It’s Been a Long Journey, Bhajju

By Gita Wolf

Bhajju Shyam, my dear friend and collaborator, won the Padmashree this year. Tara Books is proud to say that we are his publishers from the very beginning and have worked with Bhajju Shyam for upwards of 17 years now.

Bhajju Shyam

I first met him at an illustrators’ workshop we had organized with a group of Gond artists — Bhajju had been invited because we’d been particularly struck by his work. What we had seen was a small drawing on paper — but hints of his quirky brilliance were already there in this image of twinned foxes with a single head.

From an earlier edition of the book Beasts of India.

It had many of the characteristics I’ve since come to associate with Bhajju — a head for ideas, an ability to condense complex thoughts into a single taut image, a great sense of humour, and an openness to the unknown. These qualities are matched with his sensitive instincts as an artist –which include an unerring sense of colour and composition, paired with sure lines and fine rendering. But I’ve got a little ahead of myself here… for if truth be told, going from the early promise of his work to where he is now has been a journey of growth and hard work. We’ve been part of this process — with all the books we’ve created together — and nothing illustrates the point better than the time we spent together coming up with the now iconic The London Jungle Book.

The London Jungle Book is being reprinted as we speak.

Bhajju had regaled us with stories about the time he spent in London painting murals on the walls of an Indian restaurant — and we decided to turn the experience into a visual travelogue.

Part of Bhajju’s mural at Masala Zone, London

From the beginning, Bhajju was clear about what he could and couldn’t do: we were not to expect ‘realistic’ images.

Journey of the Mind: This painting is about my train journey, but the train wasn’t important at all, so I have drawn it small. This is the Gond way of thinking and painting — what is important should get more space. We are not interested in reality — only in how things are imagined in the mind.

At the same time, though he wanted to stay with the Gond tradition he had inherited, he was aware that to convey his individual experience, he would have to push the boundaries of his community style.

We spent long hours struggling with how he was to do this. It was an unbelievably great learning experience for both of us, and the result was more than we could have hoped for. The London Jungle Book remains the most significant book we have done with an indigenous artist, with its deceptively simple, yet completely radical reversal of the anthropological gaze.

The Miracle of Flight: The heaviest animal I have ever seen is an elephant. So that is the creature that came to my mind when I painted the plane. A plane taking off is as much of a miracle as an elephant flying.

For Bhajju, this successful straddling of individual vision and inherited tradition was a defining moment in his journey as an artist. The rest, as they say, is history. We remain close friends and collaborators, and have since created many more books together. Meanwhile, Bhajju has gone on to become a contemporary artist of some significance, and what can I say — I’m both very proud and hugely delighted.