The French artist Edgar Degas once wrote, in a letter: ‘I want to be famous, but unknown’. Degas spent the last years of his life blind, roaming the streets of Paris having lost the friendship of pretty much everyone he knew. By the end he was convinced that an artist was best left to himself. That privilege, however, never befell Janghar Singh Shyam. In 2001, Shyam committed suicide, possibly as a result of being lonely and overworked while completing a residency at a gallery in Japan.
In a way, Shyam couldn’t wait for the day he could finally roam the streets, blind or not. He died away from them, succumbing to a world he knew not the insides of. A new biography, and an exhibition on Shyam — curated by critic Jyotindra Jain at the Kiran Nadar Museum in Delhi — offers a fresh perspective on the Gond artist whose craft demands just as much of a personal examination, as an objective one.
(Above: Chachan and the Snake. Using the technique of creating auratic forms by zigzag edges most effectively, the artist has lent force to the theme of a bird attacking a snake. Jangarh Singh Shyam, 1997. Courtesy: Museum of Art & Photography [MAP], Bengaluru)
Shyam, born to a Pardhan household in 1962, was discovered by modernist Jagdish Swaminathan and given his first opportunities to work at Bhopal’s Bharat Bhavan. “As an exceptionally brilliant artist Jangarh managed to cross the barrier of anonymity purely on the basis of his talent and the merit of the prolific body of his work,” Jain, who was also a close friend of Shyam, says. “His rootedness in the myths and legends of his community, coupled with the modern art world of Bharat Bhavan where his muse was moulded, (led to) his art 'blossoming' and to that extent his ‘ethnicity’ played a major role in shaping his work,” he adds.
(Above: Portrait of a Barasingha. Jangarh Singh Shyam, mid-1980s. Courtesy: Museum of Art & Photography [MAP], Bengaluru)
But this rootedness or the label of identity can also become an impediment. In the biography, Jain recalls an incident when the artist was asked to shed his jeans for a loincloth to look wholesomely ‘tribal’. “There were occasions when his ‘ethnicity’ was used by insensitive market forces as a stamp for endorsing the authenticity of his work,” Jain says.
(Above: An elephant-headed crab; a character from the Pardhan myth of creation. Jangarh Singh Shyam, 1992. Courtesy: Museum of Art & Photography [MAP], Bengaluru)
The exhibition features a large part of Shyam’s works, right from his paintings to his immaculately detailed experiments with ink, and his years spent printmaking. But what catches the eye, is the attention paid to his life — and most crucially, to the incident that ended it. There are letters from Shyam to his family sent during his residency in Japan, letters that evoke an exceptionally painful phase of his life that he eventually caved in to.
(Above: Chachan and the Snake; a gigantic eagle swooping down on a snake. Jangarh Singh Shyam, 1997. Courtesy: Museum of Art & Photography [MAP], Bengaluru)
There are newspaper clips, photographs and other objects that clearly want this to be an intimate experience. “Showcasing Shyam’s letters in the exhibition or publishing them in the book, is not for any better appreciation of his work but for understanding the ways in which the art world and the art market function. The ways of the art world being complex, Jangarh got trapped in crossing them,” Jain says.
(Above: Foreplay of Lizards. Jangarh Singh Shyam, 1993. Courtesy: Museum of Art & Photography [MAP], Bengaluru)
In its entirety, Shyam’s work is so breathtakingly organic and grounded in a language of its own, that it isn’t hard to understand why the markets wanted to lap him up. As he chased deadlines that he couldn’t meet, and etiquette that he had neither learned nor perhaps aspired to, Shyam chose to discontinue living a life he could not have known he had signed up for.
(Above: The Story of the Tiger and the Boar. Jangarh Singh Shyam, 1994. Courtesy: Museum of Art & Photography [MAP], Bengaluru)
“The exhibition explores the development of what has been called by critics the 'Jangarh qalam’, a unique visual language, also bringing to the public his competent skills as a printmaker, a muralist and his monochromatic drawings that are a class apart. Viewers to the exhibition have been amazed by the oeuvre of Jangarh Singh Shyam and his evolved imagination and mastery of skills as witnessed through the chosen works,” co-curator Roobina Karode says.
(Above: An anecdote from the Gond epic — the annihilation of sanbarah, the boar. Jangarh Singh Shyam, 1992. Courtesy: Museum of Art & Photography [MAP], Bengaluru)
At the time of Shyam's death, most critics and writers decried the state of folk and tribal artists in the country, and how they were probably being exploited by projects abroad, in far-off places. In such a case then, how does one separate the art from the tragedy of life, or should one? “If the artist’s life and work are seen as deeply interconnected, there would be a critical risk of melodramatic interpretations of the work. The artist’s life and work are deeply united to the extent the subjectivities and the power of imagination that are reflected in the work are related to the artist’s inner life and responses to the world around,” Jain says.
(Above: An episode from the Pardhan myth of creation — the crow brings earth from the underworld, for creation to take place. Jangarh Singh Shyam, 1997. Courtesy: Museum of Art & Photography [MAP], Bengaluru)
As for Shyam and his work, his stature has never dwindled and it weighs equally on the measure of his craft as much as the life he never had. “The work speaks for itself, perhaps in many ways to the viewers, and does not need to be backed by the knowledge of facts of the artist’s life. More important is how an artist such as Jangarh who comes from a well-anchored cultural tradition encounters the new and adapts it in his work,” Jain says.
In 'visiting' an old friend and looking back at his life with renewed purpose, Jain’s experience working on the biography and curating the exhibition has been a personal journey in more ways than one. “As an artist he had a unique sense of innovation, both in terms of ideas and pictorial imagery as well as experimentation with the materials and techniques. His engagement with printmaking amply substantiates the latter,” Jain says, adding: “As a friend I remember Jangarh as a very emotional person with great integrity.”
Jangarh Singh Shyam: A Conjurer’s Archive is on display at the Kiran Nadar Museum, Saket, Delhi and is published by Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), Bengaluru