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From Village Walls to International Art Halls: Meet Gond Artist, Durgabai Vyam

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From Village Walls to International Art Halls: Meet Gond Artist, Durgabai Vyam

We always go, ‘Aww!’ at our kids’ drawings and stick them up on the fridge. Whether they are tiny stick figures with big heads or a dog that looks like a potato with sticks for legs, we proudly show them off to anyone and everyone. 

But today, we have the story of someone who started narrating folktales through her wall art when she was just six. The tales were so evocative that other villagers asked her to decorate their homes during festivals. One of the most famous female artists in India today, this Padma Shri 2022 awardee inspires other women in the country. She has a story worth exploring for someone who did not get a formal education. 

If you are wondering who this artist is, Read on to know

Coloring Hardships Away

Growing up in the tiny village of Barbaspur in Madhya Pradesh’s Dindori District wasn’t easy for Durgabai and her five siblings.

Poor harvests often left them hungry, so going to school was out of the question. But amidst these hardships, Durgabai found joy in her grandmother’s stories about the Gond Pardhan community. These tales ignited her passion for art and storytelling.

Finding Happiness in Art

Watching her grandma put the finishing touches on intricate paintings on home walls made Durgabai fall in love with Art. She realized she loved painting floral patterns and animals on village walls as a young girl.

Her mother taught her the ancient art form called “Digna,” which adorned village homes during festivals.

With natural materials like cow dung, white, black, red mud, and turmeric, Durgabai transformed mundane walls into vibrant canvases, earning praise from the villagers during weddings and festivals.

Marriage and Moving Away

Durgabai was just 15 when she married a sculptor, Subhash Vyam. Getting married early wasn’t a good move for women, but marriage became a game-changer for her. Her husband recognized her talent and supported her artistic dreams. 

Subhash was an established artist at the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya. In 1996, when they moved to Bhopal with their three kids, it opened many doors for Durgabai. She attended her first artists’ camp, which boosted her confidence even more.

From Walls To Canvas

Her relative, the legendary Gond artist Jangarh Singh Shyam, gave her a creative nudge, pushing her to explore more in her artistic endeavors. So, she shifted from painting on big walls to working with paper and canvas. 

Switching from large spaces to smaller canvases posed a challenge, but Durgabai conquered it. Her artwork exploded with the vibrant hues of nature, telling her community’s stories, myths, and legends while beautifully capturing the essence of her village life.

First Exhibition

Durgabai’s big break came in 1996 when Gond artist Anand Singh Syam got her to exhibit her paintings at Bharat Bhawan in Bhopal.

One of her pieces, featuring young women praying, caught a collector’s eye, and she set off on a journey of art exhibitions across India, including the prestigious Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai.

Art With a Message

Durgabai’s art is more than just visuals; they speak about environmental conservation and social awareness. Her art features deities like Ratmaimurkhuri, the guardian of the night, Khero Mata, who fiercely wards off evil, and Chula Dev, the benevolent god who keeps the household ‘chulha’ burning. 

Art Installations Galore

You will find her famous works at many locations across India, including the 200-foot wall at the Indira Gandhi Museum in Bhopal, the Mumbai International Airport, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, etc.

One of her most prominent works was the 2018 art installation at one of the most popular international exhibitions of contemporary art, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. 

A New Turn in 2003

Durgabai didn’t just tell stories through her paintings. In 2003, she went to a workshop in Chennai run by Tara Publishing. That’s where her journey into illustrating books began. She worked with various publishers, using her art to tell stories to people of all ages. 

One project that meant a lot to her? Illustrating the book “Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability,” which shares the story of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar.

Awards and Recognition Galore

Durgabai’s art is well-loved globally. In 2004, she received an award from the Handicraft Development Council. Then, in 2008, she bagged a special prize in Italy – the Bologna Ragazzi Award for illustrating a children’s book titled “The Night Life of Trees.” 

That’s not all; she was awarded the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts Scholarship, the Rani Durgawati Award for excellence in traditional painting, the Katha Chitrakala Runner’s Up Award, and the prestigious Padma Shri in 2022.

Passing On Art To The Next Generation

Durgabai has kept her family’s artistic traditions alive by passing down her art to her children.
Even though she struggled with literacy, she’s determined to ensure her kids get an education.

But it’s not just about school; she’s also teaching them the Gond art forms. Durgabai believes it’s essential to stay connected to their roots, which is their community’s art.

Durgabai Vyam didn’t grow up dreaming of art galleries or international fame. Yet, her art once decorated village walls and now captivates audiences worldwide. As a Gond artist, she’s a strong voice for resilience and empowerment!

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I’m Archana R. Chettiar, an experienced content creator with
an affinity for writing on personal finance and other financial content. I
love to write on equity investing, retirement, managing money, and more.

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