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Art ache

Nankusia Shyam, wife of the celebrated Gond artist, Jangarh Singh Shyam, started her journey of self-discovery after her husband's tragic death



Nankusia's tales encompass magical birds that morph into trees, and she herself has morphed into a serious artist after her celebrated husband's tragic suicide. — Photo: K. Murali Kumar

WHAT MAKES a woman come into her own as an individual? Or leave her imprint on the sands of time? In the life of Nankusia Shyam, widow of the celebrated Bhopal-based Gond tribal artist Jangarh Singh Shyam, it was her husband's suicide in Japan in July 2001 that proved the turning point.

"I was always busy with household chores," says thirtysomething Nankusia candidly. "I was immersed in bringing up our children. I watched my husband creating his brilliant paintings, with devatas, trees, birds, and animals that brought him global fame. But I didn't have the desire to learn. Or perhaps I lacked the courage."

Today, her 10 original acrylic paintings have been sold out at Rs. 12,000 each at her first public exposition, along with Jangarh's serigraphs (at Right Lines Gallery, on till April 3). A Gond Pradhan woman who married for love, Nankusia suddenly realises that the future holds more promise than she could imagine. That beyond her job at Bhopal's Bharat Bhavan painting studio, where she earns barely enough to survive.

Her children — Mayan Kumar (17), Japani (15), and Manish Kumar (12) — have reason to be proud of Nankusia for keeping alive the wonder that was Jangarh. "If they ask me what their father did, what will I say unless I can show them?" she answers passionately, pointing to a crocodile-like figure rich with pointillistic detailing. "I had to keep his style alive, like this tiger with its limbs spread-eagled."

Nankusia sings a song about a tiger and a wild boar that she learnt from her grandmother. In her exquisite painting, the creatures assume a mythical dimension, transformed in her mind's eye. "The boar and the tiger were friends," she narrates in Hindi. "Their children played together all day long until it dawned on the boar that the cubs would mature into tigers and might devour his young. He wants to leave the jungle, but the tiger tries to dissuade him... "

Her tales encompass magical birds that morph into trees, a bold Navaratri mother goddess, then a crab entwined with a snake decorated in an individualistic triangular pattern of dots. "I paint to keep Jangarh's memory alive. In his family, all his five brothers and their sons paint. At first, I tried only to be true to his style. But now, I'm keen to put in some patterning that is recognisably mine," Nankusia explains.

Her children's education is her prime motivation. "If Jangarh had been educated, if he had been able to communicate, perhaps the tragedy would have been averted," she stresses. A breath later, Nankusia states with pride that Mayan Kumar paints well, while Japani has twice been invited to Craft Council of India exhibitions at Delhi's Pragati Maidan.

Gond tribal paintings have come a long way from the traditional walls daubed with patterns in natural pigments to celebrate Holi, Diwali, or a wedding. With Jangarh, whom brilliant artist J. Swaminathan brought to Bharat Bhavan at 17, their work was given its due internationally, hung by the best of urban Indian talent.

The Bangalore exhibition would not have materialised without local artists Babu Eswar Prasad and Seema Sathyu. "I'll always be indebted to Babu, who invited me to Khoj 2003 here," Nankusia reiterates. Babu, in turn, traces the connection back to Bharat Bhavan sculptor Raghu.

Baroda-trained Seema recalls interacting with Jangarh, thanks to an initiative to flex perceptions triggered by Gulammohammed Sheikh. As their friendship grew, Jangarh left behind some unsold serigraphs when he visited her in Delhi. Post 2001, Seema — whose M.A. thesis drew parallels between Tyeb Mehta and Jangarh — tried to contact Nankusia. But the grieving widow, who had no clue about Jangarh's scattered work, paid her little attention.

Many phone calls and Khoj 2003 later, Seema brought Right Lines into the picture. That's when Bangalore caught a glimpse of the entity that is Nankusia Shyam. An artist in her own right today.

ADITI DE

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