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In your city: Ganja, Mahua, and forbidden love

A new exhibition on Gond art takes it beyond folk interpretations of myths to the realm of social commentary

An illustration of the ‘ganja’ plant as Shiva, and the ‘mahua’ tree as Parvati. Photos: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
An illustration of the ‘ganja’ plant as Shiva, and the ‘mahua’ tree as Parvati. Photos: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

A portion of the first-floor corridor at Delhi University’s faculty of arts has been transformed into a walk-through gallery for two weeks. Prose, poetry and Gond art have come together to interpret various instances of “forbidden love" from, historically, B.R. Ambedkar’s relationship with Fanny Fitzgerald, to scenes from the much talked about Marathi film Sairat.

The exhibit, titled The Ganja-Mahua Chronicles, takes off from a page of Finding My Way, a 2016 collaborative book by author S. Anand and artist Venkat Raman Singh Shyam. An illustration of the ganja plant is represented artistically as the god Shiva, and the mahua tree as the feminine Parvati. In the story though, told often as an instructive fable in the Gond community, Shiva tells Parvati the story of a mahua tree and a ganja plant, which they find standing side-by-side in a forest they are walking in. The tale goes that the plants were in reality lovers whose relationship society did not approve of. Though they left behind social codes and escaped into the thick of the forest, the two still couldn’t become one. After all, one is advised not to mix alcohol with marijuana.

An illustration depicting the characters from the film ‘Sairat’ at Delhi University’s faculty of arts gallery.

“This issue (of inter-caste love) doesn’t pertain very directly to our community," says Shyam, of the Gond community he belongs to. “But the story of ganja-mahua is told to our children to impart a certain message, to keep the community together, and to alert them as to the problems they will face if they stray from the codes that society has set for them," he adds, explaining the tale’s popularity. “For instance, my sister married a Muslim out of choice. If I go eat at her house, no one will want to talk to me," he says. He adds that this is a reality he cannot deny, even as Anand talks of how the exhibit, shown at Times LitFest 2016, is informed more by his own politics and anxieties than perhaps Shyam’s.

“Imagine, out of every 10 million marriages registered in India, less than 10,000 are ones that have one Dalit spouse," Anand says, refocusing the conversation on the thrust of their exhibit. “The story of Divya and Ilavarasan (the tragic 2013 story of an inter-caste couple in Tamil Nadu that resulted in the latter’s death), is something that happens all the time, unfortunately. It’s replaceable per region, context," he says. The Sairat story, possibly the most memorable pop culture interpretation of such incidents in the recent past, just “made itself available" to them by talking about inter-caste love the way that it did. Sure, Ambedkar’s relationship with Fitzgerald was not an “inter-caste" one, technically, but for Anand, Ambedkar’s works, which established a connection between maintaining the caste status quo and the excessive systemic control on women, have been a key factor in viewing such relationships.

Despite this, there is no denying Anand’s and Shyam’s equal participation in the project. On one panel, Shyam defiantly strays from the very typical dot-work that one associates with Gond art. This is the panel that interprets Divya and Ilavarasan’s story through a conversational sonnet. “Now what’s to say this too isn’t Gond art," he says at one point. Anand follows through: “When you think of Gond art, you think of beautiful, tender pictures and images," he says. “Whether in books or as canvas, they look as if they have been derived from a primitive space, a primeval experience. But the Gond art in this project has moved away from that." The form is now colliding head on with social commentary.

Despite disagreements and reservations about the extent to which “mixing" and diluting one’s identity is acceptable, both acknowledge that this is one conversation that is a constant. Shyam also makes his terms of engagement clear. “My reason for participating in this project, or even on the book (Finding My Way), is to see how far I can push the expression of my art," he says. His aim is to stress that Gond art is no longer just a folk and pastoral interpretation of age-old myths, but that it is doing all that it can to boldly reinvent itself and engage in projects that cannot afford to pigeon-hole its existence any more—even if that means a momentary digression of its age-old form, to make its statement.

The Ganja–Mahua Chronicles is on show till 3 May, 11am-4pm, on the first floor, department of English, arts faculty, Delhi University

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