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Many Visions, Many Versions A r t f ro m I n d i g e n o u s C o m m u n i t i e s i n I n d i a


Many Visions, Many Versions A r t f ro m I n d i g e n o u s C o m m u n i t i e s i n I n d i a

Copyright 2015 BINDU modern Franklin Park, NJ 08823

All rights reserved. No part of the contents of this book may be reproduced without the written permission of the publisher. Printed in India by Pragati Offset Pvt. Ltd. Design and photography by Sneha Ganguly Details illustrated on the cover: Swarna CHITRAKAR, Tsunami Japani SHYAM, Jungle Scene Amit DOMBRE, Tarpa and Phalghat Baua DEVI, Shiva Back cover illustration: Rani JHA, Breaking through the Curtain Inside cover illustration: Chano DEVI, Raja Salhesh’s Palace and Garden

Many Visions, Many Versions A r t f ro m I n d i g e n o u s C o m m u n i t i e s i n I n d i a

Curated by Drs. Aurogeeta Das and David Szanton Consulting Curator Jeffrey Wechsler

William Paterson University University Galleries Ben Shahn Center for the Visual Ar ts Wayne, New Jersey 07470 Nov. 1, 2015 thru Dec. 11, 2015

Introduction and Acknowledgments The story of our collection began on a Sunday afternoon in 1995, when we walked into the preview of Sotheby’s inaugural auction of modern and contemporary Indian ar t in New York. The ar t works on sale immediately appealed to us at a visceral level, and before we knew it, we were owners of a rapidly growing collection of modern Indian ar t. The collection initially focused on works by members of the Progressive Ar tists Group—F. N. Souza, M. F. Husain, S. H. Raza, et al.—that was formed in India in 1947, at the dawn of independence. Subsequently, we added secondgeneration modernists and emerging young Indian ar tists as well as modern Indian photographers.

engagement with museums, art scholars and the community. The current exhibition, Many Visions, Many Versions, reflects our relatively recent interest in collecting contemporary indigenous art from India. Growing up in India, we were always surrounded by folk arts and crafts, by hand-painted pottery, carved furniture and hand-knitted rugs in our homes. Most of the fabrics, such as women’s saris, linen and upholstery were also based upon the art of indigenous craft workers. On religious holidays, our mothers and aunts would draw ritualistic images on the walls and floors to prepare the house for festivities. While all these folk arts and crafts were vibrant and decorative, we never considered them as collectible fine art. In 2005, to our pleasant surprise, we discovered that an exhibition of contemporary Indian art at the Asia Society, Edge of Desire, also included Indian indigenous artists who apparently had attained worldwide recognition. This ignited our interest in researching this field of art and very shortly thereafter we began collecting the works of these artists. Interest in this field was further nurtured by our longtime friend Ms. Arpana Caur, a prominent Delhi-based Indian artist, who is also a passionate collector of art from various indigenous communities.

As the collection grew, we realized that our enjoyment of collecting was greatly enhanced by sharing the collection with a wider community of art lovers. In particular, we thoroughly enjoyed working with museums in promoting modern Indian art in America. Our first foray in this direction was to work with our neighborhood museum, Rutgers University’s Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, to organize a multicollector exhibition of Indian modernism in 2002. Subsequently curated shows from our collection traveled to Fairfield University, Rutgers–Newark, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Georgia Museum of Art. In 2007, we spearheaded an effort at The Newark Museum to organize a large-scale exhibition on modern Indian photography. Along the way, a few years ago, we decided that time had come for our collection to have its own home, where we could showcase curated exhibitions from our collection to promote and educate art enthusiasts and the public at large about modern and contemporary Indian art. Hence BINDU modern Gallery was born. The gallery presents rotating exhibitions originating from our collection, and also serves as a nucleus from which we promote modern Indian art through our

Our rapidly growing collection of this genre focuses on the art of the Gond and the Warli tribes, women artists in the Mithila region of Bihar and the narrative scroll painters of West Bengal. In the last few years these prolific indigenous art communities have enjoyed unprecedented international exposure, with artists such as Jangarh Singh Shyam, Jivya Soma Mashe, Venkat Raman Shyam and Baua Devi included in major exhibitions of global indigenous art at the Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris) and the National Gallery of Canada. Two years ago, we mounted an exhibition of 4

this part of our collection at BINDU modern and were thrilled to see an overwhelmingly positive response to the show from art scholars and enthusiasts alike. This led to the idea of a new endeavor for BINDU modern to expand its scope into organizing a traveling exhibition, to be shown at galleries and museums nationwide. For this inaugural traveling exhibition, in order to create a more complete and scholarly exhibition on the subject, we have also included works from the Ethnic Arts Foundation (EAF) to fill in what we considered as the gaps in our own collection.

friendship and further collaborative projects. In addition to bringing a wealth of knowledge of Mithila art, David Szanton, serving as the president of the Ethnic Arts Foundation, also facilitated the loans of some Mithila works from their collection to enhance this exhibition. We also extend our thanks to Ms. Sneha Ganguly, BINDU modern manager, who has devoted much time to this project and accomplished a variety of tasks in an efficient and timely manner, from cataloging to mailing lists to informational materials. She is credited for photographing all the art works illustrated in this catalog and for deploying her artistic creativity in designing and producing this volume. We also thank Ms. Judith Hanson for copyediting the catalog essays and entries and to Mr. Paul Jacob for designing and maintaining our website.

The evolution of our private collection into a gallery and its accompanying exhibitions would not have been possible without the insightful advice from our longtime friend and art curator Mr. Jeffrey Wechsler. Jeffrey serves as BINDU modern consulting curator and has been available to us at each and every step of our various art adventures that we have undertaken; his unlimited guidance is greatly appreciated.

Finally, we thank Ms. Kristen Evangelista, Director, University Galleries, William Paterson University, for having the vision and foresight to be the first venue for this traveling exhibition. Drawing upon her experience in curating earlier exhibitions of Indian art, she has also inspired William Paterson University faculty to develop accompanying education programs for this exhibition. We also express our gratitude to the University administration for supporting Many Visions, Many Versions.

Organizing an exhibition such as this one is an undertaking of considerable complexity and requires the talent and time of many individuals. First and foremost, we are grateful to Ms. Tulika Kedia for guiding us in building our collection of indigenous art. As the owner of the largest gallery of this material in India, not only did she help us acquire many important works of these artists, she also brought her vast knowledge of this field to the table. A particular warm and sincere expression of gratitude must be extended to Drs. Aurogeeta Das and David Szanton, co-curators of this exhibition, for having provided valuable and scholarly leadership to this project. Both have worked tirelessly in researching the works in Many Visions, Many Versions and in authoring this catalog. Not only do we value their expertise, we also look forward to their continuing 5

Many Visions, Many Versions

Art from Indigenous Communities in India By Aurogeeta Das & David Szanton In 1984, the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. The museum defined “primitivism” as the Western response to tribal cultures as revealed in the work and thought of modern artists. By juxtaposing objects the exhibition sought to show that the work of modernists such as Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso had been directly influenced by masks, sculptures and ritualistic objects from Africa, Oceania and North America, all defined as “tribal.”

This international exposure resulted in several other art exhibitions from these and other indigenous communities in India and elsewhere, and set the stage for Jangarh Singh Shyam and Jivya Soma Mashe to emerge as the pillars of India’s contemporary indigenous art scene. They also encouraged other indigenous artists across India to become professional artists. Many Visions, Many Versions focuses on four of the most prolific indigenous art traditions in India that have been enjoying unprecedented success in the past decade. It includes art from the Gond and the Warli communities of central India, the Mithila region of Bihar, and the narrative scroll painters of West Bengal.

While Primitivism opened to some favorable reviews, it was vehemently panned by Thomas McEvilley of Rice University in ArtForum.¹ McEvilley methodically challenged Primitivism’s basic premise that indigenous art from the non-Western world should be viewed primarily as source material for Western modernists. Responses and rebuttals authored by the museum and McEvilley followed. In the end, however, McEvilley prevailed and convinced the art world that non-Western art should no longer be marginalized, but appreciated and studied for its own values.

GOND ART The term Gond art refers to paintings by a subgroup of the Gond tribe called Pardhans. While the word “tribe” often conjures images of primitive peoples living in secluded huts, such notions are outdated and cannot be associated with tribes such as the Gonds, whose population in India (including urban) exceeds ten million. Based in Madhya Pradesh, the Pardhans are the Gonds’ priests, minstrels and genealogists. Traditionally, they painted on mud walls and floors during weddings and festivals. Their wall paintings were mostly geometric and composed of auspicious symbols for the occasion. In the 1980s, Jagadish Swaminathan, the director of Bhopal-based cultural center Bharat Bhavan, organized many trips of artists and scholars to rural areas to collect and study Madhya Pradesh’s indigenous art forms. During one such trip, they came across astounding murals by Jangarh Singh Shyam. Impressed, Swaminathan invited him to move to Bhopal to further develop his art. As Jangarh became successful, he invited his clan members to Bhopal to help him in his work and to benefit from his prosperity.

The debate on multiculturalism in the aftermath of the Primitivism exhibition inspired the Centre Pompidou in Paris to organize 100 Magiciens de la terre (100 Magicians of the Earth), a groundbreaking exhibition including indigenous arts from around the world. It was curated by Jean-Hubert Martin and opened in 1989. While Primitivism had left tribal works anonymous and undated, Magiciens attempted to redress hierarchies by according them the same merit as Western pieces. It introduced many indigenous artists to global audiences, including five Indian artists, among them Jangarh Singh Shyam from the Gond community in central India, Jivya Soma Mashe from the Warli community in Maharashtra and Baua Devi, a Mithila painter from Bihar. 6

He took them on as apprentices, taught them to mix acrylic paints, which they were unfamiliar with, and asked them to fill in outlines and paint dots on his larger works. He also insisted that even while appropriating elements of his idiom, they should develop their own stylistic signature. In time, his apprentices became professional artists, and today forty to forty-five Gond artists comprise what some now call the Jangarh Kalam school of art, an indigenous rural art tradition that was paradoxically developed in a city. ²

white pigments, and were only supplied with paper and paint by the Maharashtra Handicraft and Handloom Board in the early 1970s. Soon thereafter, Jivya Soma Mashe emerged as an internationally recognized artist, thanks to his elegant and ethnographically rich images of Warli daily life. MITHILA ART The Mithila region covers a large part of northern Bihar and extends up to the Terai of southern Nepal. Today, the heaviest concentration of Mithila artists live in and around Madhubani town, hence Mithila art is also known as Madhubani painting. Literary references indicate women in Mithila were painting gods and goddesses on the interior walls of their homes at least as early as the fourteenth century.The images were intended to create auspicious spaces for domestic rituals and to promote fertility, abundance, marital felicity and general family well-being. Using vivid colors made from local organic and mineral pigments that were applied to their cow-dung and mud-plastered walls with simple bamboo and raw cotton brushes, the women produced an astonishing, vigorous and distinctive wall painting tradition.

A unifying theme in Gond art is the pervasive presence of nature in their storytelling, their portrayals of fantastical animals and trees, and their pantheon of deities. Their rich repertoire of mythical and genealogical tales has readily transferred to their paintings. While Jangarh’s intricately textured and sophisticated technique of patterning is evident in the work of all Gond artists, as are some of his favored subjects, each artist has contributed to developing a broad Gond aesthetic by developing a specific style within a recognizable Gond idiom. WARLI ART The Warli live in the Thane district of Maharashtra, situated north of Mumbai, stretching up to the border of Gujarat. Similarities between Warli art and cave paintings of central India lead some writers to believe that Warli art dates back to traditions from the Neolithic period. Wall paintings in Warli homes represent ritual icons, religious beliefs, harvests, livelihood and human relationships, and generally manifest close links to their deities and to nature. The paintings accompanying their festivities and rituals make symbolic references to their magico-religious beliefs and practices. Traditionally, the Warli use mud-plastered walls as their canvas and employed only two colors – red ochre sourced locally (or brown from cow-dung) for the base, and white from rice-flour or chalk to draw figures, scenes and structures. Humans and animals are composed of triangular or hourglass shaped figures and gain movement and life by subtle alterations to their alignments, angles and shapes. Warli artists still use only red/brown and

In the late 1960s, in the midst of a severe drought, Pupul Jayakar, director of the All India Handicrafts Board, commissioned a Bombay artist to encourage the women to transfer their wall paintings to paper for sale, to supplement family income. While the distinctive styles and techniques have been maintained, when the paintings were transferred to paper, the repertoire of themes expanded from Hindu deities to episodes from the Ramayana, local tales, rituals, autobiographies and, since the late 1990s, both contemporary sociopolitical issues and events and powerful feminist critiques of patriarchy and gender inequality. When painting on paper began, two castes – Brahmins and Kayastha (scribes and accountants), and the Dusadh community (agricultural laborers), Gandhi’s Harijan, or Children of God, now known as Dalits (the oppressed), were the sources of most of the painters, each community having its own 7

particular styles and imagery. Today, however, painters come from all of Mithila’s castes and communities, and the initially distinct styles and subjects are now increasingly shared.

deeply rooted in Indian civilization and culture, yet reinvent themselves vitally today. Indian indigenous arts have habitually been marginalized due to a false assumption that they are repetitive and imitative. As far back as 1987, Jagadish Swaminathan argued that the concept of the “contemporary” needs to be perceived in multicultural terms and defined it as “the simultaneous validity of co-existing cultures.” Such a definition, we would contend, compels a reframing of indigenous artists as contemporary artists. ³ Thomas McEvilley also repeatedly made much the same point in a series of articles in the late 1980s. The Centre Pompidou’s Magiciens exhibition was a major step in the recognition of these contemporary artists. Since then, numerous exhibitions in India and abroad have demonstrated the breadth and vitality of these traditions, leading to increased appreciation and study of indigenous Indian arts. Most recently, the Sakahàn (“to light a fire” in Algonquin) exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada showcased indigenous arts from the world over and proved pathbreaking in the conception and design of museum exhibitions. The inclusion in Sakahàn of the Gond artists Jangarh Singh Shyam, Venkat Raman Singh Shyam, Suresh Singh Dhurve and Mayank Shyam adds to the growing, worldwide recognition of Indian indigenous artists. We hope Many Visions, Many Versions will further propagate interest in this emerging field of contemporary art.

BENGALI Patua Scrolls The painter-singer communities in eastern India are called Chitrakar, meaning “one who makes images”. Their tradition of singing and painting stories on patuas (long vertical scrolls) goes back several centuries. For generations, hereditary painter-singers have been practicing their craft in the Medinipur district of West Bengal. Currently, most Chitrakars live in Naya, a village near Kolkata. Acting as itinerant picture showmen and women, Chitrakars recount stories and legends in song, unrolling a scroll a frame at a time while pointing to the relevant picture depicting the successive events. The artists now use commercial paper but still paint with organic pigments. Patua scrolls have historically tended to cover a variety of themes – mythological and religious, socio-political, local and national events. Recently, Chitrakars have increasingly depicted and sung international events such as the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, the 9/11 attack in New York City, and even the sinking of the Titanic (after the film was shown in Colombo). The conventional approach to mounting an exhibit of these four distinct indigenous Indian artistic traditions, widely separated historically and geographically across India, would be to show them in separate sections distinguished by tribal and cultural affinities. Instead, and in contrast, we have opted for a more ambitious and original approach, intentionally mounting the paintings thematically to demonstrate the common cultural roots and contemporary concerns of these four communities that underlie the diversity of their artists’ unique expressive forms, techniques and styles. The exhibition is divided into four broad categories: myth and cosmology, nature – real and imagined, village life and contemporary explorations. These thematic sections offer scholarship on the unity, the diversity, and the dynamism of the rich array of these painting traditions that are both

________________ ¹ Thomas McEvilley, “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief: ‘Primitivism’

in 20th Century Art at the Museum of Modern Art,” ArtForum 23, no.3, November 1984, pp.54-61. ² Aurogeeta Das, “Metropolitan and Traditional: An Exploration of Semantics in Contemporary Indian Arts Discourse” Etnofoor: Imitation 22, no. 1 (2010), pp.118-135. ³ Jagadish Swaminathan, The Perceiving Fingers (Bharat Bhavan in association with All India Handicrafts Board), 1987.


THEMES Myth and Cosmology


Nature – real and imagined


Village Life


Contemporary Explorations


Myth and Cosmology In some ways the central theme of the exhibition, this section illustrates the rich imagery and diverse pictorial languages used by the artists in the four communities to express the continuing hold and power of myths, symbols, icons, spritual traditions and religious beliefs that are often an amalgam of both Hindu and indigenous worldviews. By depicting or suggesting myths or stories about legendary figures and divinities, or portraying rites of passage, the paintings offer a glimpse into their distinct cultures, as well as a common love of narrative as a source of meaning in daily life.


Baua Devi Shiva, 2008 Acrylic on canvas, 57� x 42� Jitwarpur based Baua Devi’s aesthetic depiction of Hindu deities leaves its own signature. Her compositions are often characterized by brilliant colors, bold line work and wavy borders in two or more contrasting colors. A work that pulsates with palpable energy depicts Shiva, the god of destruction, instantly recognizable due to his ash-colored skin, long hair and jada (top-knot). His hair famously stems the force of the river Ganga. The attribute in his left hand is the damroo, a handheld drum with which Shiva is said to have created the primordial sound. The attribute in his right hand is the trishul (trident). Others that identify him include the snake around his neck.


Ram Singh Urveti Woodpecker and the Ironsmith, 2011 Acrylic on canvas, 60” x 85” The Gond tribe has surprisingly close ties to Hindu culture, as intermarriage and assimilation occurred during the period in which they formed a kingdom in central India. It is therefore unsurprising that Gond art often portrays Hindu themes. Ram Singh Urveti incorporates Hindu deities in a work depicting a Gond tale about a woodpecker and an ironsmith (both considered to be craftsmen). The woodpecker and the ironsmith quarrel after getting drunk on a home-brewed liquor called mahua, so named after the flowers from which it is prepared (the Gond are very fond of mahua, which is used as a libation in rituals). The woodpecker boasts of the craftiness with which he captured yamadoots (hell’s messengers) sent by Yamadeva (God of death) to take him away; he thus eludes his predestined death. He claims that these doots – seven of them sent consecutively by Yama – are now captive in a tree. Shiva and his consort Parvati — in disguise — had descended onto earth to ascertain why none of the messengers had returned. When they overhear the woodpecker’s boast, they at once assess the situation, punish the woodpecker and liberate all the yamadoots. Shiva and Parvati can be seen on the bottom right corner in black and red.


Jamuna Devi Raja Salhesh with his Two Brothers and Three Flower Maidens, circa 2000 Gouache on paper, 30” x 59” Raja Salhesh is the great cultural hero of the Dusadh, a large Dalit community of Mithila, also widespread across northern India. Raja Salhesh is seemingly based on a historical Dusadh king who was defeated in battle some five hundred years ago, resulting in his subjects’ enslavement, an event that the Dusadh now claim accounts for their current low status in Indian society. Prior to his defeat he had numerous adventures and escapades that are now widely portrayed in songs, performances and, in Mithila, frequently in paintings. As depicted in Jamuna Devi’s painting of him in a procession, he always rides an elephant, while his brothers, nephews, and male companions ride horses. Said to be extremely handsome, he is constantly surrounded by adoring malis (flower girls or gardeners) like the three in the procession. However, finding their continuous attentions tiresome, he often escapes them by using his magical powers to create multiple copies of himself so the malis cannot tell which is the real Raja Salhesh.


Rajendra Shyam Rai Ka Dhaniya, 2010 Acrylic on canvas, 47” x 33” Rajendra Singh Shyam’s painting, narrating a tale of seven brothers and their sister, who is disliked by her sisters-in-law, adheres to the tribal storytelling tradition. According to the tale, the seven brothers’ wives throw their young sister-in-law into a pond, where a fish swallows her. A bird splits the fish’s belly and takes the young girl to her nest, where she raises her with her chicks (note that the painting is titled after the bird’s odd name, which translates literally to “a grain of mustard”). As the brothers set out in search of their lost sister, they happen to pass under the tree with the bird’s nest and sense drops of water from above. On tasting the water drops, they realize this is a shower of tears. They look up and find their sister crying desolately, perched high upon the tree. The keen sense of color and the compositional placement of the tale’s various characters and elements add aesthetic appeal, successfully overcoming the challenge of conflating multiple frames of time into a single spatial frame. 14

Montu Chitrakar Great Flood, 2010 Natural dyes on paper glued to fabric, 137” x 22” This scroll by Montu Chitrakar appears to depict a flood. The presence of the ascetic in the second frame (who warns the central figures of the imminent disaster) suggests that it narrates the great mythical flood, similar to Noah’s Ark. The scroll does not necessarily adhere to the story’s chronological sequence or the specific grains and animals mentioned. Since its water vessel resembles a boatman’s humble nau (a hand-carved boat), rather than a larger-than-life ark, it may be depicting a folk variation of the story.


Amit Dombre Tarpa and Palghat, 2010 Cow dung, geru and acrylic on cloth, 53” x 24” A painting by Amit Dombre portrays the Tarpa, the most common Warli dance, which is performed at multiple rituals, including the harvest, Diwali and marriages. The Tarpa’s open-ended spiral formation symbolizes the cycle of life. Below the dance is a Palghat mata chowk, suggesting that this Tarpa is being danced at a wedding. Palghat mata is the Warlis’ marriage deity, otherwise known as their great mother goddess of fertility. Chowk is a square consecrated space where the rituals are performed. Flanking the central deity are the sun and the moon, and in the chowk’s top half is a kalas — an auspicious pot that is essential for marriage rituals.


Shanti Devi Marriage Kohbar, 2011 Acrylic on paper, 22” x 30” The Kohbar is the core image of the Mithila tradition, historically painted on the wall — now often painted on paper and attached to the wall — of the kohbar ghar, the designated room where the bride and groom consummate their arranged marriage on the fourth night of the marriage ceremony.


Nature - real and imagined Reflecting the centrality of nature in the life, myth, religion, culture and society of the four communities, this section explores the many ways in which conceptions of nature are manifested in the lives and imaginaries of the ar tists and their communities. In these paintings, perceptions of nature can be shared communal views or highly individual observations, depicted realistically, interpreted narratively or celebrated through myth and deification. Collectively, they highlight life-affirming beliefs and reveal a tendency towards anthropomorphism; sensitivity to the interconnectedness of human, animal, marine, bird, insect and plant life; and a keen awareness of distinctive habitats.


Jangarh Singh Shyam Tree and Panther, 1988 Gouache on paper, 60� x 84.5� Jangarh explored a variety of subjects, including but not limited to Gond deities he visualized with great power and imagination, flora and fauna and even urban objects like airplanes. Perhaps his most endearing works remain those where he expressed his vision of nature, in its mysterious beauty, often investing such scenes with anthropomorphic figures of animals and birds. In this painting of a jungle scene, a deer and a panther with a curiously human face rest on the grass whose pattern closely resembles the paw-prints of a big cat. While there are several birds in the tree’s foliage, one is in black and white on the tree trunk. As some of his early works indicate, Jangarh sometimes experimented with leaving parts of an otherwise richly colored work black and white. His highly developed sense of color is seen in juxtaposed planes of background colors, first applied flat, then innovatively patterned with multicolor arcs, waves and lines, each plane of background color sporting a distinct pattern.


Japani Shyam Jungle Scene, 2011 Acrylic on canvas, 48” x 72” In an unusual composition, Japani simultaneously presents an aerial, terrestrial and aquatic view of her natural environment. The tree provides focus, while the tiger at the center visually anchors terrestrial and aquatic life and to some extent aerial life as well. The tree’s branches serve to divide the territorial realm, with the space in between inhabited by monkeys, a deer, a snake and birds. Spiders in their webs occupy the four corners. Note the charming manner in which two lizards encircle the spider’s web in the lower right corner. Various other creatures including a peacock, lizards and a large bird with a fish in its talons appear in the space around the central, polygonal, amorphous shape, which appears markedly organic. Japani evokes a jungle scene with vivacity, spirit and an intimacy that highlights the Gonds’ closeness with nature.


Mayank Shyam Origin of Life, 2011 Acrylic on canvas, 43” x 67” The Gond have several myths about the origin of life, with myriad characters. The most important one, How the World Began, indicates their belief in the pervasive presence of water in the “beginning” and the life-giving and life-sustaining qualities of trees. A segment of the story focuses on how Bada Dev (God), with the help of the earthworm and others, gathered enough earth to apply it as a sheet on water to form “land”. Mayank illustrates this myth using a predominantly aquatic scene, where you begin to see a separation of life in the sea and on land, with fish representing marine life. Note the reeflike branches in the water that are meant to form a tree representing life on earth. It is worth observing the use of the greys and browns, which may be emphasizing the separation of land and water, before Bada Dev applied a sheet of earth on water.


Chano Devi Raja Salhesh’s Palace and Garden, 2000 Natural dyes on paper, 55” x 29.5” In the 1970s, Chano Devi, the most celebrated Dusadh painter, developed the godana (tattoo) style, drawing on the decorative and protective tattoos common in the community. Here she depicts the magnificent garden surrounding Raja Salhesh’s palace filled with soldiers, animals and dancing malis (who created the garden for him). The paper for this painting was initially treated with a light gobar (cow dung wash) to simulate the background color of a traditional wall painting.


Manisha Jha The Jackfruit Tree (Tree of Life series), 2012 Acrylic and ink on canvas, 68” x 57.5” Trained as an architect, Delhi-based Jha has consciously chosen to challenge conceptual barriers between the genres of ‘folk’ and ‘contemporary’. Underscoring her use of the Mithila visual idiom as her “language” (in Maithili, the art form is called ‘likhiya’, which translates to ‘writing’), she points out that her art often focuses on contemporary issues. As is the case in this painting, she also frequently innovates with the traditional idiom, by experimenting with scale, line, color combinations and themes. This painting draws upon Jha’s memories of a jackfruit tree in the courtyard of her childhood home. Jha considers trees as archetypal symbols of continuity and regeneration, witnesses to an ever-changing society. The roots show the stability of Indian society; the trunk’s firm growth extends this metaphor, as do the outstretched branches, whose changing contours suggest the limitless possibilities of expansion. 23

Baua Devi Nagas, 2006 Gouache on paper, 20”x28” In the West it is sometimes humorously suggested that the universe is supported by “turtles all the way down.” In Hinduism, a massive snake, or many-headed snake, Shesha, or a thousand such snakes, swimming in the primal ocean of milk, are similarly said to support the universe “all the way down.” In contrast to Western notions of snakes as frightening and associated with evil, in India, snakes are most often regarded as potentially beneficent if revered and worshipped and likely to be dangerous only if threatened or mistreated. Here, Baua Devi has used her imagination to depict a tangle of the many-headed snakes in the ocean of milk. Cleverly tricking the eye, her snakes have either one, two, or three heads, but only two tails.


Bhajju Shyam The Fox, 2011 Acrylic on paper, 14” x 20” Shyam’s interpretations of the qualities of animals — foxes included — have been consistently rich and often anthropomorphic (he has previously depicted a fox in his famous London Jungle Book, 2005). Anthropomorphism is not explicitly expressed in this painting; it nevertheless motivates its subject. Shyam visualizes the phrase “two-faced” in inverted fashion, by showing the bodies of two foxes with a single, merged head. Having observed the cunning of the fox, Shyam expresses his ambivalence about the animal, which he reluctantly admires for its ability to deceive its fellow inhabitants in the jungle when it wants to gets its own way. Shyam feels that the fox can hold its own against lions and tigers and other dangerous creatures: “Equally though, the fox can retreat to its den when it wants to avoid humans — it clearly demarcates its own territory. We could learn a lot from the fox, for example its instincts for survival, its sharpness and its alertness — it is a remarkably watchful creature.”


Village Life Many indigenous ar tists continue to live in rural India, or maintain close ties with their native villages. This section includes paintings that intimately convey the rhythms and realities of village life and also how the village lives on in the hear ts and minds of the ar tists who have made their homes in cities. These works bring to life customs, beliefs and rituals that are sometimes par ticular to the community the ar tist hails from, whereas at other times they are more broadly representative of rural life in India, which can, for example, be marked by activities that are determined by seasonal changes. Ar tistic preferences among the communities are also not uncommon, such as in the case of Warli, who like to focus on livelihoods.


Bhajju Shyam Tribal Dance, 1997 Acrylic on canvas, 52” x 84” Among Jangarh’s successors, Bhajju Shyam is quite prominent. This painting by Bhajju portrays dancing, an activity the Gonds are extremely fond of and which they believe was first learned from peacocks. Bhajju favors symmetric compositions; here the tree is flanked by musicians and male-female dance partners on either side. The tree is smeared with a red powder (kumkum or sindoor) as if worshipped as a goddess, the color red being associated with sanctity. The concentric, undulating red waves in the foliage emphasize the energy created by the dancers’ rhythms. The border consists of a digna design, a pattern that Gond women commonly create on the walls and floors of their homes.


Jivya Soma Mashe Coal Mining Process, 2011 Acrylic on paper, 38” x 38” In the early 1970s, Warli artists were supplied paper and paint by the Maharashtra Handicraft and Handloom Board. Jivya Soma Mashe, who emerged as an internationally recognized artist during this period, began to ethnographically depict the Warlis’ day-to-day life. Such works included rituals and customs, village scenes and the agricultural harvest. As Mashe recalls, however, during periods of financial hardship, he took up all sorts of work. For example, he was once an overseer of grasslands and during another period, he worked in the strip-mining of coal. In this painting, he draws upon his experience of coal mining, an activity that he briefly became very familiar with. Here, just as Warli paintings portray the different stages of a harvest, Mashe depicts strip mining in its distinct phases.


Balu Jivya Mashe The Field, 2013 Cowdung and acrylic on canvas, 29” x 39.5” After the rains, when fresh seeds are planted, a farmer is planting his last grains when a wandering sage, disguised as a beggar, asks him for some. The farmer explains that he has planted all his grains but then, recalling that he has a few seeds of bottle gourd left, hands these over to the sage. Months later, the farmer finds that instead of the different crops he had planted, his land yields just bottle gourds, the only crop he was generous with. The figure with headgear towards the top left of the frame is the sage, shown here as accepting the seeds of gourd from the farmer’s wife. The farmer’s plot of land, in the center, is so abundant with bottle gourds that the whole village feeds off it and some even use the gourds to make their Tarpa instruments; on either side of his plot, the villagers are shown stealing bottle gourds.


Contemporary Explorations No matter how rooted in rural villages most of the artists are, they are also keen observers and original commentators on contemporary urban life and modern realities. Current events and sociopolitical concerns characterize most of the works in this section. The paintings deal with issues in contemporary life, but paradoxically draw their strength from distinctive, and often ancient, collective aesthetic forms and traditions.


Rani Jha Breaking through the Curtain, 2011 Gouache on paper, 22” x 30” As recently as twenty years ago most, if not, all married women in the upper castes of Mithila — and especially among Brahmins and Kayastha (scribes, writers, accountants, bookkeepers, and often landholders) — had to observe purdah. This involved immediately covering their face with their sari in the presence of the husband’s male relatives, shifting into inner rooms of their home when visitors arrived, and only traveling outside the home in the company of their husband or an adult son. They might, however, watch outside events by looking through a real or symbolic curtain. Middle- and lower-caste women were only slightly less constrained. This is still often the case today, but as new generations of Maithil women obtain more education, develop knowledge and interest in the world beyond the domestic sphere and gain support from each other and urban models in expanding media, they are figuratively and literally breaking through that curtain.


Pushpa Kumari Mahangaii (Price inflation), 2012 Acrylic on paper, 22� x 30� Pushpa Kumari provides a fine example of how Mithila artists are tackling sociopolitical issues. In a painting portraying the disparity between the rich and the poor in India, the economic divide is emphasized compositionally and via myriad symbols and representations of wealth and poverty. At the top center, on the left, we see a full thaali (platter of delicacies) on an expensive metal plate, side dishes, decorative crockery and an ornate seat; on the right is an empty and inexpensive plate, an unadorned earthen jug, a plain glass and a modest seat. The central, circular, compositional structure, which acts as a visual anchor, includes imbalanced scales. Of the six branches spreading out from this circular form, the two on the left are flowering; the two on the right are withered and bare. Similarly, the high-rise buildings with a dancing peacock on the left contrast sharply with the couple in torn, worn and mended garments, their walking stick underlining the disability of poverty. The water body at the bottom is similarly differentiated, the left side with blooming lotuses, the right with poverty-stricken people battling natural calamities.


Montu Chitrakar Osama, 2010 Natural dyes on paper glued to fabric 137” x 22” The Chitrakars have long depicted topical events, be they local, regional, national or — especially after television sets became common in rural Bengali households — international events, through an often mediated lens. In this painting, Montu Chitrakar depicts the World Trade Center attacks and terrorism, specifically the propaganda tactics of Islamic terrorism (in the middle frames), the U.S. war on terror that 9/11 occasioned (in the frames portraying warfare) and an apparently victorious Osama bin Laden riding a horse, since this was painted prior to bin Laden’s reported death in 2011 (in the bottom frame). The ochre coloring in several of the frames, along with the predominance of browns, suggests the topography of mountainous landlocked Afghanistan, with its partially arid plateaus and desert. Three of the four heads on the aircraft (in the first two instances indicating terrorist-piloted planes) are given the facial characteristics of mythological rakshasas (demons): unkempt hair, ferocious eyes, large moustaches and protruding, dagger-like teeth. As with much other Chitrakar art, this reveals the blend of contemporary reportage-style paintings, which are mythologized into the popular imaginary. 33

Swarna Chitrakar Tsunami, 2005 Fabric paint on canvas, 48” x 93” Competition from other media has eroded their itinerant life, so Chitrakars now try to adapt to changing lifestyles and consumption patterns by replacing scroll paintings with large narrative paintings on canvas. Swarna Chitrakar’s depiction of the Asian Tsunami of 2004 presents it not only as a natural disaster but mythologizes it by portraying the wrath of Goddess Kali, unleashed on the oceans. Several elements deal with the “real.” At the upper right, those who are safe on land help others who are drowning. Several Tsunami victims, some corpses and bobbing heads can be seen. A tree, a radio and a building are in the process of being submerged. While chitrakar scrolls depict significant national and international events through a mediated lens, they often mythologize such depictions. Here, Kali’s dark-hued skin, the suggestion of a third eye, the protruding teeth and the snakes filling the border portray the goddess of destruction in her most demonic form.


Venkat Raman Singh Shyam Wheel of Time, 2011 Acrylic and ink on paper, 20” x 30” Venkat Raman Singh Shyam is an artist who often explores contemporary themes. In this understated work, Venkat presents the Wheel of Time. According to the artist, the physical wheel indicates the juggernaut of time of Bombay’s local trains hurtling towards their destinations, while the metaphorical wheel alludes to the passage of time. The figures on either side of the wheel represent commuters, suggesting the rush and bustle of their journeys and fast-paced lifestyles. Venkat imagines them willing their lives to move as quickly as the trains. By coalescing the wheel of a Bombay train and a clock, Venkat turns his keen observations of a city’s sociological landscape into a philosophical insight.


Exhibition Checklist Most works in this exhibition are on loan from Umesh and Sunanda Gaur Collection. All the other works, indicated by the asterisk (*) are on loan from the Ethnic Arts Foundation. Jangarh Singh SHYAM Pakshi, 1995 Ink on paper, 14”x 11”

GOND ART Suresh Kumar DHURVE Three Suns, 2011 Acrylic on canvas, 45”x 33”

Japani SHYAM Jungle Scene, 2011 Acrylic on canvas, 48” x 72”

Suresh Kumar DHURVE Untitled (Bird I), 2010 Pencil on paper, 15.5” x 11”

Mayank SHYAM City, 2012 Acrylic on canvas, 42.5” x 75”

Suresh Kumar DHURVE Untitled (Bird II), 2010 Pencil on paper, 11.5” x 8”

Mayank SHYAM Origin of Life, 2011 Acrylic on canvas, 43” x 67”

Suresh Kumar DHURVE Untitled (Bird III), 2010 Ink on paper, 13.5” x 11”

Mayank SHYAM Untitled, 2011 Acrylic on paper, 19.5” x 13.5”

Suresh Kumar DHURVE Untitled (Two Deer and Faces), 2010 Ink and pencil on paper, 11.5” x 8” Bhajju SHYAM Jalhaarin Mata, 2012 Acrylic on canvas, 77” x 47.5”

Mayank SHYAM Untitled, 2011 Acrylic on paper, 22” x 15” Rajendra SHYAM Rai Ka Dhaniya, 2010 Acrylic on canvas, 47” x 33”

Bhajju SHYAM The Fox, 2011 Acrylic on paper, 14” x 20”

Venkat Raman Singh SHYAM Wheel of Time, 2011 Acrylic and ink on paper, 20” x 30”

Bhajju SHYAM Tribal Dance, 1997 Acrylic on canvas, 52” x 84”

Dhavat SINGH Tiger Tales I, 2009 Acrylic and ink on canvas, 67.5” x 44.5”

Jangarh Singh SHYAM Farmer, 1995 Ink on paper, 14” x 11”

Manoj TEKAM Untitled (Snake Tree), 2011 Acrylic on canvas, 45” x 28” Ram Singh URVETI Woodpecker and the Ironsmith, 2011 Acrylic on canvas, 60” x 85”

Jangarh Singh SHYAM Tree and Panther, 1988 Acrylic on paper, 60” x 84” Jangarh Singh SHYAM Tree and Snake, 1984 Acrylic on canvas, 55.5” x 32.5” 36

Durga Bai VYAM Untitled (Birds) Ink on paper, 13.5” x 10.5”

MITHILA ART Santosh Kumar DAS Four Fish, 2014 Ink on paper, 20” x 28.5”

Durga Bai VYAM Untitled (Tree), 1990s Acrylic on paper, 27” x 21.5”

Baua DEVI Kali, circa 1990s Acrylic on paper, 30.5” x 20.5”

WARLI ART Amit DOMBRE Tarpa and Palghat, 2010 Cow dung, geru and acrylic on cloth, 53” x 24” Amit DOMBRE Untitled, 2010 Cow dung and acrylic on cloth, 34” x 55” Balu Jivya MASHE Untitled (Spider), 2013 Geru and acrylic on canvas, 38” x 29”

Baua DEVI Nagas in the Primordial Sea, 2006 Acrylic on paper, 20”x 28” Baua DEVI Shiva, 2008 Acrylic on canvas, 57”x 42”

* Chano DEVI

Raja Salhesh’s Palace and Garden, 2000 Natural dyes on paper, 55” x 29.5” Shanti DEVI Marriage Kohbar, 2012 Acrylic on paper, 22” x 30”

Balu Jivya MASHE The Field, 2013 Cow dung and acrylic on canvas, 29” x 39.5”

Jamuna DEVI Chamars (Leatherworkers) Transporting a Dead Cow, circa 1990s Natural pigments on paper, 23” x 32.5”

Jivya Soma MASHE Coal Mining Process, 2011 Acrylic on paper, 38” x 38” Kishore Sadashiv MASHE Fishing, 2013 Cow dung and acrylic on canvas, 40” x 47” Rajesh Chaitya VANGAD Village Scene, 2010 Rice paste on paper, 22” x 35”

* Jamuna DEVI

Raja Salhesh with his Two Brothers and Three Flower Maidens, circa 2000 Natural dyes on paper, 30” x 59”

* Shanti DEVI

Motiram off to Rescue Raja Salhesh, circa 2005 Acrylic on paper, 30” x 22” Sita DEVI Krishna, circa 1970s Mud, oxide colors on particle board, 72” x 96” Manisha JHA The Jackfruit Tree (Tree of Life series), 2012 Acrylic and ink on canvas, 68” x 57.5”


* Rani JHA

BENGALI patua scrolls

Abortion Clinic, 2004 Acrylic on paper, 22” x 30”

Anwar CHITRAKAR Untitled, 2012 Vegetable dyes on paper, 36” x 30” Monimala CHITRAKAR Untitled, 2001 Natural dyes on paper, 107” x 22” Montu CHITRAKAR Great Flood, 2010 Natural dyes on paper glued to fabric, 137” x 22”

* Rani JHA

Breaking through the Curtain, 2011 Ink and acrylic on paper, 22” x 30” Rani JHA Even Fenced in with Thorns, She Still Flies a Kite Beyond the Reach of the Grasping Boys, 2014 Acrylic on paper, 22.5” x 30” Jitendra KUMAR Village Effort to Treat a Demon-Possessed Young Woman, 2014 Acrylic on paper, 22.5” x 30.5”

Montu CHITRAKAR Osama, 2010 Natural dyes on paper glued to fabric, 137” x 22”

Pushpa KUMARI Mahangaii (Price Inflation), 2012 Acrylic on paper, 22”x 30”

Swarna CHITRAKAR Tsunami, 2005 Fabric paint on canvas, 48” x 93”

Ruby KUMARI Save the Trees, 2014 Acrylic on paper, 22” x 30”

* Shalinee KUMARI

Radiant, Yet Submissive, 2013 Acrylic on paper, 22” x 15” Naresh Kumar PASWAN 9/11/2001, 2013 Ink on paper, 22” x 30” Shivan PASWAN Tree of Life, 2010 Acrylic and ink on canvas, 62” x 34”

* Gopal SAHA

The Bus, circa 2010 Acrylic on canvas, 24.5” x 29.5”

* Gopal SAHA

The Marriage of Rama and Sita, 1988 Acrylic on paper, 29.5” x 60”


Catalog Authors Aurogeeta Das (Co-curator) has a PhD in Indian art from the University of Westminster, London. She has written on indigenous art for various publications, including for Manifesta, on the National Gallery of Canada’s Sakahàn (2013), arguably the most important exhibition on international indigenous art since Pompidou’s Magiciens de la Terre in 1989. Having recently spent three months in India, doing further research on art in indigenous communities, she is now completing research towards a biography of the late Gond artist Jangarh Singh Shyam. As Chercheur Invitée at Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, Paris, she researched indigenous Indian art in French exhibitions and collections. She is currently Guest Lecturer on Indian art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London and curator of indigenous art for the Crites Collection, New Delhi. David Szanton (Co-curator) is a social anthropologist based in Berkeley, California, with a long standing interest in the dialectics of art and social change. He has worked for the Ford Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, and the University of California, Berkeley, and has been following the evolution of Mithila artists and Mithila painting, since 1977. A co-founder of the Ethnic Arts Foundation in 1980, he has curated numerous exhibitions in the US, South Africa, and India winning a national curatorial prize in 2005. In 2003, he helped to found Mithila Art Institute in Madhubani, Bihar, still thriving today, to encourage and train a new generation of Mithila painters. He has published one volume and many articles on the evolution of Mithila painting. Jeffrey Wechsler (Editor and Consulting Curator) is former Senior Curator of the Zimmerli Art Museum of Rutgers University. Specializing in lesser-known aspects of twentieth-century American art, he has organized many exhibitions of American art, including Surrealism and American Art, 1931-1947 (1977), Realism and Realities: The Other Side of American Painting, 1940-1960 (1982), and Asian Traditions / Modern Expressions: Asian American Artists and Abstraction, 1945-1970 (1997). While at Rutgers, Mr. Wechsler organized an exhibition on contemporary and modern Indian art, one of the first and the largest exhibition of its kind until that time in 2002, curated a retrospective of India’s foremost colorist Natvar Bhavsar in 2007 and was also the hosting curator at Rutgers of New Narratives – Contemporary Art from India, a traveling exhibition from Chicago Cultural Center in 2008.


The Ethnic Arts Foundation

Many Visions, Many Versions: Art from Indigenous Communities in India  

Catalog published in conjunction with the exhibition at William Paterson University, Wayne, New Jersey 07470 Nov. 1, 2015 thru Dec. 11, 201...

Many Visions, Many Versions: Art from Indigenous Communities in India  

Catalog published in conjunction with the exhibition at William Paterson University, Wayne, New Jersey 07470 Nov. 1, 2015 thru Dec. 11, 201...