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Gond Artists from Madhya Pradesh Bring Mythical tale to Kochi biennale

In Kochi
January 07, 2019

Their ancestors traditionally used walls as space for drawings and paintings in the interior villages of central India. Today, Gond artists Durgabai and Subhash Vyam, who live in Madhya Pradesh, have taken the graphic narrative to a new level, courtesy the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB).

Not limiting themselves to the conventional frescoes called Gondi Bhitti Chitrakala, the couple has gone for a wall-based installation featuring images on marine plywood. Each such work is cut out in various shapes and outlines the flora and fauna that are celebrated in their tribal folklore.

The Bhopal-based pair, simply put, has gone by the extra thrust to the “experimental” spirit of the fourth edition of the KMB that is on since December 12. Thus, at the 108-day festival’s main venue in Fort Kochi, the Vyams’ infra-project has added to the interactive spirit envisioned by the Biennale curator Anita Dube.

“Madam wanted us to try explore new things,” recalls Durgabai, seated by her project at the sea-facing Aspinwall House. “That’s when we suggested to her we’d paint on marine plywood. She loved the idea.”

The Vyams’ work is a narration of the traditional Gond folklore. It is ‘Dus Motin Kanya and Jal Devata’ — a story of five brothers and their sister living in a cosmology where humans live in harmony with nature. The lovely tale finds mention along the walls and pillars of the exhibition area situated right at the entrance of the sprawling Aspinwall.

Subhash points out that the technique employed in the art is as ancient as story that is passed down generations of the Gond community. “Dus Motin Kanya narrates various incidents in the life of a girl by the same name. From her birth till her marriage,” he adds.

Adds Durgabai: “It focuses on how the parents treat their only daughter as a princess. And what happens to her when they pass away.”

The girl, who has five brothers, is considered as a precious jewel by her family. So much so, she is not allowed to go outside the home. As the parents age, they ask the five sons to look after their sister. They again remind them not to send her outside. As time passes, brothers get married and go to the city for work and ask their wives to take care of the sister. The wives agree, but they get tired of it overtime and start mistreating the girl. They even plot to kill her and push her into the well before a bird saves her.

“Though the story is based on mythology, the subjects of our painting include elements from nature composed within the canvas,” notes Durgabai, who predominantly works in mahura-style that is inspired by the intricacies of the community’s jewellery art. “We try to showcase how the world has been constantly evolving.”

Durgabai, who has co-authored ‘The Night Life of Trees’ that won the Bologna Ragazzi Award in 2008, has done illustrations for books such as ‘Turning the Pot’ and ‘Tilling the Land.’ She has, together with her husband Subhash, illustrated ‘Bhimayana’, a book on 20th-century reformer-politician-jurist Bhimrao Ambedkar.

As for Gond art, it is a vast repertoire of oral narratives. Done of late with acrylic-on-canvas as well as pen-on-paper, the themes seek to transform the tradition into a modern form. Yet, the art retains its unique visual vocabulary — richly expressive in its imagery and rooted in local tradition.

KMB 2018 has four infra-projects that have come up based on the idea of active public participation. The Biennale this time has its Pavilion encouraging visitors as well to share thoughts. Called ‘knowledge laboratory’, it even lets them perform.