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Remembering the ‘Other Master’, Jivya Soma Mashe

French art critic Herv Perdriolle on the Warli art legend who died last week and the exhibition he is curating in tribute

Artist Jivya Soma Mashe. Photo: Bertrand Langlois/AFP
Artist Jivya Soma Mashe. Photo: Bertrand Langlois/AFP

Artist and Padma Shri awardee Jivya Soma Mashe, who put Warli art on the global map, died on 15 May, aged 84, at his village, Ganjad, in Maharasthra.

In an email interview, the French art critic Hervé Perdriolle, a friend of his, recounts his memories of meetings with Mashe. Perdriolle, who is also the founder of the Galerie Hervé Perdriolle, has over the last two decades tirelessly promoted the work of contemporary tribal and folk Indian artists, whom he labelled the “Other Masters of India". He spoke to Lounge while putting together an exhibition of Mashe’s work at the Manoir de Martigny in Martigny, Switzerland, which opens on Saturday. Edited excerpts:

You have collected more than 400 works of Vernacular Contemporary Indian art, including the works of Mashe and Jangarh Singh Shyam. Could you explain the term?

Vernacular, In The Contemporary was the title of an exhibition at the Devi Art Foundation in 2010 and it is more appropriate and less restrictive than the word “tribal". It is often thought that contemporary art is an art form that is exclusively an extension of the Western historical avant-gardes. However, more and more cultural actors think that contemporary art should not be reduced to this single vision. Such was the case in India in the 1970s, when the government, under the influence of Pupul Jayakar, made the decision to present major figures from minority cultures with the same National Awards that were awarded to the artists in modern art. Thus, Indira Gandhi presented Jivya Soma Mashe’s first National Award in 1976. Jivya Soma Mashe and Jangarh Singh Shyam are the masters of my collection.

Tell us about your first and last meeting with Mashe—how had his global fame impacted his outlook?

My first encounter with Jivya Soma Mashe was not easy. In the middle of the 1990s, there was no internet or mobile phone. It was impossible to inform him of my visit and it took me three trips to finally meet him. I guess my insistence must have pleased him. The last time we met was in March, and it was very moving, I noticed that his health was declining very quickly, and I knew that soon I wouldn’t have the chance of seeing him again. As always, we sat side by side and exchanged words, him in Varli, me in French. It was not necessary to translate these words, our mutual emotion was palpable.

I do not think that his international fame, despite the many travels and honours, had any influence on his work. But it did determine his way of life. After his first success, Jivya decided to stay in his native land, in front of the sacred mountain, and live with his family, as he always had. He liked to say he was a painter and a peasant, and, in fact, he ate only the rice he grew himself.

Hervé Perdriolle, Jivya Soma Mashe and sculptor Sir Richard J. Long, Ganjad, 2003. Photo courtesy: Denise Hooker

Warli art has several recurring themes and motifs. What was the one theme you found characteristic in Mashe’s work?

One of the most appreciated themes for collectors is the fishing net. From a distance, one does not necessarily see a fishing net; some see a representation of the roof of the world, a sacred mountain. Close up, we are surprised by the infinite repetition of the mesh of the net. Jivya repeats tirelessly these thousands of small circles without the least lassitude. This repetition, entirely composed of nuances, evokes pictorially the melodic frame of the ragas.

Do you feel Gond art eclipsed the early attention Warli art received?

Mithila painting was the most popular Indian folk art in the 1970s and 1980s, and, in the years 1990-2000, it was the turn of Warli art. Since 2010, the art of the Gond is the most present. These are cycles more than trends. The need to renew our view constantly, knowing that we always revisit the highlights of our cultures.

What are your thoughts on Warli motifs being used in clothing and other places as decorative imagery?

In Western contemporary art, it is a common practice. Many museum shops offer products derived from the work of great artists. What is essential is that the original work is not distorted or misunderstood. The other important point is respect for the artistic property. It is necessary that the artists or their rights-holders give the authorizations and collect royalties.

‘Fishnet’ (2009), acrylic and cow dung on canvas, by Jivya Soma Mashe. Photo courtesy Hervé Perdriolle

What are your curatorial plans for the exhibition at the Manoir de Martigny?

This exhibition continues my desire to show contemporary art regardless of its origins, rural and urban. Alongside the emblematic figures of Jivya Soma Mashe and Jangarh Singh Shyam, we exhibit the work of Shine Shivan and T. Venkanna, both graduates of Indian art schools. This exhibition includes some 100 works loaned by 30 collectors.

The exhibition is on till 5 August at the Manoir de Martigny in Switzerland.

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