Mapping lineage is the most problematic area in folk and tribal arts because of limited availability of archival resources or objects, the inherent impermanence of the materials and methods involved in the creative process. The historical evolution of ‘Gond’, or Pardhan painting or ‘Jangarh kalam,’ has to be understood in this background. A community of around four million people spread all over central India, Gonds have a recorded history of 1400 years. The word ‘Gond’ comes from the Dravidian expression ‘Kond’ which means ‘green mountain’.
Pictorial art on walls and floors has been part of the domestic life of Gonds, specially among Pardhans since it is done with the construction and re- construction of each and every house, with local colors and materials like charcoal, coloured soil, plant sap, leaves, cow dung, lime stone powder, etc. The images are tattoos or minimalist human and animal forms. In course of time, the diminution of agricultural life and social patronage has tended to reduce the Pardhans to a state of manual labor.
In the early 1980’s, the Bharat Bhavan art centre at Bhopal in Central India was started with a vision of establishing a common space for all kinds of contemporary art practices. The modern Indian painter and activist, J. Swaminathan led this mission with a passion for bringing forth the creative expressions of the rural folk and tribal societies in India. J . Swaminathan initiated young artist groups to go into the rural interlard to explore such expressions. While traveling in village Pattangarh, a group of such artists found a brilliant wall painting done by a young manual laborer aged seventeen called Jangarh Singh Syam, who later became a legendary name in the history of Gond painting. Jangarh Singh Syam was invited to Bharat Bhavan where his creative practice did undergo sweeping changes. His inheritance in traditional music and storytelling provided him with a vast area of narratives which he articulated and transformed into paintings. This was a rare moment in Indian Contemporary art in which new materials and tools including canvases, acrylic, oil and pen were effectively adopted by a traditional/folk artist bringing forth unforeseen results. Jangar’s works started featuring in various galleries throughout the world and were received with great enthusiasm. From mid 1980s to’95, more than a hundred painters belonging to the Pardhaan community engaged themselves in the art of painting.
A new visual vocabulary was created by these artists by giving concrete visual shapes to their myths, legends, fables, tattoos and music, which were, till then, hidden from the ‘mainstream’ society. It was a paradigm shift in culture in which the historically marginalized gained momentum and ground in the narrative space of the country, and creative energy surged with the emergence of individuality in a traditionally collective society. Images, transcribed from oral narratives took shape as birds, flying snakes or growing trees, floating to the rhythm of music in diverse innovative variations.
Over the years, the Gond artists have developed their own devices to work with various contemporary mediums and materials. They would first make dots and calculate the volume of the images. These dots would be connected to bring about an outer shape, which would then filled with colours. As they respond to the immediate social situation and environment, each object they come across in life is aesthetically transformed.