Brain Pickings

The London Jungle Book: What an Indian Tribal Artist Can Teach Us About Rediscovering Our Capacity for Everyday Wonder

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A humbling perspective to jolt us into appreciating all the mundane miracles of travel and city life that we’ve come to take for granted.

Something happened to us between Shackleton’s day in the Golden Age of Exploration and today — something that transformed us from wide-eyed wanderers who came to know distant lands with a sense of wonder and awe into the habitually crabby, short-tempered, entitled travelers we are today. We tap our feet impatiently at the airport security line, oblivious to the miracle we’re about to experience — a giant beast of our own creation is to take us high into the sky (where we can enjoy food and Academy-Award-winning cinema) and to a distant, often foreign land. A mere century ago, the vast majority of people never traveled more than fifty miles from their place of birth in their lifetime — and yet here we are today, jaded and irritable at the prospect of travel. How did we end up that way? And what if we arrogant moderns could, if only for a moment, strip ourselves of our cultural baggage and experience travel afresh, with eager new eyes and exuberant joy for the journey?

That’s precisely what award-winning artist Bhajju Shyam, working in the Gond tradition of Indian folk art, does in The London Jungle Book (public library) — an extraordinary and invigorating book from Indian independent publisher Tara Books, who continue to give international voice to marginalized art and literature through their commune of artists, writers and designers collaborating on unusual, often handmade books. Titled as both an homage and a mirror-image counterpoint to Rudyard Kipling’s iconic The Jungle Book, this gem tells the story of young Bhajju’s reality-warping encounter with London, where he journeyed from his native India.

At once a highly symbolic, almost semiotic visual travelogue and a work of remarkable philosophical sensitivity, the book invites us to see our tiresomely familiar world through the eyes of a young man who has a creative intelligence few adults are endowed with and a childlike capacity for wonder and metaphorical imagery. The busy King’s Cross station of the London Tube becomes a serpentine King of the Underworld, Big Ben a giant omniscient rooster, and London’s female workforce — women who seem to Shyam to do most of the work “and happily” — multi-handed goddesses.

Shyam’s creative journey is just as winding and miraculous as his voyage to London, and the two are inextricably intertwined. During his early teens, his mother used to paint the walls of their home — the Gond tradition began on walls — and asked him to help by painting the parts she couldn’t reach. The family was poor and though his parents tried to send their three kids to school, they didn’t have the means for completing even a basic education. As Shyam recounts with wistful humor, “One of us would have books, the other would have a uniform, and the third would have a bag. If we were all one child, we would have made it through.”

In 1988, at the age of sixteen, young Bhajju left his small village in the forests of Central India and went to the city of Bhopal looking for work. He got a job as a night watchman, until his uncle — who happened to be the prominent Gond artist Jangarh Singh Shyam — offered him an apprenticeship. Initially, the work was rather menial — filling out patterns in his uncle’s large canvases — but the boy’s talent quickly became apparent. With his uncle’s encouragement to strike out on his own, Shyam spent the next ten years honing his craft and slowly began to gain recognition. His work was eventually included in a significant 1998 exhibition of indigenous art in Paris.

A few years later, he received an invitation from the acclaimed London-based Indian designer Rajeev Sethi, who had come to know and love Shyam’s work, to travel to the European metropolis and paint murals on the walls of an upscale Indian restaurant alongside another Gond artist, Ram Singh Urvethi — the talent behind Tara’s magnificent I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail and The Night Life of Trees.

Shyam took the opportunity. As he observes in the book, with his signature penchant for the intersection of the humble and the profound, “An artist goes where there is work.” The two months he spent in London became his real-life version of Alice in Wonderland as he found himself in a world that made little sense compared to his familiar reality, yet enchanted him with its wonders and invited him to mediate, as MoMA curator Juliet Kinchin once insightfully defined the essence of childhood, between the ideal and the real.

As he sets out for the journey, he describes a beautifully relatable, ineffable feeling that even the most travel-jaded of us experience:

I started to feel something strange. It’s a feeling I call 50-50. Half-and-half… The mixture of pleasure and pain you feel when you leave home and set out to travel to an unknown place.

Having never flown on, or even seen, an airplane, nor traveled underground on the subway, Shyam, who doesn’t speak English, brings to these exhilarating new experiences the only language of interpretation he knows — that of symbolism, deeply embedded in the Gond style, which is unconcerned with realism and narrative sequence but rather focuses on representing “what is in the mind’s eye.” Gond art is a form of prayer, using its intricate lines, geometric patterns and symbolic vocabulary to connect the human experience with the cosmos. It’s almost beside the point, then, to note that Gond art evolved not as a commercial commodity but as a community’s private celebration.

What makes Shyam especially endearing as we follow him on the journey is that, unlike the typical Western traveler, he takes special care not to offend others, while exerting no egotistical effort to impress whatsoever. For him, the guiding spirits of travel are those of humility, openness and vulnerability, not those of arrogance and entitlement.

Once Shyam boards the airplane and begins to admire the miraculous machinery of this flying beast — which he depicts as an elephant, the heaviest animal he knows, because “a plane taking off is as much of a miracle as an elephant flying” — he is gripped with a sudden sense of unease underneath his excitement. Touching into it, he finds the intuitive sense that his world is being turned upside-down, literally:

I have always looked up to see the clouds above me, and now I had to look down to see them. The world was upside-down!

Having battled the bureaucracies of immigration my whole life — a soul-draining experience of being perpetually reminded that you’re a foreigner, a stranger in your own home — I was particularly taken with Shyam’s account of arriving in London. In a chapter titled “Becoming a Foreigner,” he writes:

It was only when we landed that I realized how different it was from India. The officials were friendly, everyone stood in neat lines and even though there were so many people around, it was quiet. Almost like someone had ordered everyone not to speak loudly. And most importantly, the sounds I heard coming from the people around me didn’t mean anything to me.

Everyone was a foreigner — all kinds of skin colors and all kinds of hair. I had seen foreigners before — some of them had visited my village to look at our paintings, but now I realized that something strange had happened. My color was different, my language was taken away from me… I myself had become a foreigner!

After accidentally calling his uncle in the middle of the night, unaware of the time difference between London and Delhi, Shyam visits Big Ben on a tour of London and once again captures the cultural differences in his symbolic drawings:

I saw Big Ben, and I thought: so this is their temple of time. It’s beautiful, and carefully built because they are very careful about time here. If you are five minutes early for an appointment, they will tell you to wait because you are early. If you are five minutes late, they will tell you that you are late. Everyone checks their watches all the time.

I have a watch too, but my symbol of time is still the Gond one — a rooster. It wakes you up at sunrise. Then the day follows its course, and the next event that marks the passage of time is the sun going down.

He marvels at the London Underground:

Who thought this up — to burrow underground because there is no more space in the world above? It was one of the most wonderful things I saw in London, and one that I will never forget — this idea of snuggling your way through the earth.

In restaurants, he finds himself overwhelmed by the variety of dishes and the unrecognizable ingredients of his food, especially the meat:

You couldn’t tell what it was just by looking at it. Sometimes it was in a tube, or in discs, or in long strips, like paper…

In this drawing, he depicts himself as an octopus, “a greedy customer with noodles for arms, eating everything on the menu.” Never sure of what animal became the meat he ate, he draws a menagerie of possible creatures, numbering their bellies to reflect the menu number the dish he imagines came from the respective creature. The fork and knife are tucked neatly to the side, almost an afterthought to the drawing. Shyam explains the symbolism:

I have put in the fork and the knife because they are strange implements to me, tools that I would never associate with food. But to the people of London, they are the symbols for food.

While most of his observations brim with innocence and joyful sincerity, some expose the heartbreaking realities of global income inequality, even if he records them with his inescapable optimism. In a section on work, he writes:

What I liked about the system in London was that working people had dignity, no matter what their job was. Even a man who cleared rubbish bins had a nice uniform, and boots. Workers on construction sites were big and healthy and had electric tools. Just from looking at the people, I couldn’t tell who was rich and who was poor.

Obviously there are poor people in London too, but they are not as poor as the poor in India… The main difference is this: anyone who has work in London is alright. But in India, you can work all day and still be hungry.

In addition to the gorgeous art and pause-giving perspective, the book has a layer of historical poignancy: A century earlier, Shyam’s tribe had been studied by the pioneering British anthropologist Verrier Elwin, who married a Gond woman, lived with the community, and wrote several books about the tribe. Shyam’s grandfather had been Elwin’s servant, so the boy had grown up with the writer’s stories. To deepen the synchronicity even further, Elwin had written in the preface to one of his books on the Gonds that he considered it a counterpart to Kipling’s Jungle Book. How beautiful, then, that Shyam got to return not only Kipling’s cultural volley but also to become an anthropologist in Elwin’s world a century later. As the project was coming to fruition, he told Tara Books founder Gita Wolf:

Elwin sahib wrote about my tribe, now it is my turn to write about his!

The London Jungle Book is immeasurably wonderful and layered in its entirety. Complement it with a few more of Tara Books’ treasures: Waterlife, Drawing from the City, Alone in the Forest, and The Night Life of Trees.

Artwork courtesy of Tara Books

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