Contemporary Gond tribal art from Central India comes to Radford


 Saroj Shyam with her art. Photo by John H. Bowles

Bright colorful depictions of tribal mythology are the subject of a Radford University Art Museum exhibition of modern-day Pardhan Gond art from central India, curated by John H. Bowles.

The title of this show is “Painted Songs & Stories: Contemporary Gond Art from India.” It features ten artists from the Gond tribe and is on exhibition in the Covington Center from Sept. 3 to Oct. 25.

“Like Appalachians, the Gonds are also rooted in a traditional ‘highland’ culture, and love nature, storytelling and music,” Bowles said. “Their richly detailed art is charged with hearty spirit, flashes of humor, and bedazzling color.”


Venkat Shyam works on one of his paintings. Photo by John H. Bowles

He is author of “Painted Songs & Stories: The Hybrid Flowerings of Contemporary Pardhan Gond Art,” published in 2009 by INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage). Having studied Gond art since 1998, he befriended Gond artists and assembled one of the largest private collections of their work. He has authored various publications on ethnic art, including this exhibition's catalogue.

The Gonds are a tribal people who first came to international attention through Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book,” which describes them as “the oldest race in India — the aboriginal owners of the land.” For centuries, this tribe’s itinerant clan of priestly minstrels, known as Pardhan Gonds, has transmitted traditional myths about the world's origins, their jungle habitat and its wildlife, nature deities and sacred geography.

Starting in the early 1980s, certain Pardhan Gonds also began using commercial paints, canvas, ink, animated film and other modern media to depict such traditional subjects. In recent years, they have also begun to address such contemporary issues as environmentalism and terrorism.

“As it adapts to incorporate contemporary events and contemporary art media, Gond art becomes ever more relevant to our increasingly global society,” said Steve Arbury, director of the Radford University Art Museum. “This exhibition and its related events directly link with the university's global emphasis. This will be a wonderful opportunity for the Radford University community to learn about another culture.”

Venkat Raman Singh Shyam and Saroj Shyam, two featured Gond artists, will attend exhibition's opening and participate in related events. Saroj Shyam will create two special installations: a digna, a Gond design invoking divine blessings, traditionally applied to a clay-and-cow-dung floor, temporarily installed on a platform in the gallery; and a series of digna paintings in acrylic, for permanent display at Radford University's Selu Conservancy.

The opening of “Painted Songs & Stories” is at 5 p.m., Sept. 3. UK-based art historian Dr. Aurogeeta Das begins the evening’s events with an illustrated lecture on Gond art.

Following the lecture is the premiere performance of “The Headless Crab & Wingless Elephant: Five stories & dances inspired by Gond art & myths,” an original performance interpreting several paintings in the art exhibition. Adapted from traditional Gond myths, the College of Visual and Performing Arts brings the works “The Bana as Bara Deo,” “The Story of Creation,” “Ganesh Kekra: The Birth of Ganesh,” “The Flying Elephant,” and “Death and the Woodpecker” to life. With artistic leadership from college faculty directors, choreographers, musicians, and designers, the performance features student storytellers, dancers and musicians.

Other opportunities to see this live production are at 12 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Sept. 9, in the Performance Hall of the Covington Center.

Admission is free for the exhibition, performances and opening events. The Radford University Art Museum in the Covington Center opens weekdays from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and during weekends from 12 p.m.-4 p.m. For more information visit or call 540-831-5754.

The Radford University Scholar-Citizen Initiative, the McGlothlin Fund, the C.E. Richardson Foundation, and the Luisa Kolla Memorial Fund are the sponsors for the Gond exhibition and events.

More Venkat Raman Singh Shyam art is also on exhibit in a satellite exhibition at Virginia Tech’s Perspective Gallery. This is on view between Aug. 28 and Oct. 25. For more information visit or call 540-231-6040.

Aug 21, 2015