The Adivasi and the contemporary

by Purvi Rajpuria

When Venkat Raman Singh Shyam, a renowned artist, and co-author of Finding My Way, notes the complete absence of Adivasi artists in the National Gallery of Modern Art’s permanent collection, shouldn’t news of private galleries helping push their art into the ‘mainstream’ be welcomed as a step in the right direction? Being an artist comes with its allied concerns of ‘selling out’. Whom to sell out to? How to sell out? How much to sell out? All these questions governed by nebulous laws promulgated by the ‘in-crowd’, the powerful. Everything is expected to be done tastefully. After all the world of art has a reputation to protect, of the romance of the struggle. But the multitudinous intersections of struggle, the sheer banality of the obstructions marginalized artists face, seems to make irrelevant the idealized expectations that art often seems to entail.

Wild Cat by Venkat Raman Singh Shyam

Having risen to prominence with the ‘discovery’ of artist Jangarh Singh Shyam, what has come to be labelled ‘Gond art’ has become relatively well-known amongst urban Indians. With growing popularity and demand, the ruling prejudices can’t help but restrict these artists within existent hierarchies. Gond art becomes ‘craft’, excluded from the more consequential category of ‘contemporary art’, and individual differences of style, theme, and composition between artists disappear as demands for intelligible products rise. Audiences seek the essentialised image: Gond art must look the way Gond art is expected to look, or it loses its appeal, becomes ‘inauthentic’. Artists often conform to this demand, after all these aesthetic notions pay their bills. Which is all well and good, until the artist feels that inevitable hankering. To do something new, to try something different. This remains forbidden.

Ina Puri’s recently curated exhibition of Venkat’s works at Delhi’s Art Alive Gallery entitled ‘Clouds of Wings’, delves into memories of the artist’s hometown, rich with images of trees and wildlife. As Puri says in her curatorial note, Venkat laments over the changing landscape: ‘the trees are being felled, and the birds have flown off to other places and sing no more.’ His works show a deep longing for the times past, and for the abundance in nature that colours his nostalgia. But having seen Venkat’s previous work, which bursts with unrestrained joy and reaches out to all the untouchable corners of the world and makes it its own, this exhibition seems like a step back. One leaves the room craving for a reflection of that very zest for life, of seeing things hitherto untouched, beyond the nature–urban dichotomy. But then, the question forever lurking in the distance, creeps back: what does the viewer, critiquing Venkat’s work want to see? What is the dictation in art, this judgmental gaze wants to provide? What vicarious satisfaction does this gaze require, this gaze that so easily pushes past the material torments and circumstantial worries of the artist? This deadlock of living in a world of inequality, it evades the critique of art, besotted as it is by the concerns of everyday struggles.

Pakari Tree by Venkat Raman Singh Shyam

This is not to say that Venkat evades politics in his work. His images of nature are produced under the banner of tame environmental concern. Or at least that’s what the press proclaims. Vandana Kalra’s report about the exhibition, for example, presents it as a means to address contemporary issues with the help of traditional stories. How exactly these pictures will prevent the coming apocalypse one can’t be sure.

In other newspaper supplements, the solo features under sections titled ‘Lifestyle’ and ‘Party Whirl’; it becomes an event attended by semi-prominent faces, looking to build on and boast of their cultural capital. The artist, Venkat, is pushed to one corner of the page, a paragraph is set aside for his art. He looks elated: he has finally arrived in this closely curated world, and it is his art that got him here.

In Finding My Way, Venkat highlights a dichotomy, when he talks about foreign institutions providing some of the only avenues for recognition and livelihood to Adivasi artists. Indian institutions were bitter about this—they accused Adivasi artists of selling themselves to ‘outsiders’—but this indignation feels like a cruel joke in light of the systematic disregard and disdain Adivasi artists continue to face. While we mourn the loss of imagination and creativity as art enters private spaces, suitable alternatives remain elusive. Meanwhile Venkat’s Rotring pen and his paintbrush do the talking. They have hardly stopped in all these years. Out beyond the concerns of capital and anti-capitalism, Venkat continues to weave his magic. The work of art doesn’t have the luxury of stopping.

(Purvi, a student of FLAME University in Pune, is an intern at Navayana)