THE GOND OF MADHYA PRADESH
The Gonds, the largest Adivasi Community in India are of Dravidian origin and can be traced to the pre-Aryan era. The word Gond comes from Kond, which means green mountains in the dravidian idiom. The Gond called themselves Koi or Koiture, but others called them Gond since they lived in the green mountains.
The Gonds or the Koiture are a heterogeneous group spreading over large areas from the Godavari gorges in the south to the Vindhya Mountains in the north. In Madhya Pradesh, they inhabited the dense forests of the Vindhyas, Satpura and Mandla in the Narmada region of the Amarkantak range for centuries. The central province was called Gondwana since the Gonds reigned here. As many as four separate Gond Kingdoms – situated in the northern, central and southern parts – are mentioned in the Ain-I-Akbari. Over time they were gradually deprived of their kingdoms and their land and their survival was threatened.
In The Folk Songs of Chhattisgarh, (1946), translated by Verrier Elwin and Shamrao Hivale, one song goes:
In this kingdom of the English
How hard it is to live
To pay the cattle tax
We have to sell a cow
To pay the forest tax
We have to sell a bullock
How are we to get our food?
Through their songs, the Gonds expressed their anguish. Through their festivals and rituals, songs and dances, they remained rooted in their culture. When their young men in large numbers started leaving for the cities in search of work, these cultural roots were threatened.
In the 1980s something happened in Madhya Pradesh, which in due course helped to strengthen their cultural roots.
The renowned artist, J Swaminathan, was then the Director of Bharat Bhawan in Bhopal. He was building the Roopankar wing of Bharat Bhawan, where Tribal and Urban art would be displayed. J Swaminathan sent his students into the villages to search for tribal artists. One of them saw an image of Hanuman on the wall of a house. When he met the artist, Jangarh Singh Shyam, he asked him to make a painting on paper with poster colours.
Jangarh Singh Shyam was the first Gond artist to use paper and canvas for his art. His talent was soon recognized, and his work was exhibited all over the country. His paintings grace one of the domes of Bharat Bhawan; he has drawn a huge aircraft on one of the walls of the State Legislative Assembly; and his clay relief of the Narmada can be seen at the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya (IGRMS) museum in Bhopal.
Jangarh Singh Shyam passed away when he was still in his 40s. He was in Japan on a three month painting assignment with the Mithila Trust when he took his own life. The reasons for his action are still a mystery. But his name will remain eternal, along with the present genre of Gond painting which he started, and is named Janagarh Kalam in his honour.