Finding My Way

Can we any longer look at art as a mystical and magical experience? Can it behold us just as we behold it? Can primordial innocence and curiosity be our lenses in the age of Sotheby’s and Vadehras, where art is but an investment like real estate, as a piece of earth is called, in which the seriously moneyed move their currency almost invisibly, imperceptibly, and Absolut-ly? Questions that have no answers nevertheless need to be asked.

In February 2012, the artist Venkat Raman Singh Shyam, walked into the Navayana office in Delhi’s Shahpur Jat along with his friend, the American art curator John Bowles. Nephew of the legendary Gond artist, the late Jangarh Singh Shyam, Venkat told S. Anand, person at large at Navayana:

“You did Bhimayana, the book on Ambedkar’s life. Will you work with me and help me tell my life? Of course, I’m not famous like Ambedkar and my book may not sell as much. But I do want to tell my story and that of my community. I’ll make the art, you make up the words. I will show, you tell.”

Venkat had already done a series of nine sketches in what he called the autobiography series—including the one where he is a blindfolded rickshaw-wallah in Delhi called Losing My Way, which then led to the book being titled Finding My Way. The work was compact, powerful, magical. Anand was not sure he’d ever have anything meaningful to say about them. Soon Venkat coaxed Anand, and Anand coaxed Venkat, colours seeped into words and words into colours, and over four years and many journeys hence, they made a book that went beyond even their immodest expectations. Venkat quickly annotated this smugness with a pithy forest saying that now adorns the book as one of the epigraphs: डोंगर मा बैगा बसे/ अपने पादे अपने हँसे - The Baiga lives in the forest-hill/ Smells his own fart, and feels a thrill.

Nevertheless, advance copies were sent to some discerning people. John Berger, who taught us the many ways of seeing, had this to say: “This is a special and beautiful book. It transports the reader to another time and age and space and perspective to a degree that I’ve never seen before... It’s like flying a carpet. We are taken out of ourselves to meet another reality.”

The art historian B.N. Goswamy was impressed too: “Each page crackles with excitement ... A remarkable work in which words and images embrace each other and then slowly begin to sink into our awareness.” The artist Gulammohammed Sheikh calls it “an exceptional document… charts an unexplored textual territory of narration with an unusual incandescence”. Shuddhabrata Sengupta, artist with the Raqs Media Collective, says: “Finding My Way is a breathtakingly luminous conversation about how life is lived, and about how it must be lived. One cannot just read this book, it asks to be dreamt.” (Read their endorsements in full here.)

When Chiki Sarkar, then between jobs, saw and read an earlier draft, she felt she had to publish this book. Sarkar’s new venture Juggernaut is publishing it for the trade market: in a large format hardback for Rs 1500 (available on Amazon).

At Navayana, we worked on this expansive and expensive project with barely any financial support for years. A large format (11.25 square inches in hardback, 190 pages, 1.4 kg) four-colour book like this demands as much resources as time. A residency for Venkat and Anand at Sangam House in November–December 2013 helped. As the book finds its way to its readers, how do we convey its richness and exclusivity and remain unmediated by factors like funding and the market? How do we sell without appearing to sell ourselves out? Who pays for art these days and how is an artist to pay himself? How does one sell love?

If you wish to savour Venkat’s rich and vivid colours and thinner-than-hair penmanship—pages that take weeks to make—you need to experience it on good paper, like Berger, Goswamy and Sengupta did. We knew we were not doing this to please a patron or be a liege to some lord—or as a piece for the wealthy who are advised by wealth-management consultants on how to invest wisely-and lose artistic sovereignty. Nor did venture capital driven crowd-founding websites seem a right fit.

So, we have decided to crave the indulgence of our possible readers directly—with a special, limited, numbered edition of just 300 copies, each priced at Rs 10,000 (USD 200). It does feel vulgar to say this. We have never done anything like it before. If it does not sound too hollow, we will say this too: each of these copies will be signed by Venkat Raman Singh Shyam, the man who is trusting the world with his stories.

The Official Trailer

Jangarh Singh Shyam

Why did Jangarh kill himself in faraway Japan in 2001? Read the book

How Khandava Burnt

The burning of the Khandava forest in the Mahabharata: what survived?

Mural in Melbourne

Venkat at the Asia Pacific Triennial, Melbourne, 2015

Finding My Way Trailer

 

Watch the official trailer made by Tarun Bhartiya (stop, pause, rewind, and watch again), browse the sample pages, see a video on how Venkat does a ‘Selfie with Rembrandt’, and if you think a work of art like this deserves your solidarity and support in this feral age, make sure you pre-order your copy by 15 April 2016. You may spend as much every year on many things you don’t really need. Believe us: this book will definitely outlast the device on which you are reading this message. It may outlast the people who made it. But it will be outlasted, for nothing is everlasting. Like Kabir says, not even what Kabir says will last.

??? ??? ?? ????? ?????
???? ???? ????
????? ????? ?? ?? ???? ??
??? ???? ??? ????
A loom of such length and breadth
The sun its fibres and threads
Listen—to the rise and fall of breath
There’s no life after death

Holding Kabir's Hand

How did Kabir help Venkat and Anand find the way?

Selfie with Rembrandt

Rembrandt in Jangarh kalam, Venkat in Rembrandt style

Mural at Sangam House

Venkat working on a mural at Kula in Nrityagram, Sangam House