• Urvashi Singh

Jhabua's Patroness of the Arts: Nandini Singh

The Gond art form remains the legacy of one of India’s largest tribal communities, the Gonds. Spreading over the Deccan, Central and Eastern India, these indigenous people have been perfecting painted and carved art for over 1400 years. Dating back to the Mesolithic Period, Gond art can be found on the walls of ancient caves. More popular expression of Gond art over the centuries is found on the mud-plastered floor and walls of Gond homes, chiefly for the totemic symbolism that the tribe attaches to these images. As per age-old Gond beliefs, good images warded off evil spirit


Gond art is oftentimes referred to as On Line Work, for being premised on carefully drawn inner and outer lines of striking precision. The imaginative and inventive usage of these lines imparts in each still image, a sense of movement. Gond Gods and Goddesses, myths, folktales, birds and animals formed the earliest set of subjects in Gond art. Natural colours obtained from flowers, leaves and stone continue to reign the format of Gond pigments, be it on walls and floors or papers and canvas. The latter two mediums, namely paper and canvas were only introduced to the world of Gond Art in the twentieth century by Jangarh Singh Shyam. A Pardhan Gond from Madhya Pradesh’s Patangarh, he was the first Adivasi artist to have his art work ‘Landscape with Spider’ sold for USD 31,250 at Sotheby’s, New York in 2010. Hailed to usher in the Jangarh Kalam school of Indian art, the artist’s work is largely inspired by traditional Gond tattoos.


Jangarh Singh Shyam (Image courtesy: Wikipedia)
‘Landscape with Spider’ by Jangarh Singh Shyam (Image courtesy: Wikipedia)

Jangarh’s legacy is being continued by his various family members and relatives who have earned their independent repute as modern-day exemplars of Gond artistic finery. However, they have lesser-known contemporaries who are busy making more humble depictions of mythological parables and folklore. Given that Gond art is a highly affordable art form, it carries a gargantuan market, rife with competition and variety.


Amidst this bustling Artscape, Rajputana Collective converses with Nandini Singh, a renowned patron and custodian of Gond Art. Hailing from the princely family of Jhabua on Madhya Pradesh, Nandini takes us through her journey as an art revivalist. In this exclusive feature, Jhabua’s scioness enunciates a rediscovery of her purpose and roots through a spirited promotion of the Gond art form amongst several others.


Nandini Singh Jhabua

Sitting in her parents’ home, Nandini admires walls adorned with photographs of her ancestors. Their myriad acts of community service, in the form of educational, infrastructural and employment generating endeavours fills her with a sense of pride. They helped enlighten the future of Jhabua and its people, and as Jhabua’s daughter, Nandini finds it her primary duty to carry forth her family’s philanthropic efforts.


Upon returning from the United States, where she served Deutsch Bank and her husband’s restaurant ventures, Nandini consciously stepped inside the world of Indian art. Until then, she had carried an eye for native art forms and often used her inborn gift for aesthetic to advice her friends make investments in Gond Art. Thus, from being a skilled spectator, she was a purpose-filled stake holder driven by a vision. What was merely a hobby formalised into a conscious choice to curate Indian art forms.


Nandini begins, “Upon returning from the USA, something that inspired me was seeing many wonderful women in India, especially from the royal lineage bring art, textiles and jewellery froom their states and regions to various cities through the exposition called Royal Fables. In doing so, not only were they giving back to their artisans, but also helped restore India’s age-old culture and heritage. I was amazed to see their sheer will to promote different artisans and bring their work to prominence. This initiative made me go back to my ancestral home of Jhabua wherein I connected and worked with tribal artists to enhance their creativity with ideas and vision.”


Her revivalist efforts began after Nandini collaborated with artists in Madhya Pradesh’s tribal belts, such as Jhabua and the neighbouring area of Alirajpur. The recent U.S. return had found her purpose in taking charge and bringing the handiworks of Gond artists to prominence. Discerning the patronage that governed Indian art in princely times, Nandini committed herself to keeping that patronage alive in the twenty-first century.


Apart joining Royal Fables’ dazzling fleet to exhibit her curation, Nandini also utilises the twin mediums of social media and private home gallery viewings. “In promoting local art forms, I find myself drawn closer to my roots. As an art custodian, I believe that all that native artists really need is vision and direction. I am looking for a global opening for the Gond art form in particular, as well as some international collaborations. In the meantime, I am working closely with Madhya Pradesh’s art and culture ministry in order to push Gond art to the national forefront. I hope for a Gond Art School to harness tribal art and talent in the near future”, she adds.


“Each Gond painting is a masterpiece and is unique on its own. Gond art is an ancient art form, commonly done on the walls of rural India. Initially, the medium was charcoal painted on the walls within and outside their homes. The subject was traditionally animals and reptiles, as it captured the natural habitat. Now, Gond painting is depicted on Canvas and Paper also as wall art. Capturing the essence of growth and prosperity through tree of life, gods, animals and reptiles. Gond Art is now a very popular art form and is taught as an art subject in almost all schools. Its dotted ink work is easy to learn and adapt to, and I believe therapeutic.” - Nandini Singh Jhabua


She reports having a tie up with galleries based out of Sri Lanka and Washington D.C. to promote aboriginal Indian art. Moreover, Nandini makes frequent attempts to tap into homes, hotels and interior projects with designers as prospective spaces to exhibit Gond art. She mentions a recent collaboration with Marina Shaikh’s Rising World Foundation, wherein she acts as the head of communications and fundraising. It is here that her work with Gond artisans is being streamlined as a potential fundraising medium to help alleviate the hardships of many communities after the aftermath of COVID. Nandini sees two of her life’s greatest passions, namely, patronising local art forms and community service congregating for the collective welfare of all. Her curational gamut also extends to wildlife art, Islamic calligraphy art and antique Pichwais.


To conclude, Nandini leaves us with a poignant take on the importance or preserving tribal art heritage. In her own words, “Art and heritage has always been a unifying space, which is borrowed from one era and reinvented in another, keeping us connected to the past. It is through art that we identify with cultures. It is through art that the artisan marks his existence, it is through art that we express without words. Hence for me the importance in preserving our culture and heritage is of paramount importance. Not only do I bring Gond Art to forefront, I am also working on reviving Islamic calligraphy art. My Art collection weighs significance to the talent of art in our Country, focusing on the natural Flora and Fauna that is the soul of our existence. My goal is to revive this art and bring the artist and their talent in prominence, locally as well as globally.”

Artwork by Dhawat Singh (Image courtesy: Studio3India.com)



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