Bhajju Shyam is tired of narrating his London experience. “Even pass-ers by on the streets in my village would ask me about it!”
But much as he dislikes it, it is London — rather The London Jungle Book, the book that came of the visit — which has made this 37-year-old Gond tribal artist from Patangarh in Uttar Pradesh famous. The book was also why Shyam was in the capital recently to take part in the children’s literature festival.
The London Jungle Book is an illustrated account of Shyam’s stay in the metropolis, where he was invited in 2002 to paint the walls of an Indian restaurant. While many indigenous artists have pushed the frontiers of their art, Shyam’s work stands out for its strong yet sensitive interpretation of contemporary urban life.
The son of a poor farmer, Shyam is a class ten drop out. It was his uncle, Jangarh Singh Shyam, a famous Gond artist, who he taught him the ropes. “I learnt how to draw and colour sketches. My work was liked and I travelled as my uncle’s assistant to Delhi, Mumbai.” In the mid-90s, the Delhi Crafts Museum invited him; with the money he made there and some government allowance, Shyam branched out on his own. And then London happened. Shyam made the most of his trip, absorbing the sights and sounds and interpreting them in his own way. So the aircraft (incidentally, it was his first journey in one) became a ‘huge bird of prey’, the fickle weather of London, a ‘crying sun’ and so on. Shyam recalls the bus-ride to the restaurant everyday. “The bus was like a faithful dog, taking you wherever you wanted to go. Once I got lost and reached an Indian market. Since the London food is so bland, I stuffed my pocket with chillies!”
But what did the English think of Shyam’s work? “They know how to laugh at themselves, we take ourselves more seriously,” says the artist who would now like to open a gallery in the village for those interested in art.