Gond Art Shared by Tribal Artist Vijay Shyam on the Story of Traditional Painting
Gond art of India has been practiced for more than a millennia and yet only came into the global spotlight in the past half century. Vijay Shyam is one of the eminent Gond painters, and in this interview he shares the history and culture of the Gond people and their distinctive style of painting.
I first met Vijay in August of 2019 when he introduced himself to me on LinkedIn and shared images of his work. I was impressed with his initiative; many creatives find it difficult to market themselves in their own backyard, never mind reach out to someone from another culture in a language that is not your native tongue.
With 2021 having been declared by the U.N. as the International year of the Creative Economy, People Are Culture is pleased to present its Creative Economy Spotlight series, which profiles the myriad kinds of contributors to our global creative economy. It’s a privilege to feature Vijay’s incredible talent and art form. Beyond that, Vijay can serve as an inspiration to other artists and artisans to dare to promote their work with people like me who deeply appreciate it, and will pay it forward!
Today a resident of Bhopal, Vijay learned the tradition of Gond art in his village at Patangarh, in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Located in central India, Madhya Pradesh is India’s second largest state and home to the biggest population of the Gonds. With more than 11 million members, the Gonds are the biggest of India’s more than 700 indigenous groups.
Vijay has been practicing Gond art for the last 20 years and got his tutelage of the art when he was very young from his brother, as well as his uncle Jangarh Singh Shyam. Jangarh was a pioneering contemporary Indian artist, whose work primarily depicted Gond deities and animals, such as tigers, deer, turtles and crocodiles. Jangarh was a mentor to many emerging Gond artists.
What is Gond art? This conversation with Vijay gives a wonderful overview of Gond art of India from a talented practitioner. You are sure to have your senses awakened by the bright colors, lively images, and invigorating style that bring to life Gond myths, history, beliefs and community values!
Family Teaches Family
Meg: Who taught you to paint?
Vijay: My first mentor was my elder brother. He is the one who taught me how to hold the brush. My elder brother was a wall painter and did the work of advertising on the walls. I used to go to work with him.
My uncle the late Jangarh Singh Shyamji was a very simple man and I worked and learnt a lot under his guidance. He knew very well which colour should be placed where which will enhance the beauty of the painting. I remember when my uncle got an opportunity to exhibit paintings in the Madhya Pradesh Assembly, and we both attended the opening.
Unfortunately, my Uncle passed away in Japan under mysterious circumstances which still no one knows the reason behind. The Japan Government wanted to do the final rituals of the cremation, however my elder brother Shree Anand Shyamji stepped in and made sure that his body was returned back to India for the last rituals. Today, I am walking in his footsteps and implementing all the learnings with his blessing forever on me.
Later, I started painting traditional pictures. All painters have the same style; it’s just that all painters change their views. I also draw pictures of the same story other people draw, but my way of displaying the imagery is different. I love all my paintings. I cannot describe any painting as good or bad. The time to create a painting totally depends on that painting. But usually, it does take several days to complete with proper finishing touches.
Inspirations for Gond Art Paintings
Meg: What are some of the other inspirations for Gond paintings?
Vijay: There are many mythological stories in Gonds that are based on myths and legends. Based on these stories, Gonds are inspired to create their paintings. There are many such mythological stories which give us positive energy and teaches us the meaning of life.
Out of all the stories, there is a story of seven brothers and sisters which I like the most. This is an interesting story about love and sacrifice for our sisters. There is also a peacock and peahen’s story, which talks about our daily life right from the morning prayers to every action of our day’s work. And last but not least, Mahua’s story, which tells a story of humankind.
What is Gond Art?
Meg: Do the colors have any special meaning?
Vijay: In Gond paintings, colors play a very important role. The selection of colors is based on pictures and the story behind them. In the past, natural colors from nature itself were used. Flowers, leaves, tree roots, stones with different colors, soil, etc. were used to create colors. All these things were ground up and boiled until they were one fourth of the original quantity. In today’s modern era, everything has changed and the trend of modern colors has increased.
Meg: The use of lines and patterns is a special feature of Gond painting. Can you explain why this is significant?
Vijay: In Gond paintings, lines, dashes, points, etc. have special importance. Through this medium, we can demonstrate the potential of our pictures more thoroughly. As the lines imply, the ridges of our fields, which are limited to every farmer, and on that limited land one must grow the crop for himself and for the entire family.
With this significance, we draw lines and incorporate all the colors so that our feelings can be seen clearly or look beautiful. All artists have their own specialties through a symbol that identifies them. My medium is dash / hyphen (-) which I consider as a grain of rice rather than a dash (-). I use it in my pictures as a medium of rice grains. By using this, it signifies that I spread rice in my farm, and this is the means of livelihood. So categorically, lines are our fields, and dash / hyphen is our rice.
Gond Community Unique and Special
Meg: Who are the Gond people?
Vijay: The history of Gond is very ancient. Initially, there were two parts of the Earth, Loretia and Gondwana Land. This is also proven historically and through scientific research. Over time, Earth was divided into many parts. Earlier, Gonds were spread across the country; however, with time many were converted to Hindus. You can still find the highest number of Gonds in Madhya Pradesh. We are also found in other states like Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Orrisa, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.
The Gond community is distinct from other communities. Our customs, food, lifestyle, etc. are all different compared to others. We worship Nature. All our Gods and Goddesses are related to nature. Our Gods and Goddesses are all around us and start within our house. Starting from the choke, or fireplace stove within the house, doors, to the courtyard outside the house, to the street, the corner of the street, village side, fields, forests, etc. all consists of our Gods and Goddesses.
We also follow many rituals as per our customs right from the birth of a child to death. In our customs, there is no need for a Brahman / Pandit (Priest), barber or laundry man. There are no jobs for such people as Gond family members do these jobs themselves. All the work is done by our family relatives or our society. We always belonged to the forests; where would you get a barber or laundry man there? Hence, all such work was always done by our people only.
Stone Age Gond Art Involves Gods and Goddesses
Meg: When did the Gond style of art originate?
Vijay: Gond art is an exceptionally old art, even before the Stone Age. Over time, its form has changed. Gonds have unwavering trust in the Gods, Goddess and Ghosts; the Spirits. During the Stone Age, tribes lived in the caves and sought to ensure their safety by drawing portraits of Gods and Goddesses in those caves. Gonds used this as an example and placed pictures in their houses. Sharing pictures of Gond cave art still exists somewhere in Bhopal, India, known as Bheem Baithka.
We Gonds also show in our art the saga of our history. Gonds had 52 Kingdoms. There are stories of the regime of every King from each Kingdom. Their stories are incredibly immense. Their history remains quite old, and the most renowned story is of King Heera Khan.
They used to make tattoos on their bodies. It is believed that a man comes in this world empty handed and leaves empty handed. Hence, the tattoo was made on their body so at least the Gond art remains a part of them, even after death.
The Gonds believe that the places which follow cleanliness will never have scarcity of food grains and its grace will always remain on them. Hence Gonds always keep their houses clean and decorate it with their artworks.
Gond art depicts many things like our traditional customs, our festival ceremonies, livestock that live around us, trees, birds, animals, wild animals and many more. The tribal live in harmony with other people and in their pictures they describe their life expectancies, their day to day needs and wants, their hunt for food, etc. Gods and Goddesses are also a part of the paintings.
Taking Inspiration from Myths, Legends and Emotions
Meg: How is the art significant to the community?
Vijay: ‘Painted Stories’ is what the tribal art form of the Pardhan Gond’s is popularly known as. Originally painted as symbols of good fortune on the walls of the Gond dwellings, this fabulous art-form has now found a unique contemporary expression in brilliant acrylic hues on paper and canvas. Gond paintings are a reflection of man’s close connection with his natural surroundings. However, while a majority of Gond paintings do take inspiration from nature, it isn’t the only source of inspiration.
Gond paintings can also take inspiration from myths and legends of India, or they may also showcase images from the daily lives of the tribe. It can also showcase abstract concepts like emotions, dreams and imagination. It is fascinating to see that every artist has a unique pattern of dots and dashes and has an explanation as to why they choose such a pattern. These intricate patterns include forms like ants, trident, peacock feather, rope, water ripples, tiger ripples and more.
Presently, around 20 artists stay at Bhopal for better market access and opportunities. Also in Patangarh, which is a village inhabited by the Gond community, there are around 20-25 practicing painters out of 400 families. The artists take pride in practicing the Gond art form. Today, acrylic colors are used instead of natural colors. Before, the artists painted in their mud-laid houses; but now in pucca housing this is slowly decreasing. Still, they paint their houses during festivals, rituals and ceremonies. Families get together during marriage and other ceremonies and paint in their houses.
Read: Learn about the colors of India: hand dyed fabrics, textiles, empowerment and more.
Age Old Story Shares Gond Art Symbolisms
Meg: What is one of the Gond stories and can you share its symbolism?
Vijay: This is an old story of a peacock and a chicken. While the earth was being created, the God of nature assigned tasks to every living being.
Our God Badadev created the earth. He also created day and night. Days would start at dawn and the sun would rise every day in the morning. But since people would still be in a deep sleep at dawn, how will they know it’s the start of the day? Therefore, there was a need for a messenger. There were doubts on who would be chosen for this task. God thought about this and assigned the task of waking everyone up in the morning to the peacock. It was the peacock’s responsibility to inform everyone when the sun was rising. The peacock accepted this task.
The peacock decided to stay up all night for this reason. But looking at the world sleeping made the peacock drowsy. It got worried that it wouldn’t be able to complete this important task. It decided to kill time until the sun came up and started dressing extravagantly to impress people when they wake up in the morning. The peacock was so involved in decorating itself that it lost track of the time.
It was almost dawn and the Sun wanted the peacock to inform everyone first. The sun exclaimed, “Oh God, how can I rise without the peacock’s morning scream?”
As a response to that the God asked the chicken to quietly check on the peacock. The chicken saw that the peacock was too busy decorating itself and reported this to God. It added that the peacock was so engrossed in dressing up that it did not realize that the chicken had come to check on it.
God realized that the peacock wouldn’t be able to make it on time. Hence God assigned the task to the chicken and covered its head with a comb, like sun rays. Since then, the chicken crows every morning and as a result of peacock dressing up, you will never see a more beautiful bird than the peacock.
Local Drink Mahua Illustrates Local Community’s Wisdom
Meg: Is there another motif that reflects the local community’s wisdom?
Vijay: This painting depicts a funny story within the Gond community. It shows how our behavior changes by consuming each and every glass of the local drink, Mahua. Mahua liquor is made from dried mahua. First, dried mahua flowers are kept in a pot of mud filled with water for two to four days. Later, the yeast (sugar) is mixed in the mahua and we put it in a pot and boil it. When the mahua starts to boil and steam, the same steam evaporates and is collected in a vessel. This is how mahua liquor is made.
When a person has one peg of mahua liquor, he starts to talk very sweet like a parrot. He speaks to everyone in a civilized manner. He gives everyone equal respect. He addresses everyone as “my brother, my friends, mother, father, dear son, daughter” and speaks with great affection. It feels as if there is no other man as gentle as him.
But after having a second peg, he starts roaring like a lion. He claims to be stronger than the lion. His behavior has changed. He feels he is very strong, very rich and very honorable. Everyone else is ordinary and insignificant in front of him. He can do anything. No one can stop him nor can do anything to him. He can do whatever he wishes. He is uppermost and nothing is impossible for him.
After having a third peg, he becomes unusual. It becomes an overdose, and the person starts behaving like a pig. He loses all his earthly senses. He forgets everything, he forgets who he is, where he is, what he is doing, who he is talking to. He forgets how to talk to someone and what to say. He forgets what culture is. He talks in an uncivilized manner. Where you should sit, where you should sleep, where you should stay; is it in the house or in the street or in a dirty drain? He does not understand why his clothes are getting dirty in the mud, and he doesn’t even notice if he urinates himself.
Asking Permission from Nature
Meg: I read that Gond paintings are a reflection of man’s close connection with his natural surroundings. Is this true?
Vijay: Gonds have immense unwavering faith in nature. Nature is the universe for the Gonds. Gonds receive everything from nature, so they respect it and consider it to be their shelter. They are nothing without nature. Money is offered to Mother Nature for using her soil in wedding ceremonies. Following a death, permission is taken from Mother Nature for the burning ceremony and then the rituals are undertaken.
Before taking anything from the nature, we believe that we need to ask its permission. Only when we have its permission, we proceed to take what we need from it. We worship all things nature has given to us like rivers, mountains, stones, trees, water, etc.
I personally believe that our elders mean everything to us, without them we are nothing. They are our protectors. We also consider fish to be extremely pure. Before we leave our houses for any important work, we consume fish as a part of our diet, which is considered as auspicious. We also feed on fish before starting a specific prayer. Fish are found in water and we believe that water is the purest existing element which is also used to clean any forms of filth.
Gond Spiritual Beliefs: Saja Tree, Sacrifices and Nava Khai
Meg: Can you explain a bit about Gond’s spiritual beliefs?
Vijay: In Gond culture, the most important God is Badadev, which is the first God. We believe that our God resides in the Saja tree. We worship our God under the same tree. The Saja tree is venerable to us. We worship our family deities and once in every 3-5 years, we make a sacrifice of a chicken, goat or a pig in order to please the Gods to keep our family, farm, animals, wealth, etc. safe and to prevent all kinds of losses.
The great God is usually worshipped for a bigger cause. Every time we harvest paddy (rice), we make “Khichdi” (a plain dish made from rice and Urad dal) and offer it to our family deities and Gods. We also offer Mahua wine (made from flowers of Mahua tree). This act of celebrating the new rice season is called Nava Khai.
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Marriage Traditions of the Gond People
Meg: What are the traditions surrounding marriage in this culture?
Vijay: Gonds are tribal people and usually get married within the tribal community. There are different Gods within the Gond society. Marriages can only happen if the families of bride and groom worship different Gods. We do not call any priests to conduct our weddings. All the rituals are conducted by our own Panda (priest) called a Gutanya. A Gutanya is a person who has complete knowledge of our Gods and Goddesses and is eligible to complete all the rituals.
Our society has a few knowledgeable people who act as priests. Hindus call priests for any rituals but in Gonds we call the Panda (Gautanya). Our rituals and prayers are also quite different from the Hindus. According to our history, priests came from Aryas (Hindus) whereas Gonds came much before Aryas. Hence right from early days we have different procedures of performing rituals compared to the Hindus. Our Gautanya makes holy sacrifices of hen, goats or pigs to please our Gods and also offers alcohol to the God which cannot be expected by a priest.
Similarly, as compared to the other Hindu customs, we do not take rounds around the fire (Agni) during our wedding ceremony. We go around a pavilion made of branches of various trees like bamboo, sycamore, mango, grass, mustard trees, etc. The bride and the groom are supposed to make 7 rounds around the fire. This act of going around is a vital part of the wedding rites.
Nephews Play Special Role in Gond Families
Meg: What makes the Gond people unique from other people?
Vijay: According to the Hindu rituals, wedding rounds are taken from left to the right, whilst the Gonds follow from right to the left. This also has relevance to nature. When a creeper grows around a tree, it grows from right to the left side of the tree. Similarly, all the planets revolve around the Sun from the right to the left. Such uniqueness separates us from all other religions.
In the Gond society, the nephew plays an imperative role in case of a death in the family. The nephew alone is allowed to complete all the rituals and death rites or else we believe that the soul of the dead does not attain peace. Unlike Hindu customs where the son does all the last rites of the deceased, in Gonds the nephew plays a major role. Gonds believe that only a nephew can help the deceased attain peace and a place in heaven. As a ritual, the family of the deceased gives a portion of their belongings and property to the nephew. If there is no immediate nephew of the deceased, the family looks for a distant relative.
Read: Interested in learning more about Indian cultural heritage? Check out our interview with Benoy Behl, a New Dehli photographer and filmmaker!
Get Yourself a Painting!
Meg: How and where do you sell your paintings? How could someone contact you to commission or buy a painting?
Vijay: We display our paintings and some people people do contact us to buy them. We do not have our own website. To buy our paintings, we can be contacted through Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn or Whatsapp.