Renaissance Village

May 22, 2011
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The bucolic village of Patangarh in Central India is unremarkable at first glance. But there, in almost every family, lives an artist highly skilled in a traditional style of tribal art threatened by modernisation.

847 Photo by Todd Wilkinson

Pancham has been hard at work on a new painting which, after more than three months, he says is nearly complete. The fine black ink outlines, which he will later fill with vegetable pigment, are exquisite. They form the framework of the female form, long hair twirling skywards like two serpents dancing in a dense bed of inky black banyan leaves. Nestled in the braids are animals from the forest – a cheetal deer, a tortoise – and at the painting's very centre are three owls, or Ulu, the universal sign of wisdom. He says it is the theme of motherhood.

We are sitting on a threadbare wool rug on the cool floor of Pancham’s simple mud brick home in Patangarh, in Mandla District, Central India. The dull light of an overcast leaden sky outside filters through an open doorway as Pancham, swathed in a shawl the colour of autumn plums, delicately unrolls some of his most recent paintings. As he does so, other artists arrive with simple plastic shopping bags filled with their work, one by one through the open doorway, until the tiny room is filled shoulder to shoulder with silhouetted figures, huddled together, eyes wet with focus and the perhaps the hope of a potential sale.

Pancham pays them no attention. If their arrival has bothered him, he betrays no sense of it. Afterwards he gestures for the others to show us their work as well and moves his work aside to make room for theirs.

“It’s important that we keep refining the way we design pieces,” says Pancham. “To keep our art alive means constantly challenging how we interpret form and subjects.”

In a village of 145 artists who work in a similar style, developing a unique bravura is a skill in itself.

He is one of Patangarh’s most successful Gond tribal artists, having developed a style in the ancient tribal art which is peculiar to him. It’s been estimated by ethnologists that the Gonds have been painting in this style for several hundred years. He describes his work as more than a mere decoration of village life – it is an expression of his innermost feelings, his devotion to his tribal heritage. He says inspiration comes in random bursts. In a village of 145 artists who work in a similar style, developing a unique bravura is a skill in itself.

I ask the artists what they have earned from their painting sales for the year. Several heads shake slowly from side to side. One nods and says INR5,000 for the whole year, another INR15,000. In contrast, Pancham has made 1 lakh – that’s INR100,000 (approx US$2,000) for a whole year’s work. While it isn’t a fortune, it’s testament to the fact of Pancham’s burgeoning talent.

848 "To keep our art alive means constantly challenging how we interpret form and subjects.” (Photo by Todd Wilkinson)

But it is even more remarkable when one considers that Pancham was born with a physical disability. His family once believed that his hand was a curse. Unlike the other artists of the village who were introduced to painting at the age of four or five, Pancham only took to the canvas when he was 16. Despite the limited range of motion he has in three stubbed fingers, he has never seen his disability as an impediment to learning. Painting is his sole source of income, indeed the sole income stream for all the artists in Patangarh, who almost exclusively sell their paintings to government cooperatives in Bhopal, 12 hours drive away.

The humble passion of the tribal village artists of Patangargh, who evoke a Renaissance spirit in their efforts to individualize their art, is an anomaly in an area beset by the “dirty industry” of coal and mineral mining. There are also plans afoot to modernise the Gond tribals, educate them and bring more varied opportunities by way of jobs to the area. So far the Gonds of Patangarh aren’t biting. They are content to work at a cadence reminiscent of an era most of India’s middle class have no knowledge of or patience for.

Foreign artists keen to learn more about India’s tribal art, have come to stay with them but the facilities are not for the faint-hearted. Pancham tells me one French artist was forced to cut short his stay due to contracting a nasty bout of malaria.

Their dedication to their animist art contrasts awkwardly with the polaric opinions on what the future holds for India’s dwindling tribes. I am told of the tragedy of Pancham’s first teacher, Jangarh Shyam. Recognised as a master craftsman and mentor by the whole village, he was invited to teach and exhibit in Japan. But unable to communicate with the Japanese, and refused permission to return home, he committed suicide. The whole incident was deemed as a ruinous example of exploitation of India’s tribal artists.

. . . the fact remains that they are educationally and economically backward.

Collector of Dindori District, Shri Chandrashekar, told me that change is what many of the tribals want. “We have to bring them into the mainstream,” he says from his government office in Dindori. “As complex as the problem is, the fact remains that they are educationally and economically backward.” He stops short of pronouncing them culturally backward, recognising that the Gonds, who once ruled Central India, have a unique heritage worth preserving. “But it is not morally right that we deny them what any other Indian receives by way of advancement,” he says.

In reality, bringing the tribals into the mainstream may ultimately mean offering them a slew of blue-collar jobs to fill the positions few educated Indians want – that of security guards, cooks, kitchen boys, waiters, drivers and general gofers. For the tribals of Patangarh, with sales of artwork unpredictable, the chance at a regular salary may ultimately be a tempting prospect that many won’t be able to refuse.