning or a stroke that ends in a painting, the beginning of a note that ends in a song, and every circle is the coming together of several dots, where every dot can think it is the circle, and that it began the circle and gathered other dots around it…

You learn too of how this book came to be written:

When I was looking for a way to tell the story of my life, and the story of what’s come to be called Gond art, John Bowles, the art historian, introduced me to S Anand, a publisher who seemed to be at odds with the world and often at odds with himself. I helped him connect with the selves that had died in him. I scripted his life as he scripted mine. We found ourselves in a clock where the two hands moved in different directions, and sometimes met each other…

Finding My Way also ponders the ghettoisation of Indian ‘folk and tribal art’ by the Indian art establishment and draws parallels to the Modernists’ relationship with African art, which was termed ‘primitive’. (Finding My Way )

You know S Anand through his work with Navayana, the anti-caste publishing house that would run properly afoul of the Hindu right wing if its members ever developed the degenerate habit of reading. Given fears of Ambedkar-appropriation-by-the-savarnas, Navayana hasn’t endeared itself to the Dalit intelligentsia either. Anand once called for applications to the post of editor with Navayana with the fiercely Reddited line: ‘Preference will be given to Dalits and beefeaters’. His rejection of his own true-blue brahminhood makes him a fascinating story too.

And so it is that these two individuals with intricate fantastic stories of their own have collaborated to create a work of true seriousness, one that manages to be an autobiography of a remarkable artist, the story of his people, and the story of the ‘creation’ of the still insufficiently appreciated Gond art form that actually came into being in the 1980s following the efforts of Shyam’s uncle-guru Jangarh. But above all, this book is a powerful critique of contemporary Indian society and its religious, caste and consumerist obsessions:

“Is the market a measure of the excellence of art? Is excellence the price you fetch, especially after death? …How do we measure creative genius, and the role genius plays in expanding our imagination? Can we any longer look at art as a mystical and magical experience? …Can primordial innocence and curiosity be our lenses in the age of Sothebys’ and Vadehras, where art is but an investment like real estate, as a piece of earth is called, in which the seriously moneyed move their currency almost invisibly, imperceptibly, and Absolut-ly? Questions that have no answers need to be asked nevertheless.

The Eklavya story told through the Gond perspective leads the reader to view contemporary struggles over the environment as part of the playing out of ancient conflicts. (Finding My Way )

By presenting wonderful stories within stories, familiar stories through fresh ‘outsider’ perspectives like the Gond view of the Eklavya myth, and then inducing the reader to see the ongoing rape of the environment, the impossible plan to link the rivers too as part of the playing out of an ancient irresolvable conflict between the rapacious urban and the uncontaminated forest, between the settler and the indigenous, between races with radically differing world views, Venkat and Anand have added a contemporary dimension to questions that have chafed Indians for millennia. This book not only asks all the important questions, it also leads the reader to a fresh understanding of intractable issues. It’s triumph is that it does this by combining Venkat Raman Singh Shyam’s wonderful art that transcends the ‘tribal’ label (for this is powerful modern Indian art, art that isn’t derivative or burdened by postcolonial baggage) with language that mysteriously manages to be secular and quasi-religious, intellectually muscular and poetic all at once.

Finding My Way is a book to dip into periodically for inspiration and magical visions; a book to enjoy; a book to keep.

Finding My Way

Venkat Raman Singh Shyam , S Anand

Juggernaut Books

Rs 1499

PP 192