The Eye of the Asivasi

Nga Tran Thi Quynh

Electronic devices have become an integral part of everyday life. They help us to connect, and to see the world through different lenses, literally and figuratively. However, the question remains: Are we seeing more with such cutting-edge devices, or are we simply blinding ourself from the real beauty of life? After spending time with the Santals, the Gonds and the Bhils, three tribal painter groups in India, Julien discovered the answer for himself. It was through this experience that he “learned to see again”. “I learned how to live according to the rhythm of days and nights, without electricity,” he explained. “I learned how overrated modern comfort was. My bathroom was the forests and the ponds. I realized how poor were the food that I was eating, the clothes I was wearing and also what we call shelters in big cities of the West.” Julien and his own journey have inspired people around him to embrace the simple yet majestic beauty of nature and the greatness of those who have nothing according to globalized standards.

Touched by the ceremony of the “gift of the eye”, Julien started to work with the Santal, who live in four states in the eastern part of India. They are called the Jadopatuas, which means magical scroll painters. They were not considered part of the tribal group because they dealt with the border between life and death. It is considered risky for Santal people to marry someone from their community. Julien met them in a very remote village neighbouring Jarkhand, where he was living. These painters were supposed to be Hindu but knew far less about Hindu culture than the Santal one. If they were not part of the tribe, they would be unlikely to find a community that could describe them as a part of it.

The Jadopatuas are known for their “gift of the eye” ceremony, as mentioned earlier. When this is in progress, Jadopatuas are middlemen between the dead and the living. The duties of the scroll painters are to show and sing to children the myths of creation, the epic stories of the Santal people and punishments in hell, which are a way to teach children how to behave. Some of them know how to draw and sing, some know how to draw but not how to sing, some know how to sing but not how to draw. Thus, there is an inner economy in which those who can sing buy from those who can draw and vice versa. They considered Julien to be someone who ordered drawings from them in exchange for his going back to his village and singing their stories. This kind of transaction was what they were used to. Julien was seen as a key safeguard of the community’s memories and also as an onlooker who lived on the edge of the community. Julien was amazed by the simplicity and gracefulness of Jadopatua paintings. He explained that the drawing had the simplest lines and yet remained rough and refined. For him, it was livelier than any replicable work by any contemporaneous designer he had ever met.

The second tribe was the Pardhans, a subdivision of the Gond tribe living in the central part of India. They belonged to a community which was not traditionally known as a community of painters. They were actually a community of farmers and bards who used to sing their myths, not draw them. They became drawers because of a modern impetus. What happened is that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wanted to create museums documenting the rural and tribal traditions of each state of India. The painter and poet Jay Swaminatan was asked by Indira Gandhi to travel to the biggest tribal state of India, Madhya Pradesh, to look for talent. He thus went to Pathangar, a tribal village famous for having been the residency of Verrier Elwin, a self-trained British anthropologist, ethnologist and tribal activist, who began his career in India as a Christian missionary. He became an authority on Indian tribal lifestyle and culture, particularly of the Gondi people. Jay Swaminatan wanted to understand why he chose to settle in this very village and no other. On the walls of this village, he discovered wonderful drawings by a deaf-mute boy named Jangar. He was amazed by the works and how he had taught himself to use acrylic paints and to paint on canvas. Soon he became famous and brought a lot of wealth to his village. The bard farmers then realized that they could earn far more by painting than by farming, and thereby the whole village progressively became painters.

Pathangar’s painters draw and paint not stories but their deities, the spirits of the trees, forests and nature, and the protectors of their houses and villages. Some Pardhans are jealous of them, as the lifestyle of these painters is totally different from theirs. Not only are they far wealthier, but the artists of Pathangar are invited to the big cities of India and sometimes even abroad, which is unbelievable for people who never leave their village. Pathangar painters wish to be acknowledged as artists by the modern market. They understand that what is valued is the individual signature, which was something totally unnatural for them. They have learned how to play with it. What is striking is that they usually work as couples. Mostly, the husband will draw the outlines and his wife will draw repetitive patterns to ornament them. Each couple have their own style, but when they are unable to finish a painting, a neighbour is happy to finish it for them.

The third tribal group Julien worked with was the Ratwa from the Bhil group in Western India. They were neither scroll painters like the Santal nor contemporary artists like the Pardhans of Pathangar; they were wall painters. When a house was built, they were asked to paint on the main wall all human activities that should be performed so as to maintain the cosmic balance.

Ratwa painters produce a Pithora, a highly sacred painting that is considered auspicious in a household. The Pithora is always located at the threshold or the “Osari”, outside the first front wall. It depicts the main deity, Pithora (in the shape of a horse), and a procession displaying his accomplishments. These paintings are believed to bring peace, prosperity and happiness to the family. They are not literal depictions but portrayals of the elements of their environment and nature. A Pithora painting must also contain the 156 tasks that men and women should perform in life to maintain the cosmic order. Some of them can be done only by men, some both by men and women. Only the men of the tribe are taught this art and allowed to paint. They are trained by senior members from a young age. Some will work only as painters, while others will produce these ritualistic paintings from time to time while working as farmers or even in administration or business.

It was through this very experience that Julien learned to “see” again after going through a big personal crisis that blinded him. It takes an experience like this for most of us to start to see life as a celebration of beauty and encounters. It makes us doubt our pre-existing knowledge of the border between the visible and the invisible, and between what can and cannot be shown.

  1. Painting describing the story of Jangar from his childhood to his suicide in a Japanese hotel room by Jay Swaminatan (2013)
  2. Painting describing the story of Pathangar villagers, who went from being farmers to painters (2013)
  3. Photographs of In a Ratwa Village, South Gujarat by Julien Nénault (2013)