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Jivya Soma Mashe detail

Jivya Soma Mashe, acrylic and cowdung on canvas, detail [jivya-soma-mashe.blogspot.in]

I have always wanted to know who I truly am.With individuality so prised in the West, it may seem this is a self evident but hard to define reality.

But moving to India forced me to see myself a new n a different situation. Then moving to Bhopal I soon began to experience the tribal life of Madhya Pradesh. I also began to reflect on the Aboriginal people of Australia.  My assumptions of identity – and how that played out in todays world – simply did not match.

Consider the Warli artist. In every tribal village, the artist is known as savashini, the woman whose husband is alive.

Her painting is a fertility act. Trained by observing others from childhood she knows the riti or conventions of the art and the cosmic laws they symbolise.

warli painting


They have hatachi kesab, innate skill with the hands, and perform wedding ceremonies accompanying the groom on the circumambulation of the rice -hole in the ground where rice is pounded.

The actual ceremony is performed by a wedding priestesses or dhavleries who animate the paintings through song. The dhavleries are chosen because dreams have given them songs.

So few are chosen.

“The dream came – I had fever – Ganga Gauri, Mahadeva’s wife (Mahadeva is the universal father) – she told me – like that it came suddenly. Therefore I can sing the whole song.” ((Jivya Soma Mashe: A sense of self in other masters: Five contemporary folk and tribal artists of India’ edi by Jyotindra Jain.p35).

In the past urbanised India  art was of completed by a guild an the stages – a rough sketch, filled in in one colour, later another, each in stages. This may have included collective apprentices and a master in the process.Then around the city of Mathura individual artists (Gomitaka, Dasa, Shivarakshita, Dharma, Rama, Sanghadeva) were named  beginning in the Christian era.

It took until the 1970’s that the Tribal tradition was transformed by a need for individual artistiic expression.

The catalyst was brown paper and white paint. Soon artists like Jivya Soma Mashe began to paint lively field work, digging ploughing sowing .

Mashe was also the first male Wari painter which in Itself was an isolating experience. It asks of a culture what does it mean to be a Wari man.

“For a man to begin practicing what for centuries has been a woman’s art form is surprisingly unorthodox. No ordinary man could have attempted this, without fearing the loss of status among his fellow men. But then Jivya Soma Mashe is not an ordinary man. The history of his life is as unusual as his bold decision.  ”

Three years old when his mother died, his father remarried but because new wife did not want hs children.  So they were given to a farmer far from home to look after his cows. Too young to work he was poorly fed his older siblings ran away but he was to young to follow them.

Shocked he could not speak until after his 4th year. He retreated and drew signs in the and. Although he later married accepted in the community he remained an outsider.

So he began seeking something new and began to examine the field to see each stalk in the paddy field as distinct with an undulating rhythm interspersed with animals like ants drawn with great precision. A fishing net that swells and fills a fishing net while a minute human holds the other end.

His community awareness of the wholeness of unity is amtched with an awareness that difference makes the whole.Mashe’s art suggests he sees himself as different and yet part of larger unified reality.


“A Walking and Running Circle”, Richard Long, work in progress [http://long-mashe.blogspot.in]

In the west a master is unique but primitive art somehow seems assumed to be anonymous.

We imagine a singular elitist versus a collective art form.  Perhaps we imagine a clown figure, playing bison horn or cobra hood headgear.

Jyotindra Jain reports how MP artist Jangarh Singh Shyam a Pradhan Gond  asked if he she should strip to his loin cloth for a photo – it was so expected by media that to be tribal you must be a stereotype.

Similar story is said of Aboriginal playwright who realised she was always photographed with stereotype images of poverty or struggle.

“In such a set-up the tribal artist is not an identifiable individual but a part of an amorphous passive collective. He is expected to permanently dwell in timeless tradition. When he does not even have an individual status as artist, independent of his community identity, how can he ever be a ‘master’.”

We imagine Tribals as a  timeless people  possessing an innate urge for magi. Do we imagine their women as bare breasted beauties  in mud homes and faces exuding  religiosity?

A Tribal artist may be expected to retain his ‘primitive’ tradition but is usually forced to move to an industrial environment to pursue his art.

Yet, if he develops his art in response to the world it is accused of artistic degeneration.

Tribals are not isolated and their contemporary art merges new technologies into their world view. Traditional art has never been static, but as always adapted with new technologies and materials.

But that is not what we expect.

Mashe’s art reminds me that history is complex always making the present, myths, stories give us a perspective altering the linearity and insularity.

The new idiom of the money lender blends with the charcoal maker neighbouring tribe.  To us they appear modern because they have a do not have a naturalistic feel. A bird is suggested by fleeting lines of motion, the sun as a series of revolving lines he called chakma chak  flashing light.

He symbolises somethings essence rather than its form.

Cowdung and mud on paper. Train station - Jivya Soma Mashe

Cowdung and mud on paper. Train station – Jivya Soma Mashe

A wall of smeared geru or  red clay over which paint reeds in white paste. A mountain gives way to forests from which a river flows under a bridge with a train that reveals a polyphony of  activities of the people within it and gun toting police on the platform.

Jugen Habermass suggests his art is forward moving like life becoming new, much as modernism glorifies in the present or ‘nostalgia of true presence’ ( ‘Modernity: An Unfinished Project’ The Post Modern Reader, edited by Charles Jencks (London, 1992) .

His art inspires me since I have never quiet felt I neither fit in either India”s collective family  (yet) or Australia’s individualism.

Mashe’s art heroically merges the individual and the collective.  Multiple events occur simultaneously both part of community but also alienated from it.

When brown paper released Warli art from its religious foundations “human beings were no longer miniscule against the large celestial deity” instead they “engaged in forms of activity they were predominate on the canvas.” (35, 36).

“There are human beings, birds, animals, insects, and so on. Everything moves, day and night. Life is movement” he said (Tribals Art magazine, September 2001).

Mashes art seems to me a dialogue between community and self. The very struggle I have continued in my life on two continents.

To quote Hervé Perdriolle “The Warli, adivasi, or the first people, speak to us of ancient times and evoke an ancestral culture. An in-depth study of this culture may give further insight into the cultural and religious foundations of modern India.”

I see sights as far more personal. As a natural isolationist – a lover of Australian spacious outback – India forces me to be confronted by its community of contradictions , traditions and meaning.

india forces me to discover the essence within the flux of the moment.

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Shantaram Tumbada, acryliques sur papier, 1997, 28x25cm [shantaram-tumbada-warli.blogspot.in]