Could you tell us about your journey as a collector – what set you off on this path, when did you begin, how long have you been collecting?
I’m an American. I was born on the banks of the Mississippi river in Missouri, and I did my PhD in ancient Indian history from the University of Chicago. I first came to India in 1968 and I stayed. I’ve been here for more than 50 years. When I came here, I realised that I didn’t want to teach, I wanted to work with craftsmen. So, for many years, I worked with marble carvers and inlay workers who work in the Mughal tradition.
But even while I was working with these wonderful classical craftsmen, I was fascinated by the Indian indigenous folk and tribal art, or Adivasi art. And I began collecting from the early 1970s. In those days, Delhi had the wonderful Crafts Museum that had a new group of artists coming in each month on Dr Jyotindra Jain’s invitation. Those of us who loved folk and tribal art ran there on the first day to be the first to buy, and that’s how I started collecting.
What prompted you to pick up ancient Indian history as a subject?
I’m part native American. My grandfather and I used to go to excavate ancient burial mounds in search of arrowheads, etc. He was a doctor, but he loved Egyptology. So, there were always books around the house on the ancient world. When I first went to the University of Missouri for my BA, they didn’t have anything on Egyptology, but they had just started an Indian studies programme. And I was hooked. I did my BA, my MA, and then started my PhD at Chicago in this subject. I got a Ford Foundation Fellowship to come and study here. And I’ve been here ever since. This is home.
You’ve spoken of your friendship with Jangarh Singh Shyam. Could you tell us how this came about?
In the mid-eighties, there was an artist whose work was beginning to appear with art dealers in Delhi. And I loved the art. His name was Jangarh Singh Shyam. And he became a close friend of mine. Then one day, around 1987, word came that he was showing at the Surajkund Mela. So, I got there early. He was putting out his paintings on a bamboo chatai. I ran up to him and told him that I loved his work. I think he got a little scared because here was this big American talking to him in Hindi!
I repeated that I loved his work and asked him if he visited Delhi. He mentioned that he came to Delhi every 3-4 months. I told him, “The next time you come to Delhi, you come to me. I’m not a foreigner who’s going away. I live here and I will buy from you.” And he came for the next 20 years or so, and I bought something from him every single time. We became friends. And then of course, he tragically committed suicide in 2001 which was a great loss.
A few years ago, we took out all of Jangarh’s paintings that were a part of our collection – about 250 of them – and made a book titled Jangarh Singh Shyam: The Enchanted Forest. It’s a wonderful one, written by Dr Aurogeeta Das, on Jangarh’s works in The Crites Collection.
Tell us a little more about your association with Jangarh, particularly from the perspective of your conversations around his art.
I remember a conversation I once had with Jangarh where I said, “Jangarh, in America, we have a concept called wall power.”
Jangarh: “Sahab, what is wall power?”
Mitch: “Some artists, not all, can paint big.”
Jangarh: “Do you think I can paint big?”
Mitch: “I think so, and here are some big canvases and very big pieces of paper. You go home and you try.”
Two months later he came back, and he had painted big, wonderful deer, creatures of the forest, and trees, and he never looked back. He kept on painting bigger and bigger.
Jangarh also painted a lot of the gods and the goddesses. In fact, he once came to me and said, “You know sahab, I’m very scared. I didn’t ask them permission to show what they look like, and they’ve never been drawn before. Some of them are very strong and powerful, they come out at night and maybe they’ll come out and get me.” I said, “Jangarh, they haven’t come, have they? I think they’re happy with how you’re showing people what they look like. So, you keep on doing it.”
After Jangarh passed away, I was very sad. I kept looking for another artist of his incredible calibre. He was like a Renaissance painter, a Da Vinci who could do everything. I kept looking but I couldn’t find anyone. No Gond artist came, nobody. Then I found this artist – Jodhaiya Bai Baiga. She’s on the cover of our book (Bhumijan: Artists of the Earth), and I think she has the same talent as Jangarh. She’s 82 now and she started painting only when she was 69. She is remarkable. She just got the Nari Shakti award, the female empowerment award from the President. She’s very special.
What motivates you to keep working within this space of indigenous folk and tribal art?
Part of the appeal is that you get to interact with great artists. You get to help them, you get to nourish them, you get to support them, you see their lives change in front of your eyes, you see their families’ lives change. And I like that. I like interacting with them and coming up with ideas together. I never direct them too much though. I love the act of releasing what’s inside them. Sometimes they just need a tiny bit of paper or pigments or paint or brushes. Others might need a bit more guidance, but you have to do it in a gentle unobtrusive way. You have to let them do it their way.
I like interacting with the human condition, I like interacting with people – where they come from. I like to see change – families doing better, having enough money to educate their children, get medicines, etc. My mother was the same – she loved helping people, going to the old people’s home, giving to the poor. I like to, in a gentle way, improve their situation – see them grow, see it pass on to the next generation. I also encourage them to teach. Not just their own children, but others as well so the traditions are passed on since it’s the only way it’ll continue. I’m lucky to be doing what I love, and I plan to keep on doing it, no matter how many years I’ve got.
Why do you want to focus primarily on contemporary folk and tribal artists?
Well, I’m not as young as I used to be. And I think that the Adivasi artists need help more than anybody else. They’re struggling, more so during the pandemic which was a very difficult time for all artists. Some of them are virtually untrained, unschooled and don’t even have a visual tradition to draw from. But when you give them paper, pigments, and paint, somehow, they reach deep within themselves to find something I call ‘design DNA’. It goes back to the earliest roots of Indian culture and civilisation. This is the heartland; this is the beginning of your culture, and this is so exciting. A lot of contemporary artists get influenced by the West, or they studied under the British system – they’ve been polluted in a way. That’s not the case with these artists – these people are pure – and that’s what makes them so powerful.
There’s a group of baiga artists at our studio that we’re working with at the moment. The studio was set up by Aashish Swami, a contemporary artist from Umaria in Madhya Pradesh. He taught them about mixing paints and all that, not just how to paint. And out of it came this lady – Jodhaiya Bai Baiga.
In the show, there are these two paintings here. Dr Thiagarajan from Chennai, who was a clinical psychologist, he found a village of snake and rat catchers (Irulas) in Tamil Nadu. This was a very isolated village – no buses, no contact. He went there and gave them paints and everything and this is what they painted. Just extraordinary!
Talk to us about the genesis of Bhumijan.
It was during my conversations with other collectors like Minal [Vazirani] that I decided to do a show – one last big show. And I decided to go into my cupboards and trunks and warehouses and find the early paintings that I bought in the ‘70s and ‘80s and combine them with the best of emerging talent. So that’s what this show is about.
Bhumijan are, of course, people of the earth – a term that anthropologist Verrier Elwin liked to use for the Adivasi people. We adopted that phrase. This show is very important. Visually, it’s a treat. You see things from tantric to tribal and contemporary – you see a range of traditional talent. And we’ll never be able to do it again because I don’t have enough early material. The early material is all gone. I never had very much, most of it has been sold or destroyed because nobody took care of it. So, I can never do a show like this again. And, in a way, I’m glad because I don’t have to focus on the old masters anymore. I can just focus on the new talent. I’m 77 and I want to live the rest of my days in your country which has been so good to me and I’m going to continue working with folk and tribal artists and help them with their careers. And I’ll keep on going. Like I tell my assistant Caroline, one day I might be in a wheelchair, but I’ll still be able to hold the paintings and look at them. I’ll keep on working till I drop.
If you had to pick three of your favourites from the works on display here, which ones would they be?
One is the large porcupine. The artist Shaikh Usman Tirandaz was my friend, and he was wonderfully talented. He was from Jaipur, and he died last year. The porcupine is on a huge scale, something I wanted him to work on since he had wall power. He had the ability to take the Mughal tradition and contemporise it.
The second would be the Bholenath and the Mahua tree by Jodhaiya Bai.
And finally, I love this set of five paintings [seen above]. This is the panchtattva – earth, air, water, fire, ether. This is by Sundari Bai Rajwar who was the greatest in this tradition called Lipai. It’s a finger-painting tradition but it’s a very technical and complicated procedure. She also passed away last year. And she was a great master. She used to decorate homes with patterns. But I wanted her to try something conceptual. So, we started with fire. I told Sundari Bai, “I don’t want you to draw fire, I want you to draw the spirit of fire, the essence of fire.” When she remained puzzled, I asked her to take some time and think it over. She came to me in some time and said she wanted to try. The first thing she painted was this. And it’s fire! It’s the spirit of fire, it’s the essence of it. And then we went on to the other elements. She was wonderful. She had two disciples who are still alive, who I’m working with right now because the tradition is dying. Nobody wants this anymore, they want to put tiles on the walls, they want something more modern. So, unless you contemporise it, the tradition will die out. Luckily, this set is modern. These works have a level of abstraction in them that’s very powerful and will fit in any ultra-modern home.
Bhumijan: Artists of the Earth is an ongoing exhibition at the Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre in New Delhi. The exhibition consists of paintings and drawings from The Crites Collection and continues till 7 May 2022.