The London Jungle Book by Bhajju Shyam is an amazing and beautiful piece of art published by my favorite publisher – Tara Books.
When Gond tribal artist Bhajju Shyam is offered a job to paint murals on the walls of a tony London restaurant, it’s an opportunity that raises questions, anxieties, and excitement.
As we learn from a lengthy editors’ note (Gita Wolf and Sirish Rao), people of the Gond tribe are often marginalized in India, thought of as ‘primitives without culture’. They often live in poverty with few opportunities to improve their lot in life.
Also, as artists, their style is based on community beliefs and has a very structured aesthetic. Images, icons, and symbols represent their everyday lives or their beliefs and are conveyed more as perceptions from the mind’s eye. Realism, perspective, light, or three-dimensionality are not significant factors. Images are filled with detailed, intricate, geometric patterns. Traditionally limited to four earth tones, Gond artists now living and selling their work in urban centres are using colourful, commercial paints and inks to expand their art form.
So, with this introduction, how does an artist who has never travelled or flown in an airplane to a foreign world perceive what he sees and experiences?
The London Jungle Book allows us a chance to see ourselves in new way (“reverse the anthropological gaze”) playing on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. A travelogue filled with creatures (animal and human) based on Gond traditions to represent a modern city and how an artist from a very different culture would experience life here.
Each image is accompanied by a ‘story’ that relates to an observation or experience. His flight from India to London is depicted as a winged elephant leaping into the air, the elephant being the biggest and heaviest thing he can relate to that corresponds to an airplane.
Or, that Londoners remind him of bats who come out at night, dressed in black, going out to eat and socialize. Bhajju has observed that, though, some streets can seem deserted during the day, evening is a different matter when they are filled with people on their way to restaurants and pubs. The pub is represented as a Mahua tree, a sacred tree symbol for the Gond, its flowers used to make alcohol and its trunk inhabited by many black bats readying for their nightly social rounds.
“I show English people as bats not to make fun of them, but because I like to think of them as creatures that come to life in the evening.”
The illustrations always feel balanced with beautiful colours and detailing. The patterns fill every animal, bird, human, and object with small repetitive lines, circles, or dots.
Each image also includes a small artist’s note explaining the Gond aesthetics that is attributed to each modern London scene. The cover image is a good example of this traditional and modern aesthetic that combines Big Ben, London’s iconic clock tower with a rooster. The clock face and rooster’s eye are the one and the same. The rooster is a symbol of time in Gond art. He says,
“Symbols are the most important thing in Gond art, and every symbol is a story standing in for something else. So this painting was the easiest for me to do, because it had two perfect symbols coming together.”
I thoroughly enjoyed this blending of traditional folk art with trappings from modern life, like the bus with the head of a dog representing how Londoners travel through the city. These paired images offer a sense of something very familiar, comforting, and loyal much the way a dog can imbue these qualities. Or, how apt is it that the ‘tube’ system is represented as an earthworm which in Gond tradition rules the earth below?
I felt quite humbled reading through these stories and working through the illustrations. I was given an inside look at how this man experienced London and worked to convey something meaningful for us and himself. All travelers compare their home countries with the new ones being explored. Sometimes we marvel and sometimes differences just make us grumpy. Bhajju is kind in his observations about life in London. I didn’t feel he was being judgmental but rather was acknowledging differences and similarities and creating an understanding of his experiences. This is an artist filled with wonder and generous in his assessment of life in London. This new venue offers him the opportunity to become a storyteller as well as an artist.