I only discovered Gond art when I met Dileep Shyam, a tribal artist at handicrafts fair Dastkari Haat in Pune a few weeks ago. I loved this and his other paintings on canvas but also his smaller originals on paper which were an absolute steal. (I have his contact details if you would like them.)
My friend Rashmi left a comment about Gond artist Bhajju Shyam on that post with a recommendation for The London Jungle Book which lead me to discover Tara Books, a Chennai based publishing house with a range of picture books for both adults and children featuring folk and tribal artists. I ordered it immediately!
In 2002, Bhajju Shyam visited London to paint murals at Masala Zone, a restaurant in Islington. The London Jungle Book is filled with quirky illustrations accompanied by equally charming anecdotes from his time in the city.
Since the Gond community are largely forest dwellers, imaginative (sometimes surreal) and vibrant depictions of local flora and fauna are features of their art. The London Jungle Book is a visual travelogue in which Bhajju Shyam turns London into a bestiary of sorts with icons such as red double decker buses and the London Eye encountering the symbols of Gond tradition.
His keen observations as a first time traveller are refreshingly innocent and a real delight to read. Tara Books founder Gita Wolf describes it as ‘the ancient ability to marvel at the new.’
On lovers: “They are truly free to do what they like in their personal lives. On one of my first days in London, I saw a boy and a girl standing right in the middle of the street, kissing and hugging and unable to let go of each other. I couldn’t help staring at them, and the person who was showing me around noticed this. He took me by the hand and said, “Keep walking, you’ll see plenty more of that.”
On work: “What I liked about the system in London was that working people had dignity, no matter what their job was. Even a man who cleared rubbish bins had a nice uniform, and boots.”
On food in restaurants: “Because I was never sure of the meat, I have drawn all sorts of creatures that I might possible have eaten. The numbers on their bellies are their numbers on the menu.”
It really is the best kind of travel book.
The London Jungle Book is available at Tara Books.