International Women's Day: I resist being categorised, says Roshni Vyam

For creative people who also happen to be women, what role does gender, community, tradition have in shaping those hard-won rights and fiercely-cherished achievements?

International Women's Day: I resist being categorised, says Roshni Vyam

Sampurna Chattarji

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‘Genderole’ by Rukmini Bhaya Nair

An observance that grew out of the American suffragette movement, International Women’s Day has, for little over a century now, been marked as a day that aims to celebrate women’s rights, and honour women’s achievements. For creative people who also happen to be women, what role does gender, community, tradition have in shaping those hard-won rights and fiercely-cherished achievements? As a young writer trying to elide/elude labels, I remember how struck I was by this poem by Rukmini Bhaya Nair, in which the run-on lines that mimicked the inscription of Sanskrit slokas insisted I find a new way of reading, inserting the spaces that my mind needed in order to make sense of what was written. This re-seeing of what feels simultaneously very old and very new provoked the questions I put to the practitioner featured here.

SAMPURNA CHATTARJI, poet, editor, author, most recently of Unmappable Moves

What is the ‘genderole’ you resist/redefine/reclaim through your work?

Being a woman artist, I feel like a free bird. I always recall a sentence from my uncle, Jangarh Singh Shyam, (Do what you like, my dear old goddess). I still remember, when I used to show my small scribbles to him and ask, “Is this good?” he would smile, and encourage me, wholeheartedly.

Later, when he passed away, I realised that people started to put my art in a box called ‘Gond tribal painting’, since I belong to a Pardhan tribe. As a six- or seven-yearold girl, I never understood the concept of categories, caste, or gender. Many times, I questioned my parents and my relatives but they didn’t have any answer since they never had to face such things when they were in their village. Moving to a new city, like Bhopal, was quite difficult for everyone, including my parents.

Later on, my own education, and research on my community helped me to understand how the term of ‘Gond art’ arrived. When my uncle Jangarh was brought to Bhopal by the scouts of Bharat Bhavan, he could barely speak Hindi, and he didn’t understand what to call his own art. After some years, his relatives started following his style of expression. So, people thought, since this community belongs to the Gond tribe, let’s call it Gond art. No one was at fault but lack of research and a language barrier created a lot of confusion around the correct term for this art form.

I started practising art at very young age. When I was growing up, I tried different techniques and I got criticised. People said, “It doesn’t look like tribal or Gond art, you should stick to where you belong.” Later on, I came to the conclusion that as an artist, more than any ‘genderole’, I resist being categorised, and restricted to being only one thing or another. I would like to be an independent artist, and do what I like, as my uncle told me, and find my own expression, using different techniques and materials to redefine what I learnt. If I stay connected to the inspiration of my parents (Durga Bai Vyam and Subhash Singh Vyam) and my uncle (late Jangarh Singh Shyam), while reclaiming my own path and identity, people will sooner or later see me for who I am, rather than who they want me to be.

What role does the community play in the making/unmaking of your work?

I feel my artistic journey began with the quest of discovering everything about my community’s history and culture.

As I said, I was very inspired by the big colourful canvases done by my uncle. I used to happily sit beside him, carefree, painting without hesitation and showing my work to him. Suddenly, one day, he was gone. I didn’t understand what had happened, but I could see that my community was devastated, scared and completely lost. Nobody knew what life would be like after him. It was a big shock! However, they recovered and continued working on the [form of] expression that he had started. Slowly, this art became their bread and butter. No one cared to think about what it should be called, they just continued and time passed.

Somehow, I realised that while my community remembered his method of working, they forgot his teachings. He always encouraged us to find our own way in different art forms like dance, music, sculpture etc. He never asked us to copy him. “It’s good to get inspiration from someone’s artwork but one should never copy,” he used to say. This is why when he was teaching painting to the other painters, he used to ask them to fill patterns that were different from his own. So that each artist would have his or her own signature pattern. He never prevented any of his community members from exploring newness. Unfortunately, some people forgot this, and at present, they are just copying him, in spite of a chance to create their own individuality.

When I was growing up, I used to feel a bit suffocated by these untold rules and regulations about my own work that came from both within my community and from outside. But thankfully, that has passed.

What tradition do you align yourself to even as you break/remake it?

I belong to the Pardhan tribe from Madhya Pradesh. We are mainly known as priests and storytellers. We have many beautiful traditional stories. The storytelling culture is a very old tradition in the Pardhan tribe, and has been verbally passed on from generation to generation. Unfortunately, it’s vanishing day by day, because of the busy lifestyle of people. Nobody has time to tell or listen to stories anymore. Therefore, I decided to collect as many stories as I can and make a children’s book. I am writing down the stories my mother told me, and then I will translate and illustrate them. So that, in a small way, I can save my culture for future generations to access and understand. Apart from this, I would like to break the stereotyped mindset of some people in the community about Gond art, as well as those who still think that girls do not have the right to sing our traditional stories or play our traditional instruments.

ROSHNI VYAM is an artist, illustrator and textile designer experimenting with traditional stories and different art forms. She has recently been selected for an artist residency program at The Cité internationale des arts, Paris.

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