The world of tribal culture is almost alien to city-dwellers who have only tasted urban life. While this limited exposure should be inspiration to experience and see more, sometimes the travel and time that takes is a luxury we can’t afford. And in the that light, we appreciate glimpses, however small, that might give us a taste of the vast country we live in, but know so little about.
Three artists from Central India’s Gond tribe - Bhajju Shyam, Durga Bai, and Ram Singh Urveti - interpret the folk lore and beliefs of their tribe, and illustrate the same with beautiful and intricate designs. People from the Gond tribe, though predominantly centred in Madhya Pradesh, also dwell in Andhra Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Maharashtra and Odisha. The word ‘Gond’ comes from the Dravidian expression kond meaning ‘the green mountain’, which quite perfectly depicts the close relationship with nature they maintain. Visual representations are a large part of their culture, visible through vibrant depictions paintied on the walls of their homes. Using vegetable and mineral dyes, charcoal, coloured soil and more, their Bhittichitra compositions involve local flora, fauna and Gods.
According to a tale of ancient mythology of this tribe, during the day, trees nourish and protect, and by night they come into a life of their own. The spirits of these trees, with whimsical tales and beliefs, are brought out through these delicate illustrations. Compiled by Tara Books, each design poetically describes a particular belief or aspect of Gond tradition related to each tree, and is accompanied by the myth, lore or belief that inspired it. As Bhajju Shyam’s imagination has been well attested through his beautiful visual narrative The London Jungle Book in the past, this series only further commends his attention to detail.
Screen printed by hand on hand-made black paper, the vivid colours and nuanced designs are an aesthetic window into the Gond tribe’s view of the natural world. Each book is an individually numbered limited edition since only a thousand were printed. You can buy a copy here, and scroll on for a peek into the visual narrative The Nightlife Of Trees, along with the tale that inspired them.
The Departing Visitors
The Creation of Trees
“When Shankar Bhagwan, the creator, made the first man, there was no tree, no leaf on earth. The man said, ‘Lord, what will I eat? How will I live?’ The creator pulled three hairs from his own body, and from them made three great trees. Then the man said, ‘But Lord, there are no fruit on these trees. Three will remain three, and the three must die one day.’ Then Shankar Bhagwan took the ash coating his matted hair and sprinkled the trees with it, and they began to flower and fruit. So in the days before we knew how to grow grain, it was trees that filled our stomachs with their fruit.”
The Silkworm’s Home
“There was a time when people used plain cloth and yarn. Then they discovered that the silkworm weaves wonderful thread, and took it from him to make clothes. Before he is found, the silkworm sits in the threads of his own making on the Bamur tree.”
The Tree of Intoxication
“Gonds make liquor from the flowers of the Mahua tree. If you take small amounts, and mix it with good herbs, it is a medicine for many ailments. If you drink a little more, it is pleasant. But if you drink too much, your very form can change, and depending on your character, you may become a mouse or a tiger, a pig or pigeon.”
Snakes and Earth
“The earth is held in the coils of the snake goddess. And the roots of trees coil around the earth too, holding it in place. If you want to depict the earth, you can show it in the form of a snake. It is the same thing.”