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London seen through tribal metaphor

A STARRY-eyed tribal youth of Dindori district went to London four years ago. Naturally, he was awe-struck by the mega city?s colourful life. So what did he do to preserve the vignettes of London? He painted his experiences, using tribal symbolism. For, he is a painter and had gone to London to paint a restaurant of an Indian based there.

india Updated: May 29, 2006 20:03 IST

A STARRY-eyed tribal youth of Dindori district went to London four years ago. Naturally, he was awe-struck by the mega city’s colourful life. So what did he do to preserve the vignettes of London? He painted his experiences, using tribal symbolism. For, he is a painter and had gone to London to paint a restaurant of an Indian based there.

Now his unique paintings with descriptions are available in a book form. “The London-Jungle Book” by Bhajju Shyam is available in three languages- English, Dutch and Italian — and will soon be available in Japanese and French as well. The book is unique in the world as Bhajju has painted London in tribal metaphor. He, however, is no celebrated painter. He has been living in a slum in Bhopal for the last 13 years.  

During his two-month sojourn to London, Bhajju made mental sketches of the city. His imagination ran riot. And how beautifully!

“We usually eat at home but pubs and restaurants in London are so crowded at night that it seems people do not cook food for dinner at home at all. Swarming crowds at London pubs reminded me of bats, who come to life in the night and noisily assemble on a fruit-laden tree,” he chuckles.

To give the pub an authentic tribal symbolism he painted it as Mahua tree. If the pub found expression in Mahua tree, the Big Ben struck in the painter the memory of the village cock whose crow still informs of the dawn in tribal villages. 

When he saw a couple kissing in the middle of the road at London, images of couples shying away to a forlorn corner in some small Indian town or village struck Shyam. One of his paintings has the contrasting images of romance at London and an Indian village.

Swarming crowds at the underground metro stations in London, his idea of an aeroplane, which he had boarded for the first time, tedious security checks at airports, hard working women of London and the bus No 30, which he used to board to reach his workplace Islington from King’s Cross also spurred Shyam’s tribal symbolism. They adorn the book as paintings.  “The book is interesting in the sense that it shows a tribal looking at London or the western world at large and painting his emotions in tribal metaphor,” says eminent writer Udyan Bajpeyi.

But, how did the idea of a book on London strike Bhajju Shyam?  “I had been to Chennai for a workshop. People from Tara Publishing came to know about my visit to London. They used to talk about my experiences in London. Later, they asked if I could paint images of London in my own style and I agreed,” tells Bhajju. 

The book was later published by Tara Publishing in association with Museum of London and Bhajju had another chance to visit London in 2004 to release the book.

Bhajju, who still lives in a slum, has so far received Rs one lakh from the Museum of London as proceeds from sale of his paintings and another Rs 15,000 as royalty for the book.

“They are honest. They keep sending me money coming from sale of my paintings, which they have displayed in their museum and royalty for the book as well,” he says.

But, cultural institutions like Bharat Bhavan or Adivasi Kala Parishad have done little to help this tribal painter. “When I came, J Swaminathan was there in Bharat Bhavan. I was learning panting with my uncle Jangan Shyam then. But, before

I could start independent work, Swaminathan died and now none in Bharat Bhavan cares for tribal artistes,” he rues.  He further said once in deep financial crisis, he had been to Adivasi Kala Parishad to sell his paintings but officials there offered just Rs 10,000 for five paintings. Museum of Man was the only institution to assign some work to this gifted painter.