An Indian Tribal Artist Hits the Mainstream at Sotheby’s Auction

Jangarh Singh Shyam, Untitled (Tree and Panther) (all images courtesy of Hervé Perdriolle)

PUNE, INDIA — On September 15, 2011, Sotheby’s New York auction of South Asian art will present a significantly important piece of work by prolific Indian tribal artist Jangarh Singh Shyam (1960-2001) alongside well-recognized and frequently auctioned artists from the Indian modern art scene. It is a seven feet by six feet acrylic work painted on paper, mounted on canvas. Although this is not the first time that Jangarh’s work has made its way to the important art auction, it is not a frequent occurrence either.


This brings to mind the dramatic journey that Jangarh undertook as an artist to reach a position in the international art scene. Although every artist has to start somewhere, for an artist of tribal ancestry it is probably much more challenging. From his tribal village, Jangarh moved to the city of Bhopal (capital of the central Indian state Madhya Pradesh) at a young age. Traditionally used to painting on vertical mud walls, Jangarh now adapted flat paper as a surface, and began using the much more flexible and bright acrylic paints instead of the traditional clay-based herbal colors. His motifs remained original but they were now rearranged with the addition of some new elements. He evolved very rapidly as a deeply emotional artist who was highly successful in balancing between his roots and newly adapted perspectives. But sadly all this must have taken its toll, for he ended his life and his remarkable artistic journey in 2001. He committed suicide in Japan, during a lonely stay there to complete a commissioned work.

Jangarh is lost forever, but he has left his positive mark on the emergence of tribal art in mainstream contemporary art in India. He also created a significant positioning for Indian tribal art in the global art market.

Contemporary art in India today is as complex a scenario as it is worldwide. Inspirations and ideas come from various origins and amalgamate into new forms. Taking inspirations and metaphoric references from aboriginal Indian art is not a new thing, and traces of tribal imagery and sometimes subject matter can be seen in works of several renowned artists of urban background. But very few artist have emerged from the actual tribal belts and established themselves in the mainstream.

Jangarh Singh Shyam, “Untitled,” acrylic on paper (1990) (click to enlarge)

There can be several reasons for this, but one reason that I can strongly sense is that, at least in India, people still perceive tribal art primarily as a “craft.” This perception eliminates all the possibilities of indulging in an emotional involvement with the work. This also causes a replication of tribal art as mere elements of decoration without the context, particularly in urban public places. Painting has been in use traditionally for adornment and ritualistic purposes by tribes, but their symbolism carries unbelievably complex philosophies, and this is often ignored when you restrictively perceive it as just a craft.

It appears that the global art market has so far also not recognized Indian tribal art with the same regard that it holds for tribal art from Africa or Oceania, according to Hervé Perdriolle, curator and art collector from Paris. Pedriolle, who is an expert in the subject and specializes in the collection of tribal art from India, points out that Jangarh’s work for the September 15 auction is estimated to fetch between $20,000-30,000, which is several times lower than that of legendary Australian tribal artist Clifford Possum’s auction record of $2.4 million. He thinks that Indian tribal artists have been underestimated by the market so far, though they have a potential for performing as good as the legendary artists from other regions.

To come back to Jangarh’s work, it is absolutely fascinating. It takes you on a fantastic ride, swiftly pulling you into its own world. Sharp edges, strong hues of primary colors and definite drawing are the distinctive elements in the style of the Gond tribe that is scattered into small pockets of central India. Now most of these parts are transformed from complete wilderness to a rural setup. This transition is not easy and sometimes happens unwillingly. On one side there are things like improved healthcare, better nutrition and financial opportunities, while on the other hand sometimes insensitivity towards culture and traditions creeps in. Tribal artists and their art will also undergo various phases and changes; it will be interesting to observe it as an outsider, which is actually what we all are.

Jangarh Singh Shyam, “Landscape with spider (Paysage avec araigné)” (1988)

By: Debu Barve

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tagged as: Jangarh Singh Shyam. India. South Asian art. tribal art as craft and contemporary.

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