In 2002, Bhajju Shyam, a young artist from the Gond tribal community of central India travelled to London to spend two months painting murals on the walls of an upmarket Indian restaurant in Islington called Masala Zone. A year later, he captured the imagination of Gita Wolf and Sirish Rao during an illustrator’s workshop their publishing house, Tara Books, ran. His stories about London – the journey there, the people and their strange customs – suggested the editors that there was a book here: a book in which Shyam would paint and tell the story of his London Odyssey in an idiom which used the symbols and colours of Gond tribal art to depict the modern metropolis. The result is an extraordinary example of reverse-anthropology. London is transformed into a marvellous bestiary, full of foxes and bats, of four-armed goddesses and worms underground, of fish-women and bird-men.
Each page contains a painting, alongside a few paragraphs of text. Everyone will have their own favourites, and all I can do in a review like this is to give you a taster of a few of mine, in the hopes that this will give you flavour of the delights the book contains.
Loyal Friend Number 30 is a bright red double-decker bus sporting a dog’s head and a cheerfully curling tail. The number 30 bus became Shyam’s familiar and comforting companion on his explorations of this strange urban terrain: “You could walk the same route,” he says, “but then you might get cold, or lost, or be robbed. But the bus will take care of you, just like the dogs that guide us through the forests near my village.”
The King of the Underworld takes the familiar, almost iconic map of the London Underground and transforms it into a swirling nest of earthworms and snakes. “In Gond belief, there is another world below this one, and I discovered there is such a world in London as well,” he explains. The spiky-haired busker and the no-smoking sign make you realise that this new netherworld is a brilliant conflation of the two.
What does this traditional, tribal artist make of Modern Art? Visiting museums and art galleries, Shyam explains with disarming honesty, that “a lot of the time I couldn’t understand what the artist was trying to say.” He was inspired by seeing one of Damien Hirst’s classic ‘dead animal in formaldehyde’ installations – in this case a cow. “We have cows in the middle of the road in India, but not inside galleries… I guessed that maybe he wanted to say something about death. That much was clear.”
There are few books in the world that contain such a happy marriage of image and text. The two or three paragraphs that accompany each image are a beautiful blend of anecdote and explanation. I found myself wondering what may have resulted had Shyam not worked with such sensitive editor-translators as Gita Wolf and Sirish Rao. The book could so easily have been a treatise on Gond tribal art, or simply a nicely-produced coffee-table curio. Instead, you’re led inside a remarkable mind, introduced to, and charmed by, a unique voice and you come away from the book uplifted by the realization that even in our commodified, advertising-bombarded, globalized world, there are genuinely different ‘ways of seeing’. The London Jungle Book takes the reader on a journey every bit as remarkable as the artists’ own.