Personal Patterns: Gond Art & Books from India

A woman from India wrote to me and sparked my interest in exploring book art there. I found an independent publisher making handmade books—Tara Books—whose love of the book, and traditional, folk, and modern art forms, is obvious. They are based in Chennai, India. I ordered two books.

Signature: Patterns in Gond Art, with introduction by Gita Wolf, founder of Tara Books, is a nice introduction to the patterns of the tribal Gond people, the original people of India. According to the Tara Books website, "Gond is a ritual and functional art style with distinctive decorative elements, mostly painted on walls of homes, using traditional colours." Each artist chooses a pattern, usually based on something in nature, that she (or he) uses to fill in an animal, person, plant, or object. It is said you can recognize the distinctive mark of each artist and know who she is from her pattern. Common Gond patterns are based on woven rope, bird footprints, beehives, fishscales, tattoos, and even the "cross section of a lemon." In this book, the patterns are the primary focus; the larger pictures are printed very small. This would be an excellent teaching book, particularly for the younger grades, and particularly in conjunction with storytelling. The concept of making line drawings and filling them in began to intrigue me further. I started wondering what my patterns would be based on. Waves? Wood? Skin? The markings on the tabby cat next door?

Durga Bai's pages from Signature: Patterns in Gond Art

The All India Artisans and Craftworkers website explains the history and traditions of Gond painting, practiced by both men and women, that dates back 20,000-500,000 years. Colors are made from natural materials "derived from charcoal, colored soil, plant sap, leaves, and cow dung." The website also notes that "Orange depicts religious thoughts, red depicts fear, and green is associated with nature." The combination of the patterns and the colors makes each painting uniquely personal. You can begin to read the marks and emotions. Families learn, paint, and teach one another as part of a whole interconnected culture.

According to this article, the first time Gond art appeared internationally, far from the "huts of Patangarh in Madhya Pradesh," was in 1981. "17-year-old, Jangarh Singh Shyam…was whisked off to Bhopal…for the first time…traditional Gond Pradhan motifs—so far solely known to village walls—were seen on canvases, silk-screens and ink drawings." Exhibitions of his work were mounted in Paris and Tokyo. An article in the Navhind Times says that Pradhan Gonds began as storytellers to kings, with themes of nature, myths, and dreams.

The Night Life of Trees is a fully-fledged handmade book, with small stories and lovely illustrations screenprinted onto black paper. In this book, the overall image is a good size, although the patterns are very tiny, most likely the result of reducing the image for a manageable book. On the last page, with the bios and a brief explanation, it says, "Art is a form of prayer, and they believe that good fortune befalls those whose eyes meet a good image." Art, combined with nature, takes on spiritual qualities. A calm way of thinking about art.

one of Bhajju Shyam's pages in
The Night Life of Trees
Modern Gond pictures are painted with oil paints on canvas and acrylics on paper. You can see more examples of the latter by Durga Bai, whose work is also included in The Night Life of Trees, alongside artists Bhajju Shyam (co-editor of Signature, helping to choose work from thirty artists in his village), whose pattern is "a linked chain of dancers, seen from above," and Ram Singh Urveti, whose pattern is "a garland of leaves." 

You can see a full range of photos, videos, biographies, and paintings by inspirational Gond artists here.  And Tara Books features many more intriguing books: one to explore next might be I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail with art by Ram Singh Urveti.

Post #200
Update: Maegan at Tara Books pointed me to this video. Watch how they screenprinted and bound The Night Life of Trees.


Velma said…
these came on my radar a while ago, but i didn't buy one...should i?
Alisa said…
If you think you can use one or you like the aesthetic, sure. I like having examples of art from different cultures and from around the world in my teaching library for reference, mostly, to show the students, and possibly to inspire them and me, too. Tara Books seems to have published a wide variety; you might want to browse their site. Perhaps one book will tug at you more than another, (could be the screenprinting and handmade elements, the engineering/design, or the content) and then you'll know which one to buy…
Migs said…
Thanks for this! Great to see our books spreading far and wide.

Did you come across our video about how we make the screen-printed books by hand?

Maegan (Tara Books)
dinahmow said…
The video is lovely!
I have thought, more than once, that there are similarities between some of the Aboriginal art of Australia and that of the Gond.
ePrice said…
Thanks for the helpful post, it was nice reading!