Art as a part of daily life

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Thirteen-year-old twins KRITHI and BHUVI RAI gain an understanding of the art of the Gonds, one of India’s many Indigenous people, at the Art Gallery of SA

The Art Gallery of South Australia held a lot of surprises when we went there on 7 June. We came after we heard about START – the Art Gallery’s children’s program every first Sunday of the month. We also heard that this Sunday it was about Indian Gond paintings. So we thought a visit to the Art Gallery to see these special paintings would be good and there may be some other activities as well.

What we saw blew us away! There was a really good special guided tour explaining the paintings with simple stories (aimed at 3-12 year olds) but also helping the children understand and appreciate the paintings in simple language. Outside in the courtyard marquees and tables had been put up and a lot of effort put into decorating the area to look Indian – scarves, sarees, silk cushions, figurines etc – you know the look! But it was really good to see these add to the live performances happening there. First we watched a group of tribal belly dancers who had some Bollywood moves as well. They also had a drum and dance workshop where kids could learn some moves and rhythms and also dress up in dupattas, beads, bindis, turbans, moustaches etc. And then there was a lovely sitar recital by Simon Gill with Raj on the tabla. There was also colouring and art activities and mehndi-inspired body art at the tables around the performance area.

However, the paintings were what took the cake! They were really unique. We were amazed at the similarities with Aboriginal paintings with the use of dots and dashes and the intricate detail. Even though we call them a tribal community, we suppose it really means indigenous people. The Gond people are from Madhya Pradesh and it is the largest tribe in Central India. They have always decorated the walls and floors of their homes with paintings. They believe that their art is an everyday expression of their life and also that if you look at a good image, it brings you good luck. Their traditional art looks simple at first glance but is very intricate and has a lot of meaning and depth.

Our favourites were Ganesha by Prasad Sing Kusram and Tree of Life by Rajendra Kumar Singh Shyam. This depicted a towering Mahua tree, which is revered by the Gonds, very intricately and elaborately. The centre-piece was Soaring Eagles by Balu Jirya Mashe which was quite modern in comparison and had dozens of eagles flying in a spiral formation. They seemed to be flying outwards and Helen Bulis, the guide, said that looking at the painting often helped people look at the big picture or ‘fly up and outwards’ and feel less stressed and depressed. But she also said that it made her feel dizzy!!

Another interesting one was Tiger and Aeroplane by Jangarh Singh Shyam. This was quite a contemporary one amidst the depictions of gods and goddesses and traditional motifs. It depicted a tiger, cow and birds gazing up at an aeroplane passing overhead. Jangarh Singh Shyam is considered the great pioneer of contemporary Gond art and was the first Gond artist whose exhibitions won accolades in Paris, London and around the world. Unfortunately he died quite young at 39. This painting is said to be the first depiction of an aeroplane in a Gond painting, which he made to describe to his family his experiences on a trip to Japan.

There was also a very interesting ancient wooden sculpture – Mayureshwara Ganesha – from Maharashtra in the Hall. We had never seen Ganesh on a peacock before and it looked like tribal art too. All in all, with guided tours, storytelling, art activities, live performances and entertainment (and all free too!) it was a very enjoyable afternoon.

The Gond painting exhibition is still on until 8 November. In July, START is about ‘Treasure Ships’, the new exhibition about ‘Art in the Age of Spices’. This will be the first exhibition in Australia to present the complex artistic and cultural interactions between Europe and Asia from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries – a period known as the Age of Spices. Along with paintings, rarely-seen works of ceramics, decorative arts, metalware, prints etc are part of the exhibition and a highlight of the exhibition will be a diverse range of Christian artwork created at ports such as Goa and Nagasaki on loan from Portugal and India.

We think we may be going to this one too!

Thanks to Krithi and Bhuvi’s mum Vinaya Rai