Nature Narratives: exploring the Gond tribal art form

I’m fortunate to have a dedicated group of kiddies in Bombay who are always enthusiastic and eager to join me for a workshop, every time the opportunity presents itself. This has meant that in the last 6 months, I have been able to consistently visit them with a new workshop module once every 6-ish weeks.

As a facilitator, this continuity has helped me see the growth not just in the work and the art we’ve produced together, but also their interests and keenness to explore new areas. It leads me on to make interesting connections and that in turn helps when I conceptualise and plan every progressive workshop.

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This is how I came to conduct a workshop on the Gond folk and tribal art form, that relies heavily on an illustrative style and language of dots and dashes. The style is heavy on storytelling and evolved as a way to narrate their history, culture and beliefs, and make sense of them. Through this workshop, I hoped to get the children to make and understand drawing through dots and dashes, depending on simple yet strong pictorial contexts. As I went into reading and designing this workshop, I realised how many stories we know, believe in and continue to tell are derived from nature. This was largely possible because of two lovely Tara Publications books in the most exquisite silk screen-printed art books with stories that introduce the tribe and this art form.

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I chose two of these books that tied the workshop together:

The Night life of Trees and Water Life both helped build an understanding of the illustrative language and motifs of the art form. Also it brought the idea of nature, forms of nature, seasons, elements and the environment to the centre of the workshop.

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Trees are central to the Gond tribal imagination: in addition to the stories that surround them, trees are important in a lived, everyday sense. There is a Gond belief that trees are busy during the day, giving shade and food to humans and animals. It is only during the night that their real spirit emerges. I used the books extensively, sharing these stories with the children. In keeping with the tribal form, we used natural pigment paint to render the drawings and worked on large scrolls. The primary activity involved each child making their own accordion-fold books based on their understanding of Waterlife and Trees as we know them today.

Each child went away having learned how to explore a drawing through dots and dashes, and how even the most complex of drawings and stories can be can be minimised and told through the simplicity of dots and dashes.

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