The Art of Jangarh Singh Shyam

Gond art is among the most popular and well-known indigenous art traditions of India. Taking its name after the tribe which practices it, Gond art is mainly centred in Madhya Pradesh. Within this form, there is a wide spectrum of artistic styles, primarily connected to certain painters and their practices. The tribe’s strong tradition of oral narrative—often focussing on their gods who corresponded to elements of nature—transposes to their paintings as well.

These indigenous art forms have now evolved in their social and cultural roles. Efforts by art historians and the government have helped push them to prominence and artists themselves have painstakingly modified a centuries-old ethos to contemporary demand. At the forefront of giving the folk and tribal arts the recognition they deserved, was Jangarh Singh Shyam, famed for his Gond paintings and for popularising the art form abroad.

Jangarh Singh Shyam at his studio in Bharat Bhavan | Wikimedia Commons

Shyam is synonymous with this art form, so much so, that Udayan Vajpeyi, in his essay, “From Music to Painting” proposes that the art be called Jangarh kalam, or Jangarh style. (Sathyapal ed., Native Art of India, Thrissur: Kerala Lalithakala Akademi, 2011, p. 33) Hailing from the Gond tribe in Madhya Pradesh, Jangarh Singh Shyam lived in the jungles of Mandla until a chance encounter with the modern artist Jagdish Swaminathan in the 1980s. Swaminathan, who was leading an Indian collective on a study tour with the aim of creating a collection of tribal art in Bhopal, came across Shyam’s house, whose walls were adorned with his art. Upon enquiring, they met Shyam—only a teenager at the time, but with a striking style of painting.

Jagdish Swaminathan with Jangarh Singh Shyam and his wife at Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal, 1987 | © Jyoti Bhatt

Swaminathan took Shyam on as his protege, bringing him to the Roopankar Museum in Bhopal, where he learned to transfer his art from walls to paper. He created a series of works on paper and canvas which are displayed at Bharat Bhavan today. “His first large works on paper from the start of the 1980s contain highly expressive forms of great simplicity redolent of primitivism.” (Herve Perdriolle, Indian Art: Contemporary, One Word, Several Worlds, Milan: 5 Continents Editions, p. 61)

Shiv – Many-headed or Shesh Nag snake, trident and lingayoni (Gond Art), 1989, Gouache on paper, 19.5 x 25.5 in, Estimate: Rs 6 – 8 lakhs ($8,220 – 10,960)

In typical Gond tradition, Shyam’s art is based on the deities and divinities of the Gond tribe, and the animist culture of worship surrounding them. Suspended in space, he renders them like silhouettes creating the effect of shadow puppets, with bright colours, dots and hatched lines. The inspiration for using fine dots comes from the tribe itself, where shamans go into a trance and imagine that the particles of their bodies disperse into space to join with those of spirits to form other beings. The intricacy and control in his dot-based designs is seen in the works of all Gond artists, as are his most common subjects – the tree of life and various animals.

Sher (Gond Art), 1990, Ink on paper, 14 x 11 in and Gughawa Pakshee (Gond Art), 1993, Ink on paper, 21.5 x 14.5 in, Estimates: Rs 3 – 4 lakhs ($4,110 – 5,480) and Rs 5 – 6 lakhs ($6,850 – 8,220)

In 2010, the Muse du quai Branly in Paris held an exhibition called Other Masters of India, which carried large works on paper by Shyam from the late 1980s and early 1990s, which according to Perdriolle, “reveal a development in the direction of a profusion of psychedelic colors and more elaborated forms. The second half of the 1990s was marked by an unusual refinement, pictorial maturity, and graphic mastery that resulted in some of his best works.” (Perdriolle, p. 61)

Birds (Gond Art), 1996, Ink on paper, 11 x 13.75 in, Estimate: Rs 4 – 5 lakhs ($5,480 – 6,850)

Shyam worked with several mediums throughout his career, including drawing and silkscreen painting, rediscovering a new style and representation every time. As he achieved fame, Shyam encouraged other artists in his community to paint, giving them access into the mainstream. His house was the studio, where he provided his students with paper, canvas and paint, encouraging them to find their own expression through new mediums.

Shyam passed away in Japan in 2001. He was in his early forties. The artist’s memory is preserved in his body of work, including the large murals he created for the Parliament building in Bhopal, and continued by the members of his family trained by him, including his wife Nankusia, daughter Japani, and son Mayank. In a short-lived but exceptional career, he left behind a powerful and dynamic legacy which reached for the new while preserving the roots of the Gond artistic tradition.


Saffronart’s Winter Online Auction features four works by the artist, and will be on auction on 9 – 10 December 2020 on saffronart.com.

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