Gond Painting: A Visual Narrative of Voiced Traditions
Reverberating with stories, beliefs, and emotions of a live tradition, Gond painting is a saga of colorful, rhythmic songs on the surface. Creating a rich visual narrative in the form of wonderful lines, dots, and dashes, the painting connects the past and the present, the people and nature, the spiritual and the physical world.
One of the distinguished forms of folk and tribal art, Gond painting is primarily practiced by the Pardhan Gond, a clan of the large Gond tribe of Dravidian origin. They were the illustrious storytellers of the Gond tribal community. Gond art, in an almost literal sense, is the translation of these songs into images of good fortune.
With a population of 4.4 million, Gond is the second largest tribal community in Central India, whose origin can be traced back to the pre-Aryan era. Though predominantly centered in Madhya Pradesh, they are present in significant numbers in the states of Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Odisha.
The word Gond comes from the Dravidian expression ‘Kond’ meaning “the green mountain” a reference to the Vindhya and Satpura mountain ranges where most of the Gond people reside since the 14th century. They were traditionally described as Raj Gond, though in their language they call themselves ‘Koi’ or ‘Koitur’, a word common to most Gondi dialects. Their language is related to Telugu and other Dravidian languages but some of them speak Indo-Aryan languages including Hindi.
Gondi people ancestrally followed the non-canonical art forms handed over to generations through ritual and oral stories. Many of the Gond customs echo that of their Mesolithic forbearers. The custom of decorating walls of their houses is an activity that may originate in cave-dwelling traditions of their ancestors.
With the inherent belief of Viewing a good image begets good luck, the Gond decorate the walls and floors of their houses with traditional motifs. According to the Gond belief system, each and everything whether it is a hill, river, rock or a tree is inhibited by a spirit and, consequently, is sacred. So Gond people paint them as a form of respect and reverence. Digna and Bhittichitra are painted on the grounds and earthworks of the houses. Besides depicting the local flora and fauna and Goddess such as Marahi Devi and Phulvari Devi (Goddess Kali), Gonds also paint the objects of daily life with vibrant and bright colors.
Traditionally made on festive occasions such as Karwa Chauth, Diwali, Ashtami and Nag Panchami, the Gond painting depicts various celebrations, rituals and man’s relationship with nature. The predominant theme is veneration of nature and the symbiotic relationship between birds, snakes, and peacocks, beasts and trees.
Gond art is linear in style with a wide variety of lines and small dots, dashes and fish scales. The outline is drawn with utmost care then the filling is added by thin and tiny strokes and dots. The artists use natural colors derived from charcoal, colored soil, plant sap, leaves, and cow dung. More specifically, yellow from Chhui mitti, brown from Gheru mitti and red is obtained from Hibiscus flower. The imaginative use of the line imparts a sense of movement to the still images. The paintings are an offering in worship of nature and are also a mode of seeking protection and warding off evil.
The first Gond artist to gain national recognition was Jangarh Singh Shyam and the present genre of Gond painting is called ‘Jangarh Kalam’ after his pioneering style. He was the first artist to paint on paper and canvas. After his first exhibition in Bharat Bhavan in 1981, Jangarh’s meteoric rise to fame was marked by his acclaimed exhibitions in Paris and Tokyo but ended on a tragic note with his suicide in 2001.
Today, many talented artists’ works including Suresh Kumar Dhurve can be seen on the canvases in art galleries internationally. The work of Gond artists is rooted in their folk tales and culture, and thus story-telling is a strong element of every painting. However, today every artist has a personal style and has developed a specific language within these narratives creating a richness of aesthetic forms and styles.
Rekindling the art forms with their contemporary understanding, the Gond artists are experimenting with new mediums, thoughts while keeping the style intact. The new concepts and subjects are imbued with the traditional, spiritual and cultural heritage of the artist.
In 2006, Gond art and storytelling entered the medium of animation in ‘The Tallest Story Competition’, a collection of animated tribal folktales from Central India. The Gond film ‘Best of the Best’ was the most popular film in the series and the artist Venkat Raman Singh Shyam was invited to visit Scotland to receive a trophy for the film. Since then several Gond artists have traveled abroad for exhibitions and Pardhan Gond paintings have gained popularity in the mainstream art market.
Today, Gond art products such as Gond painting on wood, painted wooden trays and boxes have become extremely popular globally. The Indian government is making efforts to preserve the Gond painting. A ‘Must Art Gallery’, the world’s first art gallery dedicated to Gond art, is created in New Delhi by art connoisseurs. Unlike so many treasures of Indian culture that have slipped through the cracks of time and were lost forever, the future of Gond art looks vibrant and colorful as the paintings.