Art is a way of life for the Gond tribe. They do not draw and paint only on festive occasions. This Art is etched onto their bodies as tattoos and flows in the ornamentation of daily use articles such as baskets and pottery. Their unique handiwork is seen on the walls and floors of their dwellings. The paintings depict the nature around them in an expression unique to the Gonds. They consist of animals, birds and human figures in the midst of activities such as hunting and dancing.
The art of the Gonds thrives in the musical instruments they make and the carved doors and panels of their homes. They sculpt memorials out of wood and stone for their dead.
Gond artwork regularly features in art emporiums, museums and exhibitions and is often used for its decorative value in homes and offices in homes and offices.
The tribal paintings provide a penetrating insight into cultural ethnography of remote tribal life. They depict their traditions, activities and surroundings in vivid detail. Their gods of worship are depicted in their paintings and are always intertwined with nature, exhibiting their strong intimacy with their environment. The Gonds have a thriving tradition of oral narratives which is the cornerstone of their paintings. Pardhans are the story keepers of the Gonds. Their strong tradition of oral narrative seemingly transfers to their paintings as well. Their pantheon is intimately connected to nature. Many artists depict their folk tales in the paintings while others paint their impressions of urban culture.
A fascinating aspect of Gond paintings is that the style branches out into many more individual styles. Each artist can be recognized by their characteristic style in a Gond painting even though they all come under the same principles of the same art.
Myths & Legends
There are many folk tales and myths pertaining to the origin and rituals of the Gond tribe. Their artwork is peppered with these engaging stories.
The tribe is very fond of the intoxicating drink 'Mahua' (Madhucalongifolia), made from the plant of the same name. Both adults and children consume 'Mahua' during celebrations and festivals.
A Gond folk tale about 'Mahua' goes as follows :
There was once a king who organized an elaborate feast for his subjects. After the feast, the subjects were full to the brim and laziness took over. At the same time, God walked towards them. He saw them and asked, "Why are all of you so lethargic?- The people replied, "We have no energy in us, no fire, no passion- Hearing this, God himself instructed the people how to retrieve liquor from the 'Mahua' tree. From then the world knew fun, frolic, mischief and dance.
The Gond tribes are primarily forest dwellers. Their lives revolve around trees. They believe that trees work hard during the day, providing shelter and nourishment. At night, after the dayâ's work is done, the birds are asleep and the daytime visitors have gone away, the spirits of the trees step out.
According to folklore, The Almighty had a huge boil. This boil inflamed, became ripe, burst and drained out. The drained fluid gave birth to Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. From Lord Shiva's urine falling on Earth, plants began to grow. Goddess Parvati became pregnant on consumption of these plants. From her womb came the eighteen plantations of the gods of the Brahmins and the twelve plantations of the gods of the Gond tribe.
According to a myth, from a white gourd came out two men, cutting the flesh of the gourd. The first became a member of the Baiga tribe and the other became a member of the Gond tribe. The Baiga went to cut the jungles with an axe and the Gond proceeded to plough the fields. These stories points towards the agricultural basis of Gond existence.
The oldest wall paintings (20,000 to 5,00,000 years old) in India can be found in the caves of Bhimbetka (1), depicting animals, symbols and scenes of daily life in natural pigments of white, red and black. The principles are very similar to the paintings of the Gond Tribe.
The Gonds are one of the largest Adivasi (tribal) communities in India. They are of Dravidan origin and can be traced to pre-Aryan era. The name is derived from 'Kond' which means 'green mountains' in the Dravidian dialect.
The majority of Gonds today are found in the state of Madhya Pradesh. They stand out because of their unique tribal culture, vast expanse of habitat and their historical importance.
Verrier Elwin (2) is a central figure in their history. He was an Oxford graduate who came to India in 1927 as a Christian missionary. During his stay, he was greatly influenced by the workings Hindu philosophy and the writings of Tagore. The British government was irked by his camaraderie with the Indian freedom fighters. Elwin (2) exchanged ideas with Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhai Patel and traveled with the latter across India. He felt deeply for the sufferings of the people. He then met a very capable volunteer called Shamrao Hivale and studied with him the Gond tribe of Central India.
However, the church objected to Elwin's reforms and his generosity to the tribals. He quit his missionary post and went on to live amongst the tribals to understand them better. His reforms included eliminating superstitions and ignorance, teaching them agriculture and opening up a pharmacy.
The British government soon started to harass Elwin due to his alleged 'anti-establishment' activities with the tribals for making them self sufficient. He converted to Hinduism and married a Gond girl called 'Kosi' and bore a child named Jawahar Singh (4). In accordance to the tribal tradition, he also married another woman called 'Leela', the daughter of the Pradhan (village head) of Pathangad. He strongly felt that the family and social habits of the tribals were far superior to those of the 'civilized' societies, as there were no sexual inequalities and the responsibilities were distributed naturally.
Elwin had dedicated his life to the tribals. Because of his efforts, they were brought to the government's notice and attained citizenship in free India. After India's independence in 1947, the government of India appointed him as a consultant in reform. He went on to serve as the chief of the Anthropological Survey of India and documented numerous tribes all over the country.
Subsequently, the village of Patangarh in Dindori district witnessed a beautiful interdependence of Pardhans and Gonds. As mentioned earlier, the Pardhans were priests and storytellers responsible for carrying on the traditions and history of the Gonds through songs and rituals. Over the years, these songs and stories started becoming extinct. The first Gond artist to be discovered was Jangarh Singh Shyam (4). His paintings on the walls of houses were spotted by renowned artist and writer Jagdish Swaminathan (3). He took Jangarh Shyam to Bhopal and opened up avenues for him to display his art. 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.
After Shyam broke the ice, several Gond artists, including many from his family, have now emerged from the village and made a name on the global front.
Gond paintings done on village mud walls use colors derived from charcoal, colored soil, plant sap, leaves and cow dung and can last up to 20 years. The peculiarity of these paintings is the simplicity of the ideas and their representation of the daily life of the Gonds.
The representation of nature seems almost psychedelic in this art form. The bounty and extravagance of nature is brought out in drawings and vivid colours. Animals and plants intertwine, delicately and intricately, with figures of Gods and deities. The common themes for their paintings are mythological stories depicted in epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata, nature in the form of forests, agricultural fields, domestic as well as wild animals and significant events in the life of the painter like marriage, festivals, death etc.
Time and modernity changed the Gond social order and the dwindling number of patrons of the Gonds and Pardhans made them look for sources of livelihood for the first time. Some have become laborers while some do odd jobs for farmers.
The environmental changes also affected the usage of natural colors such as charcoal, soil and various tree products. Chemical colors cannot always substitute a particular shade of a natural color.