Signature Patterns in Gond Art

The Gonds, one of India's largest adivasi communities, with a population of nearly 8 million, predominantly hail from Madhya Pradesh but also inhabit the pockets of northern Andhra Pradesh, eastern Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and western Orissa. Their rich history, dating back to nearly 1400 years, recounts the traditions of Gond paintings adorning cave walls. The Gond tribe, who believe that "seeing a good image begets good luck", traditionally decorated their homes, walls, and floors with traditional tattoos and motifs inspired by nature, myths, legends, and daily life. These imaginative and mystical paintings still reflect the artistic legacy of their cave-dwelling Mesolithic forebearers.

Gond Art takes various forms, including Digna, traditional geometric patterns on walls and floors, and Bhittichitra, wall paintings depicting animals, plants, and trees. These art forms thrived during festivals, rituals, and ceremonies. They are made with bright organic pigments sourced from local materials like sand, charcoal, soil, flowers, and cow dung. However, with the transition of Gond paintings onto paper and canvases, acrylics and poster colors have gradually replaced the traditional pigments.

Generally, mapping the lineage and evolution of an art form in folk and traditional art is a rugged terrain due to limited archival resources and the inherent impermanence of materials and methods of the creative process. However, the development of Pardhan canvas paintings sheds light on the transition from wall murals to canvas artworks. Historically, Pardhan Gonds served as bards, musicians, and storytellers, preserving the oral knowledge system of the Gond culture through tales of spirits, gods, legends, and myths. Today, they are renowned for their proficiency in both painting and music.

It all began in the 1980s when the remarkable artwork of Jangarh Singh Shyam, a Pardhan Gond artist from Patangarh village in Madhya Pradesh, caught the attention of Jagdish Swaminathan, the director of Bharat Bhavan Museum in Bhopal. Swaminathan aimed to exhibit urban and tribal art together, thus initiating a transformative phase in Indian art. Shyam, with his artistic genius deeply rooted in traditional music and storytelling, reimagined Gond art by incorporating modern materials and techniques. His remarkable paintings garnered critical acclaim nationally and internationally, giving rise to a new school of Gond paintings known as 'Jangarh Kalam'. Thus, a new visual vocabulary created by hundreds of artists of the Pardhan community made a paradigm shift in the culture. As a historically marginalized community, these artists strived to carve a new space in the creative narratives of the country. 

But as commercialization took hold, artists in the Gond community found themselves increasingly commissioned to create contemporary Gond motifs on a range of  handmade products like sarees, kurtis, handbags, boxes, coasters, and more. Unfortunately, this shift in demand led to a decline in the traditional wall and floor paintings and rise in canvas Gond paintings and home decoration products. Nevertheless, amidst these changes, each Gond artist has retained their inherent allusiveness and originality through signature patterns. These patterns are the artist's identity, and the art form's distinguishing quality.

A pattern is a repetitive design used to fill an image. Since each Gond artist has a distinctive pattern and style to serve as motifs, they become their signature patterns. As best explained by Gond painter Narendra Prasad Khetan:

"Even if we are making the same figure, still every artist has their own sign or symbol that they use in their painting, which differentiates their painting. For example, I use the "line" symbol. It is basically long strokes like long winding roads, which is exclusively used by me. Similarly, some use a "dot", some use a "plus" sign, and others use alphabets like P, C, or N. In this way, no painting of two artists looks similar, even if they have the same themes." 

Hence, Gond artists have developed a multitude of patterns to work seamlessly with diverse contemporary mediums and materials. Different geometric shapes and designs like fish scales, water droplets, and seeds evoke emotions and imaginations, nurturing the expressive value of art. 

Traditionally, Gond art used dots in their work to calculate the volume of the images. Dots and dashes, unique to this art style, hails from a mythological tale about Naga Baigin. Naga Baigin, a Gond deity, clad her entire body in intricate tattoo-like patterns of dots, dashes, and other delicate intricacies to hide her nakedness. In the art form, artists use the dots to connect the outer shape, which would then be coloured. The style is also imbued with lines and curves, whether on borders or interior intricacies. This adds movement to the subjects, best described by critics as 'on-line' work.

The motifs of Gond art go beyond traditional themes. Even when artists decide to portray modern subjects like an airport, they incorporate the distinct patterns and styles that define Gond art. By using intricate layers of macro and micro motifs such as leaves, skins, tree textures, and crescent moons, they create a visual language for the subject. In Gond iconography, it is not uncommon to see inorganic objects like airplanes adorned with flowers or seeds, as their artistic philosophy blends myth and reality, seamlessly merging organic and inorganic forms.

The images filled with teeming decorative patterns in Gond art are illustrated in "Signature: Patterns in Gond Art", a publication of Tara Books. There are several comments from the artists about their style and signatures. For example, Narendra Prasad Khetan says, "I've followed lines, the lines from the past to the present, tracing memory." Mohan Syam talks about his signature, an ear of corn drawn in rows and Durga Bai recalls her patterns of water droplets. Prasad Kusaram describes his signature as "young shoots of plants, the kind you see in a paddy field recently planted with rice."


Fig. 1 Prasad Kusaram’s Paddy Motifs (Courtesy: Signature: Patterns in Gond Art by Tara Books)


The patterns of the forebearer of the Pardhan Gond art movement, Jangarh Singh Shyam were dot-based designs. They exhibited a sophisticated control over the combination of magical and forest world themes, specifically in his common motifs like the Mahua trees, the Tree of Life, and his animist symbols depicted in cut-out style tigers, deer, turtles, and crocodiles. 


Additionally, inspired by the Pardhan Gond clan's musical affinity, Shyam's textured, dynamic paintings of deities like Bada Dev, Mashwasi Devi, and Medi ki Mata demonstrated luminous dots, dashes, and waves. The distorted equilibrium of Pardhan music notes employed in periphery lines adds movement, as depicted in his Pardhan myth of creation crow painting (fig. 2). Art historian John Fowles noted several other design techniques in Shyam’s work including fields of dense cross-hatching, packed comb lines, and rows teeming with ovals and bands of dots with little squiggles and irregular amoeba-like forms. Serving as the pioneer in Gond art, his art style eventually came to be called as the Jangarh Kalam.


Fig. 2 Pardhan Myth of Creation, Jangarh Singh Shyam, 1997 (Courtesy: MAP Bengaluru)


Today, Shyam's nephew and apprentice, Venkat Raman Singh Shyam, has emerged as an accomplished multidisciplinary and multimedia Gond artist from Sijhora, Madhya Pradesh. His artistic style seamlessly blends elements of Jangarh Kalam, bhittichitra and digna, reflecting his unique response to the challenges and influences of modernity. Venkat's artistic style consists of vibrant colors and wide diagonal stripes in black and white, creating a striking visual effect resembling rhythmic and choppy waves.


His artistic versatility is visible in his acclaimed acrylic paintings, animation work, and illustrative books created using traditional techniques. One remarkable painting of the Taj Hotel attacks in Mumbai tells the story of Shyam witnessing the travesty from his hotel's window in 2008. While his imminent works depict current events, his characteristic line work of traditional Gond art communicates movement and a sense of life and ethos belonging to the Gond community.


Fig. 3 Attack by Venkat Raman Singh Shyam (Courtesy: Google Arts and Culture)


In conclusion, as we take a step back and survey the evolving landscape of Gond art, it becomes evident that as the torch is passed to new generations of artists, they infuse their works with a captivating fusion of tradition and contemporary motifs. Yet, amidst this creative exploration, they have skillfully preserved their generational pattern techniques that breathes life into their subjects. Carrying the flame ignited by Jangarh Singh Shyam, the signature patterns of Pardhan Gond artists continue to carve out a significant place for this traditional art form within the vibrant tapestry of the mainstream art world.



Gond Art | Documentary (Short)

Bowles, John. Painted Songs and Stories. Intach, 2009, pp 23.



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