Aligning with these international debates, Bharat Bhavan, a multi-arts complex initiated by the Government of India in 1982 and led by the modernist artist J. Swaminathan was developed in Bhopal in Central India. Within the Bharat Bhavan, Swami (as he was fondly called) created a dream project, Roopankar, a museum dedicated to the unknown arts of Madhya Pradesh, and gave folk artists a platform where they would be exhibited as India’s modern artists, without focusing on their ethnographic affinities. They would be appreciated for their artistic qualities (Jain 2011, 19; Dutta 2018, 109; Das 2017, 28; see also Sheikh 1997, 17). Consciously or sub-consciously, Swami had aligned himself to the global discourse of the 1980s, perhaps even theorized it before many others. It was during this search for rural or folk art that Swami’s team stumbled upon a clay relief made by Jangarh Singh Shyam (1961-2001) in his village Patangarh.
The ‘discovery’ and migration of Jangarh to Bhopal, to work in a modernist and state-sponsored institution, amongst other folk artists, as well as academically trained urban artists, becoming exposed to multiple mediums like poster colours and printmaking, brought forward his genius and opened multiple doors. Jangarh drew from a collective visual idiom; he was the first artist to give a form to the oral and performative traditions that existed in the context of Pardhan Gond mythology. With no other example to lean on, Jangarh drew from the collective memory of his village and from the urban modern art context to give a dynamic and original form to his deities and folkloric imagery. The introduction to poster and acrylic colours and their bright, easy-to-use format sent “shivers down his body” (Jain 2011, 25; also, Sheikh 1997, 17; and Dutta 2018, 40), and resulted in free-flowing imagery filled with dots and dashes that created movement in his figures, bringing them to life. At Bharat Bhavan, he mastered techniques of printmaking while working as a studio assistant in the Graphics section and masterfully manipulated the technique to make it his own, unlike his contemporaries who used the medium within a formalist frame.
Acknowledgement of his talent was quick and a mixed bag of invitations came his way: he was invited as a craftsman, as a folk artist, as a modernist, sometimes as an insider but mostly as an outsider. Jangarh found himself sitting on bamboo mats at the Crafts Bazaars including the Surajkund Mela, or as an artist-in-residence at the Crafts Museum in New Delhi, or at the Mithila Museum in Japan, or rubbing shoulders with Indian modernists at his shows at the Dhoomimal Gallery and Art Heritage, New Delhi. He met well-known patrons who promoted his art. Jangarh adjusted to it all.
In 1989, Jangarh participated in Magiciens de la Terre, one of the most debated and central-to-art history exhibitions of the 20th century; it was curated by Jean-Hubert Martin at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The exhibition featured 104 artists from Western and non-Western countries; half of them came from ‘non-Western’ ones and the aim was “to do away with the monopoly of European-American art…and to describe artistic practice as a universal and spiritual phenomenon in a global world”. Martin’s curatorial vision to show ‘art’ and ‘craft’ in the same gallery, to blur the distinction between the two, was definitely ahead of its time. (Friedel 2016). Tellingly, much after his death, Jangarh remained an artist who became popular with modern and folk art museums and auction houses that offered his works for sale regularly both in modern art and folk art categories.
Because of Jangarh’s tribal background, a gallery in New Delhi made him disrobe to pose in his loincloth and turban for a photograph (Jain 2011, 26; also, Jain 2018, 9 and Dutta 2018, 43). At the same time and more recently in 2018, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi hosted a major retrospective of his career and placed him in a capacity equal to other urban established artists.