Moving Beyond the Written Word: Folk Art Narratives
So much of literature continues to be fitted into the boundaries that stress on text over everything. Even when we’re talking about the art of translation as a way to jump over the fences erected by our colonial and convenient artefact, English, we often forget art itself. Art, not as a medium of representation alone, but of communication, of storytelling. When I write about folk art as one such form of narrative, the very place of folk art especially in the Indian context cannot be overlooked. Art worlds are often established by the circulation of a specific discourse supported by both the state and the market, and in the case of folk art, it is the belief that such artworks are timeless and inalienable from the communities of which they are a part (Chatterji, 2016). Modernism, in the art world, is a critique to realism following the rise of the industrial society (Shohat & Stam, 2002). Art forms were no longer confined to realistic depictions of subjects. There was an openness towards experimentation and innovation, to reflect upon and represent new social realities. Modernity stresses upon the “othering” of indigenous forms of art by following a logic whereby such art forms are remnants of the past. As a result, there is a tendency to forget about their richness, their potential to tell stories in a way never before, their dynamism in the face of confronting the new and the unfamiliar and most crucial of all - their agency in expression.
As Chatterji points out, folk arts tend to be filed away as timeless, archaic even, their potential for dynamism overlooked. But, there are those who notice, who pay attention. One example of this is the publishing house Tara Books, which has engaged in a venture that involves long term and consistent collaboration with folk artists from different parts of India to produce illustrated storybooks that bring to the forefront marginalised art and literature. Of the many books that they have published in the last twenty-five years, the one that I will focus on in this essay is The London Jungle Book by Bhajju Shyam, a reputed Gond artist. This is a visual travelogue told from the eyes of the author who went on a trip to London to paint the murals of Masala Zone, an upmarket Indian restaurant in Islington. One of the fascinating things about this work is the play on its title. One important contributor to the anthropological study of the Gonds was Verrier Elwin (Shyam, et al.). His studies on the people whose native settlements were located in the jungle were believed to parallel Rudyard Kipling’s work The Jungle Book. Along with Elwin, this fictional account also inspired Bhajju Shyam, as is evident from the title of his book. He, in return, was excited to get the opportunity to form his own impressions about Verrier’s homeland.
Shohat and Stam discuss and deliberate on the need for reframing the debates about modernism and postmodernism in visual cultures by taking account of alternative aesthetics associated with non-European and other minoritarian locations. The archaic-postmodern is an interesting concept formulated by them which brings light to the idea that modernism in art, arising out of opposition to realism, had already existed in much of the traditions across the world (Shohat & Stam). For instance the classical Sanskrit Drama in India which presents the myths of Hindu culture through an aesthetic that is incumbent upon modulations of mood and feeling rather than coherent character description and the framing of a linear plot (Shohat & Stam). Examples of such dramas would include Mricchakatika, Vikramorvashiya, Meghdoot to name a few. The idea of the modern and post-modern largely focuses on revolutions in the Western conceptualisations and practices of art; the critique of modernism, to summarise, is a critique of the West by the West (Shohat & Stam).
At this point of realisation and acknowledgement of how much of our understanding about art and literature continues to be dominated by the Western world, folk art presents an alternative history to us, even more so in the Indian context. This is primarily because it is the history and culture of communities who are often marginalised, excluded from the dominant narrative created and spread by the upper, privileged sections of society. What Chatterji has discovered is that folk arts continue to be viewed through the discourse of primitivism. It continues to be associated with a timeless mythic realm (Chatterji). Bhajju Shyam’s work not only challenges the history of art as given to us by ideas of the modern and post-modern, but he also reveals to us how new spaces of interaction tend to produce opportunities for experimentation in Gond art.
This is evident in how Shyam does not limit himself to Gond symbols alone although he uses them liberally (for instance, the use of animals). He often incorporates symbols such as the Big Ben or the subway station sign of “King’s Cross”; symbols that cater primarily to the people of London to make his artworks eclectic. As Chatterji says, folk forms are inevitably hybrid, inherently capable of communicating across genres to address new audiences.
Gita Wolff and Sirish Rao, co-creators of the book deliberated on how this book actually managed to reverse the anthropological gaze by viewing London as a bestiary and as mentioned before, it’s ironic connection to Kipling’s account of jungle life in India (Shyam, et al.). The visuals above attest to that. In every painting of Bhajju Shyam, the symbols and ideas associated with traditional Gond myths are indeed reflected. However, in detailed explanations of each painting, it is found that these symbols have been reincorporated to fit the narrative, to fit the perceptions and experiences of the artist. Gond art under the primitive gaze of modernism only accounted for those that symbolised the mythic tales of the forest. Gond art today is not about its mythic tales alone but also about how through its traditional symbols it creates new stories and new meanings for itself. Chatterji uses the concept of “translation” as a mode to analyse the successive mediations that continue to take place between traditional repertoires on the one hand and on the other, new interventions-by the state, the market and increasingly by new media. These latter forms of mediation have tried to keep traditional art forms alive by adapting it to suit new tastes and forms of community. This is one important takeaway in the study of how folk art came about through modernity and how it continues to assert its place in the new milieu by opening up itself at all times to global influences that may perhaps give it space for innovation, all the while keeping itself rooted to tradition. It challenges the west not by completely excluding it from the works it creates, and in this case the stories that artists tell. There is an active acknowledgement of the visual vocabularies beyond what has been imbibed over the years within a community and an envisaging of the possibility of coexistence with other forms, symbols of art. Even incorporating symbols of the city of London is a step towards that direction. If one reads between the lines of Shyam’s travelogue, there is no sense of superiority there but rather curiosity, the intention to represent what’s alien to him as best as possible while staying true to his own roots.
The reversal of the anthropological gaze which categorises who is or isn’t a primitive, is indeed interesting. For centuries, India has been studied by the whites viewed through the lens of the other, in opposition to the western, industrial society. The white man’s burden which demarcates Indian communities even further along the lines of civilised and uncivilised also plays a significant role. The breakthrough in academia concerning studies in India is perhaps when trained Indian social scientists started studying the communities within their own country. However, even then hierarchies remained between the anthropologist and the community they were writing on, the former almost always from the privileged sections of society. These anthropologists were trained in methods of the west as a result of which processes of ‘othering’ continued to be reproduced. But what sets apart Bhajju Shyam is his marginalised social location not in terms of the west alone but also within Indian society. But in spite of that, his observations, his stories about a city like London which continues to be one of the many markers of western development, are being recorded, and are being told. This challenges the notion of who gets to tell the story and who gets to be heard. For the longest time, one had to succumb to the dominance of the English language to be heard, to be paid attention to. This continues to be the case even today, as regional voices fall into invisibility due to lack of translation.
The London Jungle Book stands apart because it’s not simply regional literature in translation, but regional art in translation. We’re no longer constrained by art, even folk art in museums which stresses on timelessness. Something more dynamic is taking place right in front of us and all it really needs is effort, looking at the periphery in order to break the boundaries that lie between it and the centre. It is possible if we forgo our limiting ideas of literature, art and storytelling. There are so many narratives woven around us, each in its own way and in need of amplification, in need of attention.
The importance of understanding folk art as a medium of storytelling lies not just in how it stands in opposition to the western, European models of cultural superiority, but it also stands its ground on how it is opening up itself to the larger world that exists beyond its tradition. It is not only a co-opting of western narrative tradition and art ideals, but also an engagement with its neighbourhood traditions, for instance folk art from communities that lie in its vicinity or even beyond. All of this comes about as a result of a slow but imperfect coming together of art forms in spaces such as the Dastkar, for instance. It is essential that in the understanding of folk arts, one no longer satisfies themselves by focusing on local contexts. New forms of translation are taking place on a regular basis and only when one takes account of these can one truly understand the history of a form of indigenous art, the road that it has taken to assert itself in the global context at present, the potential that it holds to reach wider audiences and to tell stories yet unknown and important to be heard, all the while holding on to the nuances, the dots and dashes and lines that set it apart from others.
Chatterji, Roma. (2016). Speaking with Pictures: Folk Art and the Narrative Tradition in India. New Delhi: Routledge.
Popova, M. The London Jungle Book. Brain Pickings.
Fig 1. Shyam, B, et al. (2018). Leaving my world behind [Gond art]. In The London Jungle Book. Copyright Tara Books Pvt Ltd, Chennai, India (www.tarabooks.com).
Fig 2. Shyam, B, et al. (2018). Journey of the mind [Gond art]. In The London Jungle Book. Copyright Tara Books Pvt Ltd, Chennai, India (www.tarabooks.com).
Fig 3. Shyam, B, et al. (2018). The Miracle of flight [Gond art]. In The London Jungle Book. Copyright Tara Books Pvt Ltd, Chennai, India (www.tarabooks.com).
Fig 4. Shyam, B, et al. (2018). Watermarks on the sky [Gond art]. In The London Jungle Book. Copyright Tara Books Pvt Ltd, Chennai, India (www.tarabooks.com).
Fig 5. Shyam, B, et al. (2018). The king of the underworld [Gond art]. In The London Jungle Book. Copyright Tara Books Pvt Ltd, Chennai, India (www.tarabooks.com).
Fig 6. Shyam, B, et al. (2018). Loyal friend number 30 [Gond art]. In The London Jungle Book. Copyright Tara Books Pvt Ltd, Chennai, India (www.tarabooks.com).
Fig 7. Shyam, B, et al. (2018). What am I eating? [Gond art]. In The London Jungle Book. Copyright Tara Books Pvt Ltd, Chennai, India (www.tarabooks.com).
Fig 8. Shyam, B, et al. (2018). When two times meet [Gond art]. In The London Jungle Book. Copyright Tara Books Pvt Ltd, Chennai, India (www.tarabooks.com).
Asmaani Kumar is currently an MA student in Sociology. Her interests lie in the way people tell stories, in memory, in nostalgia. She hopes to work in the field of oral history in the future, paying attention to the voices that get sidelined in the making of grander narratives. She hopes to write more too.