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Bhajju Shyam: The Gond wizard

Padma Shri Bhajju Shyam in his latest works experimented with stencil and spray colours on canvas. In a conversation, the renowned Gond artist talks about his recent work, the inspiration behind it and his learnings from St+Art India Foundation…

Bhajju Shyam has been a Gond artist all his life. He always worked with acrylic colours and ink on canvas and paper. But for his show ‘Untitled’, the Padma Shri chose stencils and spray colours on canvas.

The works feature a medley of birds and animals carrying his signature Gond style. Shyam took inspiration from the birds and animals that he saw in his village. He redefined them by adding a pop of colours. Though the colours and patterns look beautiful, the artist points out that working with stencils and spray colours wasn’t a cakewalk.

“In Gond art, detailing is extremely intricate. Spray colours drip and run to other areas. They also bleed to areas where a colour are not required,” he shares.

In order to protect colour-related bleeds, he made the designs first on paper and then loaded them on to a computer. He then used stencils to cut the designs and finally coloured them using spray paint.

Shyam had worked with stencils and spray colours years ago but only on walls. He recalls that he used this medium for a project with St+Art India Foundation in 2019.

“The project was to refurbish the walls of Lodhi Colony and paint mural art on them,” he explains.

Though the project ended, his enthusiasm to explore stencils and spray colours on canvas remained.

An artwork featuring the artist surrounded by animals was also a part of his recent exhibition.

Ideas and inspiration

Shyam is a second-generation artist. He belongs to the Gond-Pardhaan community of Madhya Pradesh. As a child, he heard several stories from his family members that inspired him to paint.

He shares, “A lot of ideas come from my village. In the bygone eras, Pradhans sang stories of Gond gods and goddesses. They also narrated how earth and sun came to being and how living beings (humans, plants, animals and birds) were born. I have heard them. I take inspiration from the stories my ancestors narrated and the songs they sang.”

Shyam also credits his travel experiences that help him discover new ideas. He has written several books on Gond art that are available in different languages. He is also the illustrator and author of the famous London Jungle Book published in five languages for children. He often gets invited to different countries for book narration. He uses these opportunities to meet new people and learn from them.

“I have travelled to 22 countries. When I travel internationally, I meet local artists and observe their techniques. It helps me expands my horizon to think differently. I try to replicate the techniques I see during my journey in my signature style. When I get invited for book narration, I meet people and get plenty of ideas,” he shares.

One of the paintings at the 'Untitled' show.

Other international projects

Though Shyam has used stencils and spray colours on canvas for the first time, he has previously used these mediums for a wall mural. In March 2020, he worked for the Singapore Tourism Board. The project was to paint one of the walls of a seven-storey hotel in Singapore. Shyam joined hands with Sam Lo, a Singapore artist, to create the mural art.

However, things did not go as per the plan. The pandemic had hit India. Due to this, Shyam could not physically travel to Singapore.

“The art featured deer, trees and birds. My job was to make trees and decide their placement on the wall. Lo was responsible for making deer and birds. But due to the pandemic-led restrictions in India, I could not travel to Singapore. I instead shared my designs in Gond art with Lo and she assembled them on the hotel’s wall,” he says.

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