Scenes of Whimsy and Delight: The Paintings of Sukhnandi Vyam Gond

Scenes of Whimsy and Delight: The Paintings of Sukhnandi Vyam Gond

Sukhnandi Vyam Pardhan grew up making traditional clay relief sculptures on the walls of his village home in Gram Sonpuri, Madhya Pradesh, since he was ten years old. The Pardhan Gond artist has since worked across multiple media. His first exhibition of paintings, ‘Sacred Roots’, was shown in Mumbai this August at ARTISANS’, Kala Ghoda.

Sukhanandi belongs to the second generation of Pardhan Gond painters to emerge from the Bhopal area after the establishment of Bhopal Bhavan in 1982 by Ashok Vajpeyi and Jagdish Swaminathan. The museum has nourished and encouraged many indigenous artists such as Sukhnandi. It was at a camp held by the museum at his village, that the artist realized his talent and gained the confidence to pursue his dreams. Although Sukhnandi had not received formal training at a fine arts institute, with the guidance from his uncle Jangarh Singh Shyam, he began working with wood and later extended his practice into experiments on paper.

Like many established Gond artists, Sukhnandi, who has been residing in the city of Bhopal for many years, remains connected to his roots, taking inspiration almost exclusively from his early rural life. His work draws largely from mythological tales whose protagonists include Babadev, a beloved local deity and ancestor; Narmada, the virgin river princess that runs across the state of Madhya Pradesh; and a multitude of forest-dwelling animals.

Sukhnandi’s work depicts scenes of whimsy and delight based on stories kept alive by the Pardhans from generation to generation through a rich oral tradition. The Pardhans are the ones within the Gond community who are responsible for retelling these myths. It is apparent when speaking to the artist, who can tell a long-winded Gond tale at the drop of a hat, that these narratives are an integral part of him. “I’ve been hearing these stories since I was a little boy, from my grandmother and aunt,” Sukhnandi says. “The stories are constantly swimming in my head no matter what I am doing.”

One painting shows a deer smiling at a bird perched on his back, while his antlers extend and merge with the surrounding trees, his body covered with patterns of fine lines and dots. In another work, the Princess Narmada is depicted as having long flowing hair that closely resembles waves of water in motion. These merging figures conjure ideas of the food chain as well as the natural cycle of growth and decay, where one living creature is subsumed by another. “The Gonds think of plants and trees as gods and goddesses. We believe they all have spirits dwelling within them,” says the artist. Sukhnandi’s work celebrates a life closely intertwined with nature, idealizing an existence untouched by urban forces. Painted in vibrant colors and brilliant vibrating patterns, they reveal the conceptual strength of Sukhnandi’s imagery and his ability not only to depict the natural world, but the dynamism that exists underneath and within all existence.

“I don’t directly depict the mythological stories. I always use my own thoughts and creativity to interpret them.” As an artist Sukhnandi realizes the uniqueness of his individual voice and the need to set himself apart. He sees the need for constant innovation and improvisation to develop his practice. Sukhnandi differentiates himself primarily through his carefully constructed forms and the incredible intricacy of his line. He defies the stereotypes of the raw expression or mark making commonly associated with tribal artists with his pre-meditated and controlled forms.

In his exhibition, ‘Sacred Roots’ at ARTISANS’, Sukhnandi Vyam Pardhan expresses his unique vision while paying tribute to his uncle and mentor, the legendary Jangarh Singh Shyam, the first of the Gonds to take up paper and paint and the man who influenced many in his community to do the same before his tragic death.

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Virgin River

Depicted here by the artist is the river princess Narmada or Nar Manda as she is endearingly called by the Gonds. The victim of an unfortunate case of mistaken identity, Narmada’s fiancé Son Bahadur confuses her sister Johilla for the bride and weds her instead. Narmada, left in tears, remains a virgin river for eternity. Narmada is seen here fleeing the scene of the wedding in rage, riding a crocodile and charging through the dense forest.

Narmada’s wedding myth closely imitates geography. Although the three rivers Narmada, Johilla and Son originate close to one another, Narmada continues westward, while Johilla takes a sharp turn north to ultimately join and flow into the Son. The Gonds have lived on the banks of the Narmada for centuries and she holds a special place in their heart

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The earth spun from the spider’s web

The main creation myth of the Gonds states that at the beginning of time, there was only water and no land. The great spider spun his giant web to help form the earth. The motif of the spider appears time and again in Sukhnandi’s work. The idea of a worldwide flood features often in creation myths across cultures. Many historians believe that there might have been such a flood that took place in history, citing seashell fossils found on mountaintops and in inland areas as evidence. The Gonds believe that without the spider’s natural skill for weaving, its patience and persistence, the earth would not be here.

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The sun rises for the Pardhan Pakshi

As musicians of the community, the Pardhans play the Bana, their traditional instrument for all ceremonies and performances. The instrument is considered sacred and is inspired by the sound of the local bird depicted here by Sukhanandi- the Bhari Pardhan Pakshi. Every morning when the sun rises the bird soars high above the trees and sings to its heart’s desire, swooping back down to earth only after singing her great song.

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The crow and the crab

The crow is the first creature to be created by the Gond deity Mahadev. However, he has no land to stand upon because at the beginning of time, the world was only water. Mahadev sends the crow across long distances in search of soil to begin building the earth. The brave crow flies until he finds a rock to rest his tired wings but soon realizes that he is actually seated on the claw of a crab. This enchanting tale forms the beginning of the Gond creation myth and is the inspiration for many of Sukhnandi’s paintings.

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A Tribute

This work holds special importance for Sukhnandi as a tribute to his uncle and mentor Jangarh Singh Shyam. Jangarh is depicted here as a multi-talented mythic character, a hybrid of animal and bird with multiple arms and legs, each one holding either a paintbrush or musical instrument. Sukhanandi lovingly says of his mentor, “Without Jangarh there is nothing.”