About Gond Art

Painted Stories 

‘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 uniquely contemporary expression in brilliant acrylic hues on paper and canvas.

'Bana' Player
The Pardhan Gonds were the revered story tellers of the Gond Tribal community. To them was entrusted the vital task of passing down folk-lore and tribal stories, in the form of song and to the accompaniment of the stringed ‘Bana’.

Gond art, in an almost literal sense then, is the translation of these songs into images of good fortune….

Their subject matter extends from myths and folklores to images of daily life - not only from what exists but also much that is drawn from dreams, memory and imagination. Because the artists work with inherited conventions, the Pardhan Gond style is unmistakable and characteristic. At the same time, each artist brings something unique and individual to this expression of shared heritage.

One of the distinctive elements is the use of ‘signature patterns’ that is used to ‘infill’ the larger forms on the canvas. These infill patterns are distinctive identifying marks used by the Gond artists and every Pardhan Gond painter has developed his or her own signature style.

There are various explanations for their existence, and one of the most intriguing one traces it to tribal tattoo designs.  Artists are also inspired by symbols from day to day life, for example a motif that represents dry, cracked earth or the intricate and delicate patterns made by the cross-section of cut lemon. Still others have followed their imagination for creating their own pattern – a delicate weaving line of tiny circles and lines that represent dancers with linked hands as seen from above….

Numerous Gods and Goddesses, strange and exotic birds, flying snakes,tigers, dogs and cattle, breathtakingly beautiful trees and several other entities who inhabited the age old songs of the Pardhans – these are just some of the wonderful and fabulous subject matters of Gond art. What is amazing is that all of these originally existed as notes and lyrics and nuances of their story telling musical traditions, and have gradually evolved and manifested on the canvas in vibrant colors and in an inimitable, distinctive style.

Paper and canvas are the media of storytelling for the painters. The artist first selects a story from their rich folklore. After deciding on and visualising the dominant concept of the work, a rough pencil outline is made for the narrative. Once bright acrylic colours have filled the larger forms drawn on the canvas or paper, small ‘signature pattern’ motifs evocative of tattoos or elements of nature are drawn or ‘infilled’. A rich visual narrative imagery thus evolves from juxtaposed forms from the folklore.


Jangarh Singh Shyam



The Pardhan Gond paintings are the living expressions of the people of the tribe and are deeply linked with their day to day lives. These images were originally painted on the walls and floors of their house and are called Digna and Bhittichitra  (Bhitt i= wall, Chitra = picture) paintings. Limestone or charcoal and other locally 'found' and naturally coloured substances were used to make various Digna  or Bhittichitra paintings .

In the early 1980’s a major art centre ( Bharat Bhavan) was being built in Bhopal.  Jagdish Swaminathan, already a well-known  modern painter and thinker was appointed director of this new and ambitious Bharat Bhavan and was in charge of the subject area of plastic arts. His mandate was  to create a gallery of contemporary art in which both urban and rural, contemporary as well as folk and tribal arts were to be displayed.  To accomplish this, he sent forth several young artists and scouts to find the many hidden artistic traditions and treasures from the rural and tribal interiors. This is how he discovered the unbridled and raw talent of a 17 year old tribal called Jangarh Singh Shyam.

Jangarh Singh Shyam was a Pardhan boy from the village of Patangarh of Dindori district of Madhya Pradesh of India. He like his ancestors, loved music, but unlike them, had no possibility of carrying on the tradition of music and storytelling. He was born at a time when the system of social patronage had become ineffective and there was no way for him to use his inborn instinctive talent as a musical chronicler to make a living. Sadly he was, like others of his ilk, forced into manual labour at a shockingly early age to support his extremely poor family. He would play his flute, at night, as if to console the Pardhan musical tradition flowing silently within him.

J Swaminathan saw Jangarh decorating the walls of his house in Patangarh in Madhya Pradesh and he was so captivated by their sheer simplicity and beauty, that he persuaded Jangarh to move to Bhopal and encouraged him to experiment with paints on paper and canvas. The restless musician waiting in the depths of Jangarhs mind saw new possibility and means to express himself in painting. It was for the first time that the Gond pantheon was being actualised in images.

It was Jangarh Singh who introduced his immediate and extended family to painting on canvas and paper using vibrant acrylic colours and sophisticated implements such as point-pens and markers.  In spite of his untimely death just a decade ago, his work today is highly prized, and thanks to the efforts of a few and  interest shown by the global art community in this art-form, his legacy continues to be carried on by a whole new generation of ‘Shyams.’


The PARDHANS

The Gond tribe, is one of the largest Adivasi (tribal) communities of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in Central India The Pardhans or the clergy are a sect of Gonds who are priests and storytellers entrusted with the very important task of carrying on the traditions and history of the Gond kings and keeping the many traditions and rituals alive through their music and songs. The Pardhan Gonds are musicians, genealogists and story tellers. They would invoke the god Bada Dev under the Saja tree by playing the musical instrument - the ‘Bana’ and record the Gond patrons’ genealogy in songs. They would be invited on all important occasions to the, during marriage ceremonies, births, deaths, etc. In return for their services of invoking and appeasing the deities through their song, and providing the rituals befitting the occasion, they would be offered gifts of grain and clothes and perhaps, in more prosperous times, even cattle or gold.

Once patronized by the entire Gond community, the Pardhanns practice of music and song was lost during Mughal rule and continued to founder during the British Raj when members of the Gond tribe clashed with British colonialists. There was also an attempt to strip the tribal’s of their wealth with stringent revenue taxes and land laws. Subsequently, Gond fortunes declined and the general repression caused their artistic traditions to languish for over a century.

When the social standing of the Gonds dwindled, the provisions they formerly made for the Pardhans as the chroniclers of family histories and mythologists died out. The Pardhan community gave up past bard traditions and had to unfortunately resort to manual and menial labour in order to survive.


THE FOLKLORE

Gond art rendezvous with the belief that "viewing a good image begets good luck". This inherent belief led the Gonds to decorating their houses and the floors with traditional motifs. Digna and Bhittichitra paintings are painted by the tribal people on floors and the walls of their houses. These are not just mere decorations, but also the instant expressions of their religious sentiments and devotions. They make ground and wall their canvas and use limestone or charcoal as medium to make various decorative paintings. Themes of the Gond paintings are based on the local festivals like Karwa Chauth, Deepawali, Ahoi Ashtami, Nag Panchmi, Sanjhi etc. Horses, elephants, tigers, birds, Gods, men and objects of daily life are painted in bright and multicoloured hues. For every occasion a new painting or Digna or Bhittichitra (frescos) is made on the floor or the wall. Mostly orally transmitted, Gond iconography has now, over the last three decades taken on a vibrant visual avataar. This form of art therefore represents their folklore or songs and their Digna paintings in a new transformed modern context.

Gond art is alive and reverberates with stories from Gondi traditions and mythology. One of their most endearing stories is that of Lord Shiva and his encounter with the Mahua tree. Rajendra Shyam in his inimitable style paints a beautiful Mahua tree laden with fruit, crowned by a parrot and flanked by a fabulously dynamic boar and tiger….

30" X 48" Acrylic on canvas, Rajendra Shyam
1. Shiva and Mahua


The story talks of one of the many earthly travels undertaken by Shiva, the Lord of Destruction, and therefore of new beginnings ( in the Hindu pantheon, the trinity of creator preserver and destroyer is represented by Bramha Vishnu and Shiva)  While walking through a forest, lord Shiva was tempted by the shade of Mahua tree and longed to rest a while. As he settled himself under the tree, tired and thirsty as he was, he happened to see some water that had collected in one of the hollows of the tree. Now, the Mahua fruit is well known as an intoxicant. The hollow in the tree also contained some over-ripe mahua fruit and when Shiva drank of it, he quickly became mildly and pleasantly inebriated. The ‘water’ tasted delicious - cool and sweet and scented by the mahua fruit, and soon Shiva was drinking from it again and again!

As his intoxication grew, Shiva went from babbling like a parrot (lost control over his tongue!), to becoming aggressive and intimidating, like a tiger, and then finally lost all control and rolled in the dirt like a boar, grunting and growling without a thought to his standing or position….It is an interesting tale, and not just at one level…it cautions one of the dangerous effects of over-imbibing alcohol, persuading you to consider that if Shiva himself was reduced to an animal, what chance have you, a mere mortal, to have dominion over yourself when under the influence of intoxicants….




36" X 48" Acrylic on canvas, Rajendra Shyam
2. The Peacock and its Ugly Feet


According to Gondi folklore, God resolved to create the universe in all of fourteen days. Over the first seven days, he fashioned the earth below and the skies above, and colonized the space between them with all the creatures, plants and beings we see today. God desired that the universe be a place of beauty and grace, and so decided to spend the next seven days crafting a masterpiece creation of unsurpassable majesty, which he would adorn the universe with. After much thought, he finally decided upon the design of the creature we know as the peacock.

It was tedious and time-consuming work - three and a half days were spent on just the creature’s peerless, resplendent feathers. The making of the body, covered with a shimmering plumage which dazzled the eye, took yet another three days. When the body was almost done, to his horror God saw that he had only half a day left in which to forge his new creature’s feet.

Racing against time, God now worked with a reckless haste and his craftsmanship suffered. He managed to finish just as the fourteenth day was ending. The faultiness of these last parts of his creation showed – the feet were both ugly and ungainly. But they looked even more repulsive and out of place when seen on a creature of otherwise matchless beauty.

However, like all things, even these ugly feet served a purpose – they kept the vanity of this prized creation of God reigned in. Now whenever the peacock unfurls his feathers and struts about, swelling with pride at his own magnificence, the sight of his ugly feet humbles him, and at times even brings him to tears.

36" X 48" Acrylic on canvas, Rajendra Shyam.


3. Udata Hathi or the Flying Elephant


According to Gondi folklore, the winged elephant (Udata Hathi) was used by Gods and Goddesses in heaven, to transport them from place to place. One day, when the Lord was resting he told the elephant to take a break. The elephant decided to fly to the earth. Upon reaching the earth, he was delighted to find fields of sugarcane and banana trees. As soon as he started eating the sugarcane the villagers came and tried to scare him off. But the elephant would not move. The villagers then called the Lord and asked him to intervene. The Lord was displeased with the Elephant and asked him never to go to earth again.

A few days later, the Elephant went back to Earth to eat the sugarcane, he had loved the lush forests and the bananas. The villagers were upset, they asked the Lord to help .The Lord was furious and told the villagers to organize a feast and the Elephant was invited to join the revelry too.  After enjoying a hearty meal and the Mahua wine the elephant fell asleep. Whilst he was asleep, the Lord cut off his wings .He gave one to the Banana tree and one to the Peacock. From that day the Peacock has a beautiful Plumage and the Banana tree has large leaves.

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