By a small green hill called Patangarh flows the Narmada, the oldest river in the Indian subcontinent, once called Gondwana. Here, the Pardhan Gonds make extraordinary murals on their adobe homes, play the bana and sip mahua.
As a Gond artist today, Venkat Raman Singh Shyam’s art talks to both these walls and the spires of Gaudí’s extravagance in Sagrada Familia. His life too has travelled such distances. Twenty years ago Venkat had to draw a rickshaw to survive Delhi. Today he draws one to tell his life’s story in Finding my Way.
Through his journey he sings Kabir, as he winds his way into his pasts and futures to find a way to the present. Venkat is joined by S. Anand, who finds the words for the story.
Venkat Raman Singh Shyam is a renowned Pardhan Gond artist. Nephew of the legendary Jangarh Singh Shyam, he works with many media and has exhibited widely across the world. Finding My Way is his first book.
‘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, thanks to the drawings and thanks to the stories. It’s like flying a carpet. We are taken out of ourselves to meet another reality.’—John Berger, author of Ways of Seeing
‘इस किताब में शब्द घड़ी की दिशा में घूमते हैं और उनके मायने उल्टी दिशा में । आधुनिकता परंपरा की तरह है और परंपरा पहले से आधुनिक होने का दावा करती है। कभी यह काम शब्द करते हैं, कभी तस्वीर, कभी गीत तो कभी रंग। तस्वीरों में झुग्गियाँ, औरतें, अंबेडकर, साइकिल, हवाई जहाज़ सब उस आदिम युग के हैं जहाँ कल्पनाएँ पहाड़ों को नहीं तोड़ती है बल्कि चट्टानों से टकरा कर चमकने लगती हैं।’—Ravish Kumar of NDTV on his blog
Listen to Ravish Kumar speak of how Venkat and Anand fit a circular story in a square book.
Watch a slideshow of images from the launch at Khoj Studios, Delhi, where writer and television journalist Ravish Kumar was in conversation with Venkat and Anand.
‘Each page crackles with excitement, and one can almost hear—not necessarily understand, for he speaks in a different tongue—Venkat Shyam telling his readers how to walk on the high wire that connects dreams with reality. A remarkable work in which words and images embrace each other and then slowly begin to sink into our awareness. There is magic in this, somewhere’—B.N. Goswamy, author of The Spirit of Indian Painting: Close Encounters with 101 Great Works, 1100–1900
‘This book is an exceptional document. It charts the journeys of Venkat, an artist from a remote ‘tribal’ village in the Patangarh area of Madhya Pradesh to the art worlds of Bhopal, Delhi and to foreign lands in the footsteps of his uncle, the legendary Jangarh Singh Shyam who died under mysterious circumstances in Japan It is a story of survival, both physical and artistic, in the underbelly of cities and in the bylanes of the art market. It argues forcefully against the divisive diktats of the art world, which relegate the art of the village to ‘craft’ and pit it unfairly against the dominant urban modern art. Written as an autobiography in a wonderfully devised jugalbandi between the artist and his soulmate Anand in a dual voice, it charts an unexplored textual territory of narration. The delightful illustrations combine diverse linguistic modes. They approximate the factual and magical passages of the journeys to sparkle with an unusual incandescence.’—Gulammohammed Sheikh, artist
‘This book, the result of a collaboration between an artist rooted within an indigenous tradition of picture making and a journalist turned publisher-poet is a dance between images and words. It travels from the contested Adivasi forest heartlands of the part of ancient Gondwanaland that became Central India to a big, wide, generous account of a changing world. 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.’—Shuddhabrata Sengupta, artist, Raqs Media Collective, Delhi
‘Anand has delved into the layers of an artist’s mind, combining history and fantasy. It is with unbelievable dexterity that this writer moves between the different worlds… Venkat combines his signature drawings with beautiful washed layers of watercolours in the style of adornment the Gonds use to decorate their homes… What appears to be another coffee table book on first sight turns out to be a delightful aromatic onion. The individualistic images and paintings that fill the book compete with the equally evocative text’—Sharan Apparao, gallerist
In the media
‘Finding My Way is the story of not just me and my art, it is the story of the Pardhan Gonds, who chronicled time and memory with their songs and music. It is wrong to say I have contributed only the art and Anand has contributed only the text. I am in his words, he is in my colours. Though it is principally my story, we both worked as equal artists’—Venkat Raman Singh Shyam in an interview in The Hindu
‘…it calls for multiple readings, because the double- stranded narrative, of words and images, is complex. Rendered in black, white and shades of pastel colours, Venkat’s illustrations are both delicate and sensuous. The first time I read the book, I felt I was slowly being drawn into another world, sometimes becoming enveloped in it.’—Sumana Ramanan in Open
‘Finding My Way is an endlessly fascinating mix: part autobiography, part oral history, part ironic and playful in tone, part homage to ancestors and tradition, part graphic novel, part Kunstlerroman — and altogether a breathtaking artistic achievement.’—Uma Mahadevan Dasgupta, The Hindu
‘This is Aman Sethi’s A Free Man told by the free man himself and so devoid of that refraction through the class lens… told in a voice that is, at different points, wry, laugh-out-loud funny, shamanic, and wise … Finding My Way is a book to dip into periodically for inspiration and magical visions; a book to enjoy; a book to keep.’—Manjula Narayan in Hindustan Times
‘Finding my Way, a singular book of dense and haunting beauty, audacious, original and innovative, iridescent with startling imagery and wisdom, could only emerge from a multitude of exceptional encounters. Of Gond painting and the poetic English word. Of tribal forest village India and the big city. Of back-breaking manual work and fine art. Of tribal and European painting. Of memoir, myth and contemporary meditations.’—Harsh Mander in Scroll
‘…an extraordinary collaboration between artist and writer… [where] the art and prose speak for themselves and for each other. The pictures are as fluid, as voluble, as the prose, spilling across the book, from page to page, telling the story of not just a single life, but of a country, of a people who are oppressed but who have finally found the means to talk back and be heard… Finding My Way is a book that reveals the whole man.’—Shougat Dasgupta in India Today
A beautifully illustrated autobiography of Venkat Raman Singh Shyam blends poetry, narrative and painting into a thought-provoking discourse on art in an unequal world, says the Business Standard
“I am a Gond and my work has elements of Gond art, otherwise I would be rootless. But my work is contemporary art. I am painting here and now about the here and now,” says Venkat. “Why doesn’t the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) have space for Adivasi artists? Why should my work be shunted in Crafts Museum and Dilli Haats? My work is not craft, it is art.” … When the National Gallery of Australia takes particular pride in and gives exceptional space to show Indigenous art, why doesn’t the NGMA exhibit Adivasi artists? Rajeev Lochan, director of NGMA, Delhi, says, “The NGMA is for modern and contemporary art. There is the Crafts Museum to cater to Adivasi and tribal art,” But isn’t that an unfair hierarchy? “If it needs to be changed, that decision has to be taken by the ministry (of culture),” he adds.—Economic Times
‘The pages are left unnumbered, like art on the walls. Through his story, Shyam attempts at documenting the evolution of Gond art, from celebratory paintings on mud walls to acrylics that are coming under the hammer.’—Indian Express
‘The book is a living organism that breathes and draws people closer to the art,’ says The New Indian Express.
‘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’—John Berger
‘An exceptional document… charts an unexplored textual territory of narration with an unusual incandescence’—Gulammohammed Sheikh
‘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’—Shuddhabrata Sengupta
‘A remarkable work in which words and images embrace each other and then slowly begin to sink into our awareness’—B.N. Goswamy