Ruby Sarkar explores how the second wave of the pandemic has drastically impacted practitioners of Gond paintings in Madhya Pradesh
Fifty kilometres from Madhya Pradesh’s Dindori district, on the Jabalpur-Amarkantak route, lies the village of Patangarh, the birthplace of the illustrious Gond painting. It was because of Jangarh Singh Shyam — a pioneering Gond artist from Patangarh that this traditional style of painting received recognition and artists from the village were able to successfully exhibit their work widely across the world. Most of the women and men from this village are proficient in this art form. Around 200 artists in the village earn their livelihood through their artworks which fetch high prices overseas and at major art galleries.
Covid-19, however, has severely impacted the lives of Gond artists. Income, through their paintings, has been stalled compelling these talented artists to work as daily wage labourers for their survival. They have started working under MGNREGA or in the fields of big farmers to survive and cope with these uncertain times.
Chandrakali, a local artist, is currently employed under MGNREGA, deepening wells. Expressing her plight, she said, “Earning a living through our small agricultural land was getting difficult. I had no option but to take up this work that has bruised my hands to such an extent that I am unable to paint with a brush.”
During the unlocking phase, Chandrakali was involved in a wall painting project in Chhattisgarh’s Tilda region, but as the second phase of lockdown came into effect, she had to end the project midway. Looking after her only son has become an uphill task.
Likewise, Rajendra Kumar Ujhke, another local artist, shared the hardships Covid-19 has imposed on the artisans. “Earlier, paintings were sold online through social media platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook. But we are no longer able to sell our paintings through this medium. People have stopped buying. The pandemic has stretched so long that it has shattered our lives and hopes. Our forefathers worshipped Gond art and never imagined us doing anything else,” expressed Rajendra.
He shared that several artists from his village — who have been felicitated with government and private awards — are now working as labourers. To name a few, there’s Rajkumar Shyaam, Devilal Tekaam, and Santoshi Dhruve.
Last year, just before the lockdown, Nadette Charlet, an artist from Ireland, visited this village of artists and was mesmerised by the artwork. Santosh Kumar Dwivedi, a social worker and the director of Tikuli Kala Kendra — an organisation that promotes artisans situated in the Umariya district of Madhya Pradesh — introduced Nadette to Patangarh and its artists. With the motive of helping these local artists, Nadette bought 50 A-4 size paintings at a basic price. Later, she created a website called Gond Art India and started selling these paintings. Through this website, 36 paintings were sold and, as a result, she was able to send ` 1,37,000 to the artists. Each painting was sold at the rate of ` 3,824. This initiative was a blessing for the artists, which helped them survive the first phase of lockdown.
According to Santosh, Nadette is fond of tribal art and culture. “A common friend introduced us. They showed interest in knowing more about Gond paintings and wanted to meet the artists behind the artworks. I took them around the Patangarh area in Dindori district as there is no better place in Madhya Pradesh to understand Gond paintings. Their visit impacted the lives of the local artists as it aided them in receiving funds during the first wave of Covid-19,” revealed Santosh.
However, artisans did not have the same luck the second time around. The second wave of Covid-19 has proven to be way more devastating as it penetrated its way to the rural areas which were spared in 2020. With the subsequent lockdowns, these artists could not send their paintings to Nadette, nor could she visit them. This forced them to take up menial jobs.
The brilliant artists in Patangarh make words dance on the canvas. The colours and patterns make musical harmonies and that is what makes their art so exquisite. The world recognises the work of these Gond artists, and yet in the current times, these talented artisans are battling to meet the needs of their families.