|“Kaag Bhusund Alights on Nag Devita’’ (2007) by Bhajju Shyam, from the exhibit of contemporary Pardhan Gond art.|
Another art of the storyteller
India’s deities and legends radiate in Wellesley exhibits
WELLESLEY — “Painted Songs & Stories: Contemporary Pardhan Gond Art From India,’’ a sparkling show at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College, marks the first American exhibition highlighting the art of the Gond peoples of central India. Vibrating with brilliantly patterned mythological imagery, the exhibit also touches on familiar questions about the commercialization of indigenous art.
Members of the Pardhan clan have been the storytellers, bards, and keepers of the mythology of the Gonds. Their tradition was an oral one. Indeed, the Gonds’ supreme deity is embodied by a musical instrument, a three-stringed affair depicted in the spritely painting “The Bana as Bara Deo,’’ by Rajendra Shyam. With snakes slithering across its frets and speckled birds roosting on either side, the instrument has an orange face with strong almond eyes and slightly bared teeth.
The imagery in “Painted Songs & Stories’’ carries the potent charge of long told tales, but it’s only in the last 30 years that the Pardhan Gonds have picked up brushes and pigments, bringing narrative painting to the forefront of their expressive repertoire.
Jangarh Singh Shyam was the patriarch of the clan’s artists. He was discovered by governmental scouts seeking talented tribal artists in 1981. Shyam, then 21, had dabbled in sculptures and murals, but he was making a subsistence living hauling dirt. The scouts liked his work and moved him to the big city, Bhopal, where they gave him a job and housing and launched his career. His art became wildly popular, and he developed an international following.
Look at Shyam’s “Scorpion,’’ a dancing ink and watercolor piece. Hypnotically patterned sections make up the insect’s body. Lightning-rod zigzags in ink surround the scorpion’s legs. Its body glows with warm orange and pink washes and is surrounded by a rosy halo, textured by the artist’s trademark speckles. Pardhan Gonds consider the scorpion a sign of luck, and Shyam imbues this one with mesmerizing power.
Family joined him, and he painted to support a small art colony under his own roof, encouraging other Pardhans to translate their stories into images. But in 2001, Shyam committed suicide in a Japanese museum where he was artist-in-residence. In the exhibition’s catalog essay, curator John H. Bowles quotes a friend of Shyam’s suggesting that the artist’s workload and family pressures, as well as city life, weighed on him.
The artist’s nephew, Bhajju Shyam, has, like his uncle, garnered international attention. His “Kaag Bhusund Alights on Nag Devita’’ snaps against a bold black-and-white background: black sky, white sea, swarming with small fish and eels. Nag Devita, a snake god, writhes up from below and sneers in horror as Kaag Bhusund, a crow known as the Black One, mistakes his head for a place to land. The image pops with intricate patterning, undulating movement, and glowing contours.
The Pardhan Gonds are not the first indigenous group to take up techniques new to them in order to tell old stories. Australian aboriginals make acrylic paintings, Mexican Huichol Indians make yarn paintings, and Inuits took up printmaking. For a group as poor as the Pardhan Gonds were, painting has been a boon. But there’s a price to pay, as Bowles points out in his essay: While those who grew up in the rural villages draw from their tribal narrative tradition, younger Gond artists raised in the city are losing touch with those stories.
Hindu deities appear alongside the indigenous gods in the Gond paintings. Ram Singh Urveti’s ink on canvas “Ganesh/Shiva’’ is a wild conflation, with two of Ganesh’s elephant trunks emerging on either side of Shiva’s face.
More Hindu deities are on view in an exhibit upstairs, “Seeing God in Prints: Indian Lithographs From the Collection of Mark Baron and Elise Boisanté,’’ organized by the International Print Center New York.
These lithographs were made for commercial use, sometimes as ads, and often hung in homes for devotional purposes. They were originally made in European print shops in the late 19th century. Many are redolent with European art-history tropes.
Look at “Anantashayana (Vishnu Reclining on the Serpent Ananta),’’ an early European-made print. Vishnu lies languidly on his serpentine sofa, weirdly evoking the nudes of Delacroix and Ingres. Once the printing business moved to India, the figures became fully frontal. Lithographer Ravi Varma’s “Sri Shanmukaha Subramania Swami’’ shows the six-headed son of Shiva and Parvati, with his many arms around his two wives, all magnificently mounted on an extravagant peacock. The colors — ruby red, gold, sapphire blue, emerald green — seduce the eye.
Curators Andrew McCord and Mark Baron don’t provide enough context. Kali, Vishnu, and Shiva are recognizable; fierce Kali, blue-skinned with her tongue hanging out and wielding a bloody scythe, is a harrowing figure in several prints. But anyone unfamiliar with Hindu mythology would enjoy learning the stories behind the imagery here.
Even the India-manufactured prints display Western influences. Some have the powder-puff smoothness of an early-20th-century movie poster. A 1940s print, “Krishna in Om’’ by Buralal Mothilal, has the blue and bejeweled infant god flashing the unmistakable smile of a Gerber baby.
“Seeing God in Prints’’ is a fascinating show not because the art is great. Rather, it’s luridly engaging, like pulp fiction. But the exhibit illustrates how commercial printmaking and graphic design have always been shaped by the zeitgeist, even when the prints are for shrines.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com.