The Death Visit: The tribal artist's death underlines the vulnerability of the Adivasis in social transition
At 37, Jangarh Singh Shyam still looked boyish. Despite his success as an artist, this Gond Adivasi from Mandal, Madhya Pradesh, was shy and timid in his dealings with the "civilised" world. Art had taken him far beyond his native realm-to Kolkata, Tokyo and Paris. Like a child, he enveloped the art market in a disarmingly non-discriminatory embrace. Be it the suburban melas across India or the smart big museums of the West, his fantasy images of animals, birds and trees blazed an amazing trajectory of form and colour. Suddenly, on July 2 came the shocking news that Jangarh's body had been found hanging in his room at a relatively unknown museum in a remote village in Japan. Tokio Hasegawa, director of the Mithila Museum in Niigata (a five-hour ride from Tokyo), informed his family the next day that Jangarh had committed suicide.
In anguish and anger, leading artists, folk art experts and sociologists including M.F. Husain, Manjit Bawa, Suresh Sharma and Jyotindra Jain urged the governments of India and Japan to inquire into the "mysterious circumstances in which an outstanding Indian artist has been driven to the alleged suicide". Even then it took a week for the body to be brought back to India because Hasegawa declared that he had not "budgeted" for that contingency. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh-to his credit-released Rs 5.70 lakh to meet the cost of transportation.
Why had the young man taken his own life so abruptly? It is said Jangarh had been persuaded to go to the Mithila Museum for a low monthly fee. Given the Japanese penchant for productivity, he was probably pushed to produce far more than he felt comfortable doing. According to his wife, he had wanted to return to India. But Hasegawa had taken possession of his ticket and passport and got his visa extended by another three months. That convinced Jangarh that he would have to stay for a much longer time than he had bargained for. This probably caused the bout of depression which led to suicide. Although there are some who have suggested deeper conspiracies like murder, the Japanese have ruled out foul play.
More importantly, Jangarh's death underlines the vulnerability of the Indian Adivasi in his quest for self-realisation and self-expression in a modern world. Jangarh was just 17 when the late painter J. Swaminathan discovered him decorating the huts in Verrier Elwin's adopted village of Patangarh in 1981. Impressed by the boy's flair for colour and form, Swaminathan took him to Bhopal to create murals in the Charles Correa-designed arts complex, Bharat Bhavan. There this talented son of the forests flowered into a prolific and popular artist, participating in art shows and festivals from the Surajkund Crafts Mela to Paris' Centre Pompidou. The Madhya Pradesh government bestowed on him the highest state award, the Shikhar Samman, in 1986.
But despite his quick success, the Adivasi in Jangarh had not learnt to deal either emotionally or practically with the devious complexities of the global marketplace. Art helped him escape the dire poverty and backwardness of tribal India but it also exposed him to the exploitative grasp of forces beyond his ken. It took the indigenous peoples of America and Australia a hundred years and thousands of lives to be able to interface on their own terms with the "civilised". Perhaps Jangarh's self-sacrifice is a part of that process.