An excerpt from a discussion of the art of painting practised by Gonds in the city of Bhopal in central India, which makes a case for moving the discussion of tribal or adivasi art away from anti-globalization readings that see it and its predicament in the modern world as a form of tragedy.
This article is part of an occasional series on ‘The Political Aesthetics of Power and Protest,’ the subject of a one-day workshop held at the University of Warwick last September. Democracy, since it does not function through command or coercion, requires instead a constant renewal of sets of symbols - symbols which appeal to people and instil in them a sense of belonging and identification. Increasing disenchantment and disillusion with the state, with political institutions, their practices and performance, makes it more important to explore the place of this aestheticisation of political language, the aesthetics of protest as well as of power.
On July 3, 2001, a small newspaper column in India reported that thirty-nine year old Jangarh Singh Shyam had committed suicide in Japan. Jangarh was a tribal or adivasi artist (who belonged to the Pardhan clan of the Gond tribe from central India) working on a contract at the privately owned Mithila Museum in Nigata, Japan, where he had been brought to produce a body of work for a monthly salary of about Rs.12,000 (approximately £150 today).
Although not much is publicly known about the personal circumstances leading to his death - whether his suicide was the culmination of a nagging depression or loneliness in a foreign land, or an act of desperation, if not resistance, against the exploitative conditions of the globalised production of adivasi art - his death was both a catastrophe and an opening.
The demise of a brilliant young artist on the cusp of achieving global fame was tragic enough. But Jangarh was also a mentor and breadwinner for numerous family and extended clan members whom he had brought along to the city to encourage them to become artists in their own right. Indeed Jangarh’s rise to prominence - from the jungles of central India where he carried and sold wood to earn a living, to being “discovered” and brought to Bhopal (the capital of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh) by artist, art critic and patron Jagdish Swaminathan when he was just twenty one years of age, to becoming a celebrated “indigenous” painter whose work adorned state legislative buildings and who went on to gain global currency in the international art market—was already spectacular and the stuff of fairy tale. But what was most remarkable, although not unheard of within the dynamics of a globalized art market, was that his death finally made his art worth accumulating for upper middle class art consumers in India and for those collecting and trading in indigenous art globally.
Jangarh’s death then is in equal measure as fascinating a story as that of his art and of his life and career as an artist. It concerns, among other things, the globalisation of indigenous art production, the politics of the postcolonial state’s relationship to tribal or adivasi art, and the aesthetic challenges of interpreting adivasi art in today’s world. Like Jangarh’s death, responses to these issues are typically rendered in a tragic mode that mourns the evisceration of cultural authenticity against the onslaught of global capitalism. So for instance, the writer Wagish Shukla writes quite bitterly and angrily about the predicament of Gond art in globalisation: ‘the Pardhans have been forced by circumstances to sell their gods. Their oral traditions, their gods are represented in paintings that are now displayed in art galleries and drawing rooms’.
But in exploring the politics surrounding the fate of adivasi art in the modern world, I am concerned with the ways in which the art itself offers an allegory, however partial and incomplete, of the process by which it enters the world and is both transformed by it and transforms it. In other words, I depart from accounts that see adivasi or indigenous art as having been simply ravaged and desecrated by commercialization. Instead I look at how the art itself exposes that process of commodification and accumulation on a global scale, and offers resistance to it.
The figure of the adivasi in Indian history and culture can in fact be traced quite productively from the British colonial archive (where it is figured as “primitive”) through its circulation in postcolonial articulations of modernity (where it is figured as “backward”) to the adivasi’s current appearance as a conflicted figure of threat to national security (as Maoists) and of a transnational ethics (a heroic victim and warrior in the war against global capitalism and state repression, and a figure of anti-imperial solidarity).
Pushing the colonial archive into the postcolonial period requires one to examine how this figure circulates - in official and bureaucratic policy and discourse, in public culture, in cinema, art and literature, in academic fields and institutions - as a complex of sedimented images of primitivism and backwardness, insurgency and deprivation - against which “modern” citizens define themselves. These images also pose questions of sovereignty and global citizenship with reference to the rights of indigenous peoples within nation states and globally, in the form of transnational movements of indigenous peoples.
Adivasis thus embody a key paradox of Indian modernity. On the one hand the figure of the modern, national tribal provides an alternative vision to the degradations of colonial rule that systematically decimated tribal culture and material life (but not its spirit), and thus produced the tribal as a figure who needed to be protected and redeemed. On the other, the adivasi becomes the object of postcolonial development and the postcolonial state’s lure of modernity.
In recent decades adivasis have emerged as political protagonists in their own right, whether as actors in the Naxalite-led peasant uprisings against state repression and failure of the developmental idea, in labour and environmental movements against the exploitation of adivasi resources, in sectarian or communal politics as antagonists of a secular ideal or as victims of a majoritarian Hindutva, or in more mainstream political struggles for representation on the basis of tribal identity, such as for the states of Jharkhand and Chhatisgarh.
It is necessary then to frame Jangarh’s story, within a larger historical narrative. Adivasis constitute about 8% of India’s population. A significant proportion of them lives in the nation’s geographical and cultural peripheries; the rest live dispersed throughout parts of the Indian heartland. While there are competing definitions of who is an adivasi and what are the historical roots of adivasi groups, especially in relation to Hindu caste categories, it is no secret that they are among the nation’s most marginalized groups of people. About half of India’s 80 million adivasis live below the poverty line, lacking access to basic education, healthcare, employment and state support of any kind. Their impoverishment is only compounded by the fact that they live ‘amid India’s most verdant forests, alongside India’s freest-flowing rivers and atop India’s most valuable minerals’. In postcolonial India, these areas have predictably become key sites of economic exploitation in the name of development and capital accumulation. For this, tribals are routinely displaced in disproportionate numbers to make way for dams and mines that largely benefit urban middle classes, national elites and transnational corporations.
By critically assessing how what Marx called primitive accumulation is not consigned to the pre-history of capital but is in fact integral to the political economy of development in a postcolonial state such as India, particularly as it pertains to tribal lands, resources, labour, culture and life, we can begin to place the political meaning of the practice, circulation and accumulation of Gond art in the context of larger political and economic processes shaping the world today. The doubled sense in which indigenous art, like indigenous knowledge, lands and resources, is wrenched from its producers and forced into the capitalist process is very much central to the discussion.
Among others, David Harvey’s account of primitive accumulation as an ongoing “accumulation through dispossession” offers a necessary and key re-reading of primitive accumulation as an essential ingredient of the ongoing force of global capitalism. Now new enclosures proliferate and colonise all kinds of commons, from land and water to knowledge and art, as ever-new forms of economic crises of accumulation grip the world and threaten profit. Harvey’s argument that capitalism creates an ‘other’ that it can then violently subsume is particularly relevant for adivasi art, as it struggles to find a place within established art institutions such as the museum and the global art market while also standing out of place within them as other, either excluded and annulled, or colonised and commodified. Its accumulation as a certain kind of posture towards a distant past enables national and transnational profiteering in the cultural realm, even as its accumulation as “primitive” or exotic art (that is also a commodity) in the contemporary world opens up new spheres of trafficking in art in general.
But central to the question of how the tribal is incorporated as a cultural symbol is also that of how tribal art itself can be recognized as a site of negotiation and rebellion under neo-liberal capitalism. I interpret Gond painting as not only playing its part in continuous accumulation through dispossession, but in fact as providing allegories of this political-economic process, and critically registering the multiple temporalities of violence and dislocation integral to global capitalism. These art works are anchored in the material conditions that produce primitivism in the first place such that the primitive is first colonized, then annihilated, and then appropriated as a loss.
A present absence
The story of Jangarh and that of his art and his community is an archetypal story of dispossession. It is also a little known story. The Pardhan Gonds of central India were traditional singers, storytellers and community priests who had the privileged role of invoking the Gond deity Bara Dev for the well-being of the community. Through their story-telling performances they played the role of oral historians and keepers of the ‘collective memory’ of the tribe and were rewarded with the patronage of Gond households and rulers (whose rule lasted for about 1400 years). But as British rule entrenched itself in the Indian heartland, the power of the Gond rulers declined, and the Pardhan Gonds began to lose their economic lifeline and traditional support for their stories and songs. As the twentieth century rolled along, the Pardhan Gonds became landless farmers, wage labourers, casual workers in government-run drought relief schemes and part of the urban poor. Far from being a story of development, this is one of immiseration and dispossession.
Yet, a state project devoted to accumulating its cultural capital by harnessing adivasi culture propelled some of the Pardhan Gonds into the by-lanes of Bhopal. The city in fact has played a key role in nourishing the talents of several adivasi artists, including the Pardhan Gonds. Having been discovered as indigenous artists, their work has been exhibited in state legislative buildings, art galleries, ethnographic museums, and in the city’s unique arts complex, Bharat Bhavan, designed by the famous architect Charles Correa.
Although Bharat Bhavan advertises its art gallery Roopankar as ‘the only museum of its kind in India which houses contemporary folk and tribal art together with urban art’, a visit to the gallery reveals that there too the separation is maintained in the form of two distinctive sections - one for modern Indian art understood to be “urban” and one devoted to folk and tribal art thought to have roots in the village. Even so, Bharat Bhavan is unusual in having opened its doors to adivasi and folk art to be viewed seriously in a gallery format. In an interview with the journalist Mark Tully, its then director, the artist Swaminathan laments the lack of pride Indian intellectuals have in the nation’s tribal heritage and speaks out against a Leftist perspective towards adivasi art that sees the art as backward and as emanating out of superstition. In a disarming way, Swaminathan says:
The stupid fools don’t know what effect Picasso’s discovery of tribal art had on Europe. Where would we be now, artists like me, without that?... You know, we (Bharat Bhavan) were the first people to collect the work of tribals as art, not as folkcraft. When we sent an exhibition to Japan, I was criticised for not explaining where the tribals came from and who they were. I said we are running an art exhibition, not an exercise in ethnography or anthropology.
In his reading of Van Gogh’s painting of peasant shoes, Fredric Jameson is interested in what he calls the “raw materials” of Van Gogh’s painting—“the object world of agricultural misery, of stark rural poverty, and the whole rudimentary human world of backbreaking peasant toil, a world reduced to its most brutal and menaced, primitive and marginalized state.” The key question that Jameson asks is this:
how is it then that in Van Gogh such things as apple trees explode into a hallucinatory surface of color, while his village stereotypes are suddenly and garishly overlaid with hues of red and green? I will briefly suggest…that the willed and violent transformation of a drab peasant object world into the most glorious materialization of pure color in oil paint is to be seen as a Utopian gesture, an act of compensation which ends up producing a whole new Utopian realm of the senses…which it now reconstitutes for us as a semi-autonomous space in its own right, a part of some new division of labor in the body of capital, some new fragmentation of the emergent sensorium which replicates the specializations and divisions of capitalist life at the same time that it seeks in precisely such fragmentation a desperate Utopian compensation for them.
We see a similar materialisation of backbreaking labour or wageless life into colour in the art of the Gonds. The artist Gulammohammed Sheikh has noted that Jangarh always recalled “how awestruck he felt by the brilliance of these pigments—just touching them sent tremors through his hands”. Perhaps it is the work of the Gond artists themselves then, and their ability to transform a world of deprivation into a work of memory and possibilities, as seen in the paintings by Jangarh’s nephew, Venkat Raman Singh Shyam and leading woman Gond artist Durgabai, that offers both a critique of neo-liberal globalisation (in which the Indian state is embedded) and resistance to it. The art itself is what holds the strongest potential for resisting the forces of commodification and of primitive accumulation as an ongoing dispossession, by offering original and situated critiques of those processes.
The attempt to forge lives as artists in and of the peripheries is of course constantly tested and is extremely risky. The Gond artists now engage new and different media (including designing furniture, illustrating books, writing story boards for animation and documentary film) and participate in transnational commissions and collaborations, even as many are compelled to sell their images for reproduction on cheap coffee cups, greeting cards and “ethnic” cushion covers or do commission work for tourist resorts, five-star hotels and international banks. But as John H.Bowles pointedly reminds us:
for centuries the Pardhan Gonds sustained themselves as itinerant performers accepting payment from far-flung patrons, and so the commercial aspect of their recent visual expression through modern media can be seen as an innovative revival of - rather than a simple departure from - their community’s traditional pursuits.
But he adds a cautionary note: ‘While ‘strategic positioning’ and pandering for profit are (and always have been) lucrative temptations for all professional artists, obviously marginalized tribal artists - who have only recently risen from extreme poverty - are particularly vulnerable’. Thus even as we might intellectually apprehend the impossibility of the purity of art, tradition, identity, the imbrication of adivasi art in the circuits of global capital merits an account that renders the framework of the politics of representation (that privileges questions of identity and authenticity) as no longer adequate to this art. For it is within these circuits of primitive accumulation as ongoing dispossession that Jangarh succeeded in carving out an aesthetic space for himself and the artists who have followed him, a space that is at once both one of maneuver and critique.
In the two decades of economic boom in India since the early 1990s, art has entered the portfolios of financial investment. As a result, it is now possible for more artists than before to make a living and indeed to even become celebrities and part of the elite social set if they are from privileged backgrounds and are able to secure the right agents and access to the galleries. Adivasi artists still struggle to enter these financial calculations and social registers, marginalized as they are by their late entry into the commercial art scene. Yet their “primitive” roots open them up to niche investments, as exemplified by the new crop of “craft entrepreneurs” in the metropolitan centres. The promotion of adivasi art is now wrested from the state and social sector into private capital.
Gond art offers a particularly enabling site to understand the processes of global capitalism that it is enmeshed in, for it is, all at the same time, quintessentially modern, unmistakably a commodity form, and a critique of the very processes that create a desire and logical necessity for primitive accumulation in the double sense. Primitive accumulation is here both a theoretical framework for the process by which this art enters the world, and a metaphor for understanding how adivasi art is commodified and accumulated and how it still transforms its world and ours. It heralds a common destiny that is also an open future. As adivasi commons (land, forests, water, knowledge and art) are systematically appropriated by global capital, it is important to keep in view Sandro Mezzadra’s pointer that,
The common is something to produce, something that is built by a collective subject that is capable, in the process of its own constitution, of destroying the basis of exploitation and reinventing the common conditions of a production structured on the synthesis of freedom and equality.
With this view, any return to a pure indigenous art or identity as articulated within the framework of the politics of representation is not only practically impossible, but is politically dubious as well. Thus it is that the tragic dimension of Gond and other traditions of adivasi art, as they are forced into the history and logic of primitive accumulation, is also the source of its ability to critique and refuse those processes and to offer art as affirmation of alternative possible futures.