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Gond artist

Be not afraid

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BORN TO SHINE: Renowned Gond tribal artist Bhajju Shyam started out as night watchman

Viewers who see Bhajju Shyam's vibrant bestiary might find it hard to imagine that these paintings have been made by a man who was once a night watchman in Bhopal. Vigils at gateposts may have been the 16-yearold's fate if his uncle Jangarh Singh Shyam, the celebrated Gond artist, hadn't taken him on as an apprentice. From the walls of his village home, where all Gond children learn to paint, to established galleries and museums, Bhajju's has been a long and creative journey.

"My mother painted the walls of our home, and I would do the parts she couldn't reach, " says the slender and earnest-looking artist. Having moved from Patangarh village (of Verrier Elwin fame) to Bhopal in search of work, he had no clue that he would one day be racking up jet miles. "My first flight was to London in 2004, " says the 41-year-old, who went there to paint an Indian restaurant but ended up doing the London Jungle Book, a visual travelogue in which the metaphors of the Gond tradition melded with his impressions of his first Western city. An aeroplane became an elephant with wings and the Big Ben got itself a rooster instead of a clock. "The plane was loaded with so many passengers and so much luggage that I was amazed that something so heavy could fly. It was as if a winged elephant was taking flight. And in our village, we are woken up by roosters, not alarm clocks. "

It's this unique artistic voice that is going to be on show in Australia where he will travel for a solo exhibition with more than 30 canvases. The response to the show will be interesting since aboriginal artists from Australia and Gond artists use dots to create their work.

The venue and dates are yet to be finalised but Bhajju, who has already had solos in the UK, Germany and Japan, has been working furiously this last month. He's also working on a new children's book for Tara Books, a Chennai-based independent publishing house which gave him his first break with the London Jungle Book. Called The Book of Fear, this children's picture book emerged from Bhajju's own stories about the feeling of trepidation experienced as a child when venturing into the forest. More broadly, it deals with the universal theme of fear, why we are afraid, and how our imaginations can often run away with us. This will be Bhajju's sixth project with Tara.

Bhajju has created some memorable characters for his earlier picture books. In That's How I See Things which he illustrated, the main character is an artist called Siena Baba who sees the world in a very distinctive manner. Tara founder Gita Wolf says Siena Baba is the quintessential artist. "Bhajju told us that a crazy wise man is called 'Siena' in the Gond dialect. The book is about the process of art. " Where the rest of the world sees a moon, Siena Baba sees a sky with a white hole. One day, he goes on a furious painting spree. The result: a curious menagerie of creatures like the pig-pea (pigs with the feathers of a peacock) and a deer-oise (a fleetfooted deer with the behind of a tortoise).

The forest-loving Gond artist hasn't strayed far from his roots despite living in the city and travelling the world. Trees are a recurring motif and so are animals. "I have been influenced by what I see on my travels but my style is traditional and that will never change, " he says.

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