I was fascinated and a little intrigued by the painting on the wall before me. The fine lines and dots in the deer and the stylised tree alongside, and all in vibrant hues, brought the canvas alive beautifully. I had entered the gallery as the paintings were being set up on the walls and the captions were yet to be attached. I could understand it was a traditional Indian-style painting but couldn't place it. Was it Bhil art, I wondered at first, as it looked strongly similar, but I was not sure.
In my guessing game, I ruled out the other possibilities in this genre of traditional Indian art: the theme of the show. It was not Madhubani, Phad, Warli, Kalighat and certainly not Cheriyal or Tanjore. The curator then informed me that it was a Gond painting.
This event, several years ago, was my formal introduction to the world of Gond paintings. I may have seen them earlier, but not in a posh gallery setting, and with a curator on hand to describe their characteristics. These works are the creations of artists of the Gond tribal community, who are India's largest Adivasi (indigenous) community, and some say, the country's oldest too.
Gond art has elements of everyday life. The Gonds have a strong belief that seeing something positive brings good fortune. Hence, their art is about happy, positive things. The sombre and sad are kept out for the most part.
As tribals, the community has always lived in close communion with nature. This naturally finds reflection in the way they express themselves through art. So, birds, trees and animals are recurring motifs. Birds like peacocks, sparrows, and owls are popular forms in paintings. Deer also figure in many paintings, either individually or in herds. Sometimes, fawns are included too. Monkeys on tree branches and fish in water can be seen in many creations. Sometimes, the tail of a creature extends into the tree and actually merges with the trunk or branches in a symbolic expression of the intimate bond between the forest and its animals and winged inhabitants. Stylised trees are a favourite with the Gond artistes. Trees with long flowing, multiple branches are also frequently seen.
Equally important to the Gonds are their religious beliefs and rituals which find expression in their art. You will find various rituals as well as depictions of the gods and goddesses they worship, especially Maa Kali. The artists I met mentioned Bharahi Devi or Marahi Devi and Phulkari Devi too. I have also seen several paintings of Krishna in his role of the flute-playing cowherd surrounded by cows.
Fine dots, lines and dashes are used to create the images in Gond art. The minute infilling of the motifs is a significant characteristic of Gond art. Each artist evolves his signature infilling pattern. Spiral forms are also a notable feature.
Again, vibrant colours, as one sees in nature, are a characteristic of these works. Predictably, the colours come from natural sources like cow dung, tree-sap, charcoal, coloured soil, crushed leaves and flowers. The artist uses all this to wonderful effect in his creations. The inherent creativity and skills of the tribal artists are indeed admirable.
Gond art began centuries ago as the tribals' desire or fondness for decorating walls and floors of their homes with different designs and scenes from everyday life and nature. They were specially made on festive occasions and religious events. Since the Gonds have a recorded existence of around 1,400 years, the art is considered that ancient. Art historians actually draw connections between this and the cave art of ages ago, including the Mesolithic age.
As for the geographical spread of this art, it corresponds to the areas in which they live. Though mostly centered in Madhya Pradesh, they are also found in parts of Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, eastern Gujarat and Odisha. You will find countless authentic specimens of this art in the huts of the interior areas of these states.
Today, however, the primitive art form has found global recognition and praise. Gond art finds a place in art shows at galleries in Europe, USA, Australia, Japan and even the Gulf countries. Within the country too, you can find Gond art exhibited every now and then in the major metros. It is also available online for viewing and purchase. Many art collectors regard Gond paintings as an exotic acquisition.
There are many reasons how and why this art form has been unearthed from the interiors of tribal India and exposed to the outside world. In recent decades, in India, there has been a resurgence of interest in several traditional art forms. These arts are receiving attention from several state and central government agencies, especially those departments entrusted with art and craft and tribal welfare. Many art curators and promoters who are revivalists have also contributed, as have a few painters themselves like J Swaminathan, for example.
The Gond artists too have moved with the times, and their art has evolved. Since the art on the wall of a hut in a remote tribal hamlet cannot come to a gallery, the artists are now using new media to take their art places. For example, they are painting on paper and canvas now. Workshops are being held where the public can interact with the artist and see demos, and even buy the paintings. State government art showrooms and tribal art agencies sell Gond art also. All this bodes well for the community and is helping many of them earn a decent livelihood.
The curator who first identified a Gond painting for me had added that in several ways Gond art resembles Australian aboriginal art. So, on my visit to Australia, I checked out museums with aboriginal art sections. I was pleasantly surprised to see many similarities in patterns and themes between the two.
Later, I heard that these similarities in the traditional art of two countries so far apart has been the subject of research by many art students and anthropologists. The theory is that ages ago, Gond tribals migrated to Australia and made their home there. It sure is a small world!