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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The man who crossed the river every day

Certain experiences manifest as blessings and one such experience last year was my trip to Varanasi. It was my first time visiting the Ganges, and as I walked by the side of the river for the first time, everything seemed still, yet charming and timeless. The morning was foggy and cold, the winter light came through the clouds greeting the river and the massive flocks of migratory birds flying really low around, all the boatmen played before my eyes like a scene from a film.

As I walked from one ghat to the next, taking in all that I possibly could, I was drawn to an old man sitting by this boat, and instantly knew he had a story to tell me. Banwari Lal, looked at me and asked if I would like to go across the river and offered to take me in his neatly painted green and yellow boat.

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Dressed in a blue and white checked lungi and a brown jacket/coat Banwari Lal gently maneuvered this boat and brought it to shore. Asking me to step in slowly while it rocked and lapped in the river. He was such a gentleman and as he pulled the oars of his boat he told me about his relationship with his boats that have stayed on the banks of the Ganga at Prabhu Ghat for the last 32 years. He and his boats have crossed the river, floated back and forth from one bank to the other, witnessing the transforming life of people and moments that pass through the ghats, year after year.

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He told me how every season he witnesses new changes, makes a few friends some of them re-visit while some don’t, but he and his boats remain a constant. He told me how he is driven by the art of rowing and that is what has kept him going. He continues to manually row his boat, despite the fact that many boats are now motorized. Banwari Lal chooses to continue to row through his journey with grace.

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Varanasi – December, 2014.

In you and me.

This installation is about the ephemeral nature of life, and the oneness of human life and water in this cycle.

Retracing, revisiting,re thinking to Recreate.

To be able to  get to the beginning of the end. Its been a half a year  since i graduated from art school and its been a time of  restlessness, being blank, questioning and a lot more. This was an installation I worked on in my graduating year, as part of my final year project.  This piece was inspired by its process of transformation.

In this work a spinal cord lies in a bath tub of water, dissolving soon after immersion,and leaving no traces of its presence, It represents human life’s transient nature, and the tie that binds life from birth to death.  This installation is about the ephemeral nature of life, and the oneness of human life and water in this cycle.