Commercial and Social Documentary Photographer Sandeep Biswas is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this documentary photography. From the book ‘Jal Jungle Jameen | The Living Tradition of Chhattisgarh’. To see Sandeep’s body of work, click on any image.
Initial Thoughts: The Soul of Chhattisgarh- ©Dr Alka Pande
“O ye gods, I shall support (that is, nourish) the whole world with life-sustaining vegetables which shall grow out of my body, during a period of heavy rain. I shall gain Fame on earth then as Shakhambari (goddess who feeds the herbs), and in that very period, I shall slay the great asura named Durgama (a personification of drought).” Devimahatmya 90:43-44
The Living traditions of the forest communities of Chhattisgarh centre on their ecosystem—above the soil and below the soil cover. These bear the fragrance of their untouched and inimitable spirit. And what they touch becomes their aesthetic tradition.
The forest people of Chhattisgarh created objects of utility, worship, rituals and the depiction of their everyday life and culture. These cultural artefacts over the years, particularly with the advent of modernity, came into the fold of a museum culture.
The museums, the product of the nineteenth century, were brought into India by the British, who were ruling India at that time. In 1784, India’s first museum was set up at the Asiatic Society, Kolkata, initially called the Imperial Museum, which in its modern avatar became the Indian Museum. The Indian concept of a ‘sangrahalaya’ was to a large extent the temple, where the entire village/city got together not just for religious ceremonies but for all kinds of gatherings ranging from the political to the social.
The arts definitely were showcased in the temple complex, particularly music and dance. The temple was the locus and focus of all human activity. Indian modernity, like India herself, has a multi-vocality to it. Unlike the Western definition, Indian modernity has multiple tracks. The cultural diversity, which is also linked to its biodiversity, is a plural culture. The folk, tribal, popular, classical and modern high art have existed side-by-side in India. This is what enriches the treasure trove of India’s cultural bounty. The setting up of the Art and Craft Schools in India, as an outcome of Wood’s dispatch of 1854, resulted in an absolutely new canvas of art. The President of the Board of Control, Charles Wood, in 1854 made a suggestion to the then Governor General of India, Lord Dalhousie, that the vernacular languages should be adopted by the primary schools; Anglo-vernacular language should be taught at the high schools, and lastly, the English language could be the medium of teaching at the level of college.
A clear demarcation appeared between traditional Indian art and modern and contemporary art practices. With the setting up of the British-run art and craft schools in Lucknow, Kolkata, Chennai and, subsequently, Shantiniketan as a revivalist art school set up by Rabindranath Tagore, the boundaries and definitions of art were blurring. However, it is interesting to note that most Indian artists were admitted in the capacity of draughtsmen rather than as artists, a fact that led the focus away from the fine art component of the process. This meant following or imparting a tradition of Western aesthetics through the occidental module of instruction in which academic realism ruled.
Subsequently, at the JJ College of Art and the MS University, Baroda, a clear-cut division of medium was made. Painting, sculpture, graphics and applied arts departments, based on the style of the British Polytechnics, were created.
For the purpose of this book, I am limiting myself to the arts and aesthetics of traditional arts. And within the traditional arts, too, I am further narrowing down to what in the past was known as tribal arts. The new defining word is indigenous art and I am calling it the art of the forest people, the many communities who live in the vast forest areas of Chhattisgarh.
Their very popular slogan ‘Jal, Jungle, Jameen’ became the muse and the title of my book. The slogan was coined by the renowned leader Komaran Bheem in his movement against the Nizams, where he stated that the resources belonging to the forest should be handed to the Adivasis. Within India, the forests had a deep meaning and Vedic texts such as the Aranyakas are, in fact, devoted to forests and forest people. As BK Roy Burman rightly puts it, “Directly or indirectly, in the tribal mind a forest symbolizes life in its manifold manifestations, that is, home, worship, food, employment, income and the entire gamut. Tribes can, in fact, be regarded as children of the forest.” For, what the many communities and tribes who inhabited the forest lands of Chhattisgarh created were given the formal nomenclature by the cultural theorists and academics.
These modern scholars and academics read cultural objects through a formal language and brought it into the mainstream of art history. While the culture-bearers and creators of these stunningly beautiful works were completely unlettered, they had an extremely well developed and highly refined sense of aesthetics. The artworks produced by them were meant completely for the personal use of the community. They never produced work for the market but as vehicles of cultural exchange.
In ancient civilisations such India, the centuries worth of information and knowledge systems, received wisdom, oral histories, indigenous systems and processes put in place by the aboriginals of the land is a precious intangible resource. These intangible resources are gradually losing their sheen, be it in a materialistic sense or a metaphysical one, requites their representation under a streak of contemporary tangible practice. Similarly, the artworks, the tangible source, when collected, become constant reminders to them languishing. The display is not a simple process of archiving tangible products but equal emphasis is given to locating its contemporary relevance in the art world so that it remains in the memory of the audience as living history. Dr Jyotindra Jain details how folk artists imbibe fresh elements that come about as a result of modernization and funnel it into their art in a process of learning and growing saying, “The absorption of modernity did not mean degeneration of tradition but its consolidation.” Ramachandra Guha in his path-breaking book titled Savaging the Civilised: Verrier Elwin, His Tribals and India, bringing in the cultural renaissance of the indigenous communities, pays tribute to one of the noteworthy figures of twentieth-century India, Verrier Elwin, who was an anthropologist, poet, Gandhian, hedonist, Englishman and Indian. Guha’s book reinforces how the anthropologist lived among and loved the tribes, to write about their lives for the world outside of them. What makes this book stand apart from other writings devoted to the indigenous communities is its emphasis on their economic development and cultural pluralism against the fabric of cultural homogeneity. In doing so, Guha celebrates the value of Indian democracy and pluralism.
The seminal work done by Dr Kalyan Kumar Chakravarty who, as a scholar, anthropologist, historian and administrator of the erstwhile State of Madhya Pradesh, from which the State of Chhattisgarh is carved out, is particularly noteworthy. He was instrumental in carrying out large-scale exploration and excavation in the State, including Tala, Garhdhanaura and Deepadih; in describing the dynamic continuity between classical and contemporary folk and tribal art in his two-volume publication, Walking with Siva: Cognitive Roots of Indian Art, Archaeology and Religion and in conceptualising and setting up the Purkhauti Muktangan, a garden showcasing the rich culture of Chhattisgarh. It was through the singular efforts of Dr Chakravarty in introducing the art of Chhattisgarh to Delhi, through gates at the Indira Gandhi Centre For the Arts and the illustrated leaflet used by Dilli Haat, which gave Chhattisgarh a place of art pride in the stage-setting exercises for the newly-born State.
Terracotta dining set from Kondagaon, Bastar
All Photographs © Sandeep Biswas
Cover Photograph © Masood Sarwer
Introduction Text © Alka Pande
Author of the book © Alka Pande
Publisher© Tulika Kedia / Must Art
By Sandeep Biswas
Sandeep’s Previous Contributions To Edge Of Humanity Magazine
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