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Interview: Bhajju Shyam

How was your journey of becoming an artist?

I have four siblings – One sister and three brothers. Due to financial problems we did not have enough money to buy books, school uniform or for paying our school fees and left school after completion of class 10th. I went to Bhopal in 1995 in search of work to earn a living for myself, although I was unable to find a satisfying job, so I started helping my uncle, Jangarh Singh Shyam with his paintings. I worked with my uncle and helped him for many years. When he went out of station for various exhibitions and workshops, he used to assign all the children of the family to make a painting at night. He used to give us small pieces of paper and told us to make designs with our own imagination. Initially, due to lack of imagination, we were not able to create our own design, so we would try and duplicate the designs from his paintings. After about 2 years he sold my artworks for Rs. 600 in Delhi. Initially, I earned Rs. 30 - 40 a day by doing labor work, so earning Rs. 600 by selling just a painting was very surprising for me. This is where I got greed of earning money through painting and started to focus on stories, my uncle's works and gained interest in painting.

Doesn’t it surprise you that one person of a tribe starts a form of art and then the entire village follows it?

Gond Art - Originally painted as symbols of good fortune on the walls of the Gond dwellings, this art form has now found a uniquely contemporary expression in acrylic hues on paper and canvas. It really surprises me how my uncle, Jangarh Singh Shyam transformed the art-form from walls to paper and canvas and how it has now become a way of earning a living in our village. In my view, Gond art is not just a way to earn a living but also a way to save our tradition, as due to increasing popularity of this art form, people also get to know about our culture and lifestyle. Gond Art is helping the people of our tribe not only to make ends meet but also helps in preserving our tradition by making people aware about it and most importantly reconnecting the newer generation of our tribe, who are losing interest in their own tradition to our history and culture.

What was the influence of your first visit to London on your life and your artworks?

It was the very first time I was travelling to a place that is so far from my village. I was very nervous by this fact and was unable to sleep at night. My family members were scared of me travelling to a different continent and an unfamiliar environment as my uncle passed away in an incident In Japan. It was difficult for me to get out of my comfort zone and travel abroad, away from my hometown but it was all worth it at the end as I learned a lot through the travel. It was not just the way of painting but also the tradition and thinking of people was very different in London. My experiences in London have been depicted in my book, The London Jungle Book that was published in 2004.

What would you like to say about your uncle, Jangarh Singh Shyam?

For me, my uncle was a form of a god. He came to this world, gave the people of our tribe the most precious gift of Gond Art and left us too soon. As they say, good things don't last forever but they leave an imprint on the lives of people, similarly, Jangarh Singh Shyam touched many lives with his form of art.

Initially your paintings were sold for Rs.600. What is the value of your paintings now?

I earn a total of 10 Lakhs rupees per annum by selling my art works. My canvas painting of largest size costs approximately 3 to 4 lakhs and art works on paper costs Rs. 30,000.

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