Charty Dugdale experiences how a Gond art workshop for children from various backgrounds can open minds and hearts
It’s cold for this time of year. Puddles lie on the ground from earlier rain and leaves fallen from the trees remain unswept. The fine wrought iron gates made by craftsmen in Bastar open into the Village Complex of the Crafts Museum in New Delhi—an area with replica habitations from different parts of the country. Under a banyan tree a red-haired child is arranging dhurries.
Propped against the tree trunks are several large Gond canvases. Their vivid colours blaze in the dank day. In one, a group of red and purple cows shelters under a tree filled with blue birds; in a second, a two-bodied animal with pointed teeth in a crimson mouth stares out of a crimson background; in a third, fish metamorphose into trees.
Naira, the workshop leader, shifts with ease between Hindi and English as she addresses the group of 15 children now gathered on the dhurries. She introduces herself and Gariba Singh Tekam, the Gond artist from Madhya Pradesh. Her welcome is to the point: “In this workshop we are going to learn about Gond people and their painting. You will all get to make your own painting, which will be displayed here at the museum. And, we are all going to get to know each other.”
This last sentence is significant. The children gathered for this Khel Mel Gond Workshop come from quite different places. One group is from a home in rural Faridabad for children from “at risk” situations—runaways, orphans, children of addicts or sex workers. Another is from a foundation-run school in south Delhi. These children live with their families, but they survive on modest means. The remaining children go to some of the most prestigious schools in the capital. These children pay to participate. The others do not.
They begin with a game. Everyone has to move around without bumping into each other in a small area. There are five speeds: one is slow motion, five is almost-running. When they come face to face with somebody, they need to greet each other and say his or her name. (All the children have labels, their names written in Hindi and in English.) The children dart or meander through the space and interact cheerily, without any awkwardness. “Yes, they noticed differences,” said Naira later, “but these were not a barrier.” It is a good start to the first of four two-and-a-half-hour workshops to be held over two weekends.
Next up is a closer look at some of the paintings in the impromptu outdoor gallery, using a thinking routine developed at Harvard University. “‘See, Think, Wonder’ gives children a concrete framework in which to explore and understand a painting,” explains Naira. “What do you see? What do you think about that? What does it make you wonder?”
Children see the red cows and blue birds. Looking closer with a magnifying glass, they note the repeated design, the three small lines that are Gariba’s signature pattern, inspired by the trishul of the gods. They wonder why there is no sky; why the leaves look like peacocks’ feathers and eyes; why the cows are coloured so brightly. They wonder how the artist’s imagination alighted on this idea. Gariba explains that in his village, Patangarh, he used to look after cows. Every day he would be outside with the cows and trees and birds. Now he paints them all brightly, as he loves colour.
Gariba plants himself cross-legged on the ground, his paints and brushes arranged beside him. In pencil he draws a frame around the paper, then rests it on his right knee—his easel. He starts to paint freehand in viridian green, first the trunk then the flowing, rhythmic branches of a tree. On a second sheet, he paints a deer in ochre—beginning from the top of the antlers, which curve and flow much like the branches, working down to the body. The children group around him, fascinated and respectful. His hand is assured and the paint flows elegantly from his brush. There’s an almost musical quality to it.
The children want to start their own pictures but after such a virtuoso display feel a little unsure of their skills. Naira tells that they can draw anything. But if they would like to, they can copy Gariba’s paintings. Many of them, especially the girls, want to copy his deer. Rahil wants to make a snake, and Gariba helps him with an outline. Once they have their outline, they can use paint or crayon or sketch pen. Anoushka wants a horse, but complains that the one Gariba helps her draw looks more like a camel, which it does. I realise that Gond art doesn’t feature horses.
All Gond artists have their own “signature” or way of patterning the surface of their paintings. The following day Naira and the children look at these patterns; signatures inspired by ropes, tattoos, ears of corn, creeping spiders, halved lemons and the poetic pattern created by a marriage procession as it weaves through the village.
On sheets of paper divided into four sections, the children then create their own patterns, which range from the simple and literal (diamonds, scales) to the more imaginative waves, raindrops, spiders’ webs, bird footprints, rainbows, the thorn of a rose and even bunnies.
It is time to watch the master again. Taking his painting of the deer and a very fine long-haired paintbrush, Gariba paints two thin black lines close together in several places on its antlers and body. Then in lilac, he makes his signature pattern on the torso. Again the children watch almost reverently as he works. “Wow Gariba!” enthuses one of the Hindi speakers, in English.
It is heartening to see the children are becoming friends. Rahil, from the paying group, is clearly enjoying the company of Anmol from Faridabad. Abdul, like his friend Anmol, sports a street-cool look—bright sneakers, hoodie and hair gelled into a small quiff—and is wearing four silver-coloured rings on his fingers which spell out B-O-S-S. Later, I notice that Milind, with his neat clothes and parted hair, is wearing the BOSS rings. I have no idea when they changed fingers.
Holi is almost here and during the week the weather has turned. The children arrive, happy to be back. Naira divides them into pairs (taking care to mix up the groups) and hands each team a treasure hunt sheet with 12 photographs from around the Crafts Museum—a terracotta warrior, a detail from a warli mural, a section from the Bastar gates and so on—that they have to find and check off on their sheets.
The children have seen many Gond paintings and heard many Gond stories by now. Before they decide on subjects for their final paintings, Naira reads out from Bhajju Shyam’s London Jungle Book to further emphasise the imaginative possibilities of this art: “We are not interested in reality—only in how things are imagined in the mind, and our paintings try to show what is in the mind’s eye.”
The freedom to paint anything, but in a Gond style, using the signatures they’ve developed, excites some children and flummoxes others. Inspired by the London Jungle Book, Jasjit and Rohit make their own versions of the Big Ben-rooster and the aeroplane-elephant. Only one child, Kaya, decides to make something new: a kind of cat-train. “The thing I really like about it,” she says, “is that it has feet instead of wheels”. I like that too; it’s very Gond.
The final day of the workshop is less structured. They begin by playing Chinese Whispers. At this point there really is no telling which is the child of the successful IT professional, the Oxford academic or the domestic servant. They are all just children, playing and painting together under the March sun.
Abdul is painting a sun, Milind a peacock, Anoushka elephants, Pooja and Amaya cats. Rahil is sticking with reptiles. Anmol is working on a house, as is Rani—both live away from their homes. Gariba moves quietly among them, encouraging and advising, and very occasionally intervening with a paintbrush.
Charty Dugdale is Delhi-based for most of the year. She writes on travel, art and social issues. She is also closely involved with two not-for-profit art initiatives, Artreach India and Khel Mel, linking artists with NGOs and bringing children from different backgrounds together for creative workshops.