The Pictures of the Gond
A life between tradition and innovation
The Indian artist Durga Bai belongs to the Gond ethnicity. She lives in Bhopal today, but was born in a small village in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. When she was still very young she migrated with her family to the city, which is more than 300 kilometres away, for there was no income to be earned and no health insurance to be had in her ancestral place. Durga Bai never learnt to read or write, as is the case with so many of India's other indigenous people, the Adivasis. But she took the artistic tradition of her origin with her, and in her drawings and pictures she tells stories of the mythology and the everyday life of the Gond, one of India's indigenous peoples.
»Adi« means original and »vasi« means dweller, so the Adivasis are the original inhabitants of India. The indigenous population also uses this term to describe itself. Around 82 million people of the 1.1 billion Indians are Adivasis.
The overall situation is rather complex, however. There are around 600 different indigenous ethnic groups in all of India. The slightly larger Gond ethnicity alone, to which the three illustrators of this book also belong, has numerous sub-groups. These diverse cultural identities are additionally characterised by massive change. Migration for economic reasons from their traditional environment in the primeval forests or village communities occurs frequently. Deforestation, large industrial projects and tourism are examples of the external factors that lead to forced migration.
Trees at the centre of life
Durga Bai, Ram Singh Urveti and Bhajju Shyam were not able to complete their primary school education, too. They all landed in Bhopal, each of them independently of each other. They met up there on account of their painting – and through Bhajju Shyam's and Ram Singh Urveti's uncle, one Sangarh Singh Shyam (1962–2001). He was the first Gond artist to practice his vocation full-time. He also worked abroad and though he may not have modernised the Gond's traditional art, he consciously developed it.
It was very important to him to both maintain the Gond's cultural inheritance and to simultaneously also absorb the new urban environment, with its social influences and technical possibilities. He supported many young Gonds and actively encouraged them to continue to identify with their roots even when they are far from their traditional lives.
Traditionally the Gond paint the walls of their houses with natural colours made of clay. Images of gods, mythological figures, animals, ornaments – and trees. Trees are at the centre of the life of the Gond. During the daytime the trees work for the people, providing food and building materials and offering protection and shade. At night the trees wake the good spirits to life, according to the Gond.
Tara Publishing and its printing press
The aim of the independent Indian publisher Tara Publishing, based in Chennai in South India, is to present India's diverse cultures and traditions, and in so doing it consciously champions minorities. Publisher Gita Wolf got to know the three artists during a workshop a few years ago. She wanted to know more about the fascinating pictures. Soon they were discussing the idea of publishing a story book of the Gond. Durga Bai, Bhajju Shyam and Ram Singh Urveti started work and illustrated their world. In a subsequent conversation they reported of the myths, stories and everyday life of the Gond. These conversations formed the basis for the texts in the book, which was published in India for the first time in 2005. A big event for the Gond, who are, as Adivasi, frequently marginalised in India until today.
This alone would be exciting enough, but ever-enterprising Tara went one step further. The book would be produced by hand in a screen printing method, and the book itself would also become a work of art. Together with production manager C. Arumugam and the three artists, the black and white drawings were transformed into colour and printed onto hand-made black paper in the printing shop. The Indian edition was entitled The Night Life of Trees.
Printing by hand requires every page of the book to be laid into the wire press separately for every colour used. The sheet has to be laid out to dry between every colour cycle. This means that around 200'000 production steps are required for a 40-page book whose print run amounts to 3,000 copies.
This is all carried out in an 80 sqm room under a woven palm-leaf roof. There are no machines, but rather 12 trained printers, hundreds of wooden frames to dry the books' pages and a handful of working tables for the screen printing frames.
The production of 3,000 copies of a book uses the full capacity of the printing works for three months, as was the case with Das »Geheimnis der Bäume« (the German edition of »The Night Life of Trees«). Work is carried out from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Of course there are regular breaks, the employees are given a fixed monthly wage, are insured against illness and participate in the profits. As the young men have generally come from rural areas and life in the metropolis of Chennai might be strange for them in the beginning, there is a joint residence for all employees, where they live together like in a family. And à propos of family – the printers earn enough for the money to suffice to support their families of origin too.
Founder and manager C. Arumugam has several basic principles and convictions. He doesn't make any compromises in terms of quality and social responsibility. He wants his employees to fare well and the products of AMM Screens to meet the highest quality standards. There is no cheap production here at the cost of the workers. Thus he consciously decided not to expand and not to outsource jobs to third parties, but rather to do what they do themselves, and to do it well. And when an employee wants to set up in business, then he supports such an undertaking with start-up capital from the operating fund.
Baobab treading new production paths
The book, published in German in the Baobab Series, is integrated into an overall project and illustrates in an exemplary way how important public recognition is for minorities, and what fair trade means in concrete terms for the producers.
The project creates a source of income for the artists and their extended families in Bhopal, as well as utilising AMM Screens in Chennai to full capacity for three months. It is just as important to recognise the work of the Gond artists, however, artists who nurture and keep alive their cultural heritage under difficult circumstances, as well as to take an uncompromising stance for printing and binding skills in a country that is all too often pushed into cheap production processes by the West, at the expense of human dignity and the environment.
Each of the 3,000 copies of Das Geheimnis der Bäume represents direct development cooperation, the recognition of the rights of minorities and lived intercultural exchange.