I found Bhajju Shyam sitting quietly on a shelf of the Airbnb accommodation at my recent trip to Edinburgh. Of course not in person but in a book. If there is one thing I like about Airbnb, it is the unexpected discoveries I am going to make there, particularly of books.
Normally I wouldn’t have picked up this book in a bookstore. It was too thin for a coffee book, too simple as an art book and too scanty as a memoir. Yet it had something going for it that I read it in a single sitting, took photographs of it, researched the artist and writing a post about it a month later.
What was so special about it?
To start with, it’s the title, The London Jungle Book, based on Rudyard Kipling’s famous The Jungle Book it invites you to the adventures of a jungle boy in a different jungle. Then it’s the cover of the book, where a rooster is merged with Big Ben. The freshness of the story is the hook the alerts the reader to a new perspective on the things we take for granted. The beautiful narration by two polished writers (Gita Wolf and Sirish Rao) is also praiseworthy, which captures Bhajju’s voice perfectly, never overpowering it with their own. And finally Bhajju’s unique creativity and use of his traditional art form to express it. The book is a delight.
Bhajju Shyam is an artist from the Gond tribal village of Patangarh, in the forests of central India. “I never set out to be an artist,” he says in the book, “My mother painted the walls of our home, as is our tradition, and she would ask me to paint the parts she couldn’t reach.” The family sent their three children to school but were too poor to put them all through the full term. “One of us would have books, the other would have a uniform and the third would have a bag. If we were all one child, we would have made it through. But we were three and there wasn’t enough to go around.”
But Bhajju had something going for him. He had the opportunity to work for his uncle as an apprentice. His uncle happened to be Jangarh Singh Shyam, the most brilliant Gond artist of the time, and the one who brought Gond art from the wall of the village into the public eye. Bhajju started by filling in the fine patterns on Jangarh’s large canvases, but when his talent became apparent, Jangarh told him one day that the time had come to strike out on his own.
When Bhajju came to London his creativity got ignited through the cultural shock he experienced. Everything was different. He was feeling so many emotions at the same time. He expressed them in the only way he knew, his art.
“I have drawn my own face with 50-50 expression and all the thoughts tangled in the strands of my hair. I am thinking of everything I will leave behind, and I show these things using Gond symbols. The radio: the music I like to listen to when I work; the porcupine: our symbol to ward off danger; the cow: prosperity; the cart: contain all the necessities of life; the plough; the land that feeds us; the mango: my food; the rooster; the keeper of my time; the cot the palace of rest; the tree: the forest; the mouth (with the word language written in Hindi): my language; the other images are my children, my parents and my home.”
His naivety about the common things, things we take for granted, is a breath of fresh air. At one place he says,
“I had never been on a plane before, so I kept trying to get a glimpse of the machine that would carry me to London… The way it happened was like this. It was night and I couldn’t see anything outside. Inside there were only queues and lines of people. So it was queue up, get a stamp on a document, sit down on a row of seats, wait. Then queue up again, another stamp, another row of seats. After this had gone on for a while and we had sat down in one more row of seat in a sort of long waiting room, I asked the man sitting next to me, “When are they finally going to let us get on the plane?” He looked at me strangely and said, “My friend, we’re inside it!”
His fresh perspective about everything is enchanting: viewing England from air for the first time and seeing it like a green sari surrounded by sea creatures; perceiving Big Ben as the timekeeper of London and comparing it to rooster, the timekeeper in his village; thinking of Bus number 30 as a dog, a loyal friend; the London Underground a giant earthworm, and English people as bats that come out to play at night.
So impressed was I with Bhajju’s work and his story that I decided to visit the restaurant where he had done the work. His work has a beautiful mix of innocence and sophistication.
Bhajju’s work began to be known throughout India, and his first international exposure cam in 1998 when he was part of a group exhibition at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. Since then his work has been shown in the UK, Germany, Holland, and Russia. In 2001, he received a state award for Best Indigenous Artist.
If you get a chance do get one of his books. Also read Maria Popova’s post The London Jungle Book: What an Indian Tribal Artist Can Teach Us About Rediscovering Our Capacity for Everyday Wonder.