Born in 1971 in the Gond tribal village of Patangarh, in the forests of central India, Bhajju Shyam has been paying tribute to his Gond tradition through his art since the age of 16. In 2001 he received a state award for "Best Indigenous Artist" and, to date, his work has been exhibited in countries such as France, the UK, Germany, Holland and Russia.
His art appears in many books published by Tara Books, including The London Jungle Book, a visual travelogue of his first visit to a western metropolis and the book that first introduced his talent to the wider world; and Signature: Patterns in Gond Art.
Bhajju has been included in the prestigious International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) 2010 Honors List, in the Illustrators category, for his art in That's How I See Things. He is the first Indian tribal artist to be recognized by IBBY.
Would you please tell us a little bit about your journey to becoming an artist?
The first painting I did was in the village, helping my mother decorate the floors and walls of our house with traditional Gond designs and motifs. Later, when I was 16 years old, like many young people from my village, I moved to the city of Bhopal to search for work. I worked at various odd jobs, including being a watchman. My uncle, the famous Gond artist Jangahr Singh Shyam, was a resident artist at the Museum of Mankind at that time. He asked me to help him fill in the details in his paintings, so I became his apprentice. Slowly, with his encouragement, I began to paint on my own. That's how I became an artist.
I want to go back to the roots of it, to the decorative patterns and motifs that women in the village used in their drawings. This history is something I would like to preserve and bring into my painting. Even though Gond art is growing in exciting new directions, I hope that traditional practices never die out.
In your first book with Tara, The London Jungle Book, you illustrate the experience of seeing London for the first time in a whimsical and thought-provoking way. How did the book come about?
When I met the people from Tara Books and told them about my experiences, they asked me if I could do a visual travelogue based on those experiences, so I spent a couple of months working on this project with them. Together, we found new visual ways of expressing my experiences, and they wrote down the story that I told them orally.
How has the publication of The London Jungle Book influenced your career? How does it feel to know that your work is crossing geographic and language boundaries and being published and exhibited in different countries?
This book has been very important for me. As a result of it, I've traveled to a lot of different places. I've got to know different kinds of people. And people have got to know about me and my work through the book. I've been very proud to have our tradition and art known all over the world. I recently worked with Tara on editing a book which features over 30 artists from my village. It's called Signature: Patterns in Gond Art. This has been a landmark book for my community. The entire village feels proud.
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm working on an exhibition of my work for Reunion Island. I've been invited there in October, for a book fair, and Tara is organising this exhibit for me. Apart from that, there is a gallery in Delhi called Art Alive, which will feature a group show by four of us Gond artists. This is the first time that tribal artists will show in a space exclusively for contemporary fine arts gallery. So we're all happy about that.
Posted October 2010
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