G for Gond Tribal Art

G for Gond Tribal Art

April 2022

‘Art in India does not depend upon the availability of canvas or paint. Rocks and caves, village walls, the floor, a threshold, palm leaf, wooden plank, or even the human body is space enough to decorate’.

- Dr Anupama Saxena, Professor on Information Communication Technology

Up until the 1980s, Gond tribal art was unknown to the world and seen only painted on the homes of the Gond Tribals. The Gond are the largest Adivasi community in India, and live predominantly in Madhya Pradesh

The work of Gond artists is rooted in their folk tales and culture, and thus storytelling is a strong element of every painting.

The Pardhan Gond are traditionally meant to be storytellers who preserved the traditional folklore via their songs; they expressed the same through their paintings on walls and floors of their homes.

With the advent of the Mughal rule and then clashes with the British, it led to a decline in the general Gond fortunes. There was also an attempt to strip the tribal people of their wealth through stringent revenue taxes and land laws. And that is how eventually the social standing of the Pardhan Gonds dwindled and they resorted to menial labour.

Historically, the colours were extracted from natural objects, such as charcoal, coloured soil, plant sap, leaves and cow dung, and notably yellow from chhui mitti (loam soil) and red from the hibiscus flower.

One of the distinctive elements is the use of ‘signature patterns’ that is used to ‘infill’ the larger forms on the canvas. If you look closely, the motifs are filled mostly with dots and lines. Despite that, every Pardhan Gond painter has developed his or her own signature style.

An evolution in the Gond art form was spearheaded by Jangarh Singh Shyam, the most popular Gond artist who revived the art for the world in the 1960s and was the first to explore the medium of canvas and acrylic paints. It brought much-needed appreciation for this style in the social circles in India and globally.

Modern Gond paintings aren’t painted on walls and floors, and are painted on canvas or paper instead. The Gond artists are experimenting with new mediums today to keep the art form alive.

Storytelling is a very strong element in every Gond painting, so below is a story to give you a glimpse.

According to Gondi folklore, the winged elephant (Udata Hathi) was used by gods and goddesses in heaven, to transport them from place to place. One day, when the Lord was resting he told the elephant to take a break. The elephant decided to fly to Earth. Upon reaching Earth, he was delighted to find fields of sugarcane and banana trees. As soon as he started eating the sugarcane, the villagers came and tried to scare him off. But the elephant would not move. The villagers then called the Lord and asked him to intervene. The Lord was displeased with the Elephant and asked him never to go to earth again.

A few days later, the Elephant went back to Earth to eat the sugarcane, he had loved the lush forests and the bananas. The villagers were upset, and they asked the Lord to help. The Lord was furious and told the villagers to organise a feast and the Elephant was invited to join the revelry too. After enjoying a hearty meal and the mahua wine the elephant fell asleep. Whilst he was asleep, the Lord cut off his wings. He gave one to the banana tree and one to the peacock. From that day on, the peacock got a beautiful plumage and the banana tree got large leaves.

Not only do contemporary Gond artists use modern materials and methods but they also brilliantly represent contemporary scenes and concerns while keeping true to age-old traditions and style.

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Chinmaya Udghosh