A Visual Odyssey from India to Santa Fe by Mitchell Shelby Crites

For the last half-century, I have been working towards the revival of Indian folk, tribal and tantric art. During these years, my wife and I have been collecting the work of emerging Indigenous artists that we loved and felt had great potential. Today, some of these artists are now recognized as major masters whose fame and influence have spread across India, the world, and especially within their own tribal and cultural spheres. Hundreds of paintings and drawings have for decades been stored in cupboards and hung on the walls of our homes in London, Delhi, and Jaipur. For some time, we have been searching for a collector or an institution that would understand the importance and rarity of these distinctive art forms and would share, study and promote these talented artists on a global scale. We both feel strongly that Tia Collection is, without a doubt, the right place for some of our most treasured works of art to live permanently. This will be an evolving and ongoing project and we will endeavor over the coming years to share the best of emerging talent that we discover. I was born on the bank of the Mississippi River in the heartland of America and, although I have lived most of my life abroad, it gives me great satisfaction to know that these exceptional paintings and drawings will reside in the land where my roots still nourish and inspire me.
Mitchell Crites holding Janghar Singh Shyam, Untitled (Possibly Bada Dev, the Great God), c. 1989-1992

For this introductory discussion, I have four artists out of the larger group that will be joining the Tia Collection which shows the broad range and creativity that Indian folk and tribal artists possess. Three of these gifted artists were discovered in the early eighties when J.Swaminathan, one of India’s greatest contemporary artists, as well as a scholar and visionary, was director of the Bharat Bhavan, a ground-breaking institution for folk and tribal art set up in Bhopal, the capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh in the center of India. He believed strongly that there was an incredible reservoir of talent lying within the folk and tribal communities of the state so he sent out teams of young, dedicated scholars and artists to search for them and the impact of those early expeditions resonates until today.

Belgur Maravi was one of the many brilliant tribal artists that Swaminathan’s team discovered in the early eighties in the far eastern part of Madhya Pradesh which was incorporated into a new state called Chhatisgarh in 2000. The rare early work by Belgur Maravi below was created around 1985 and has a vivid pointillist in style so characteristic of the region’s art, architecture, and body ornament. It depicts the moment when a young woman has been brought before the village medicine man to be exorcised while her husband and children look on. It’s a powerful composition that reveals a rare and intimate glimpse into tribal life and ritual. Belgur was never able to fulfill his potential as an artist probably because he lived so far away from Bhopal and the main art markets. However, we have recently rediscovered him still living in his ancestral village and, at the age of sixty-five, he has again decided to take up painting seriously. His latest work, still rooted in the pointillism of his youth, now exhibits a dynamic and mature talent that will bear watching over the coming years. 

Belgur Maravi, The Exorcism, c. mid-1980s

The second artist is Bhuri Bai, who belongs to the Bhil tribe, the largest tribal community in the country, which spreads across central and western India. Her precocious talent was also discovered in the mid-eighties when she was working as a daily laborer at Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal. Her first introduction to art is now something of a legend. Swaminathan, the director, asked her and her friend, Lado Bai if they could paint. They replied frankly that they didn’t know so he gave them paint, paper, and brushes and they never looked back. Both are now recognized as the two greatest masters of Bhil art. One of the rarest of her early works from around 1985, The Forbidden Forest, portrays a dream world where colorful aquatic and land creatures float in space above an arcane ritual enacted under the shade of a pink palm tree. Bhuri Bai, now in her late fifties, still lives and paints in Bhopal and was awarded the Padma Shri in 2021, one of the nation’s highest awards for a distinguished and lifetime contribution to art and culture.

Bhuri Bai, The Forbidden Forest, c. mid-1980s
Another important artist discovered about the same time by Swaminathan’s team is Jangarh Singh Shyam, arguably India’s most important tribal artist. Jangarh’s exceptional talent was spotted immediately and he was invited to go to Bhopal where he was given a position in the printing department at Bharat Bhavan which allowed him to make a living and continue experimenting with his own unique style of art. He was first recognized internationally when he participated in the fabled Magicians of the Earth exhibition held at the Pompidou Center in Paris in 1989. After that, his career blossomed exponentially and he was showered with awards and prestigious commissions. For the last eighteen years of his life, it was my privilege to call him my friend. He would come to our home in Delhi and show his work three or four times a year and we would sit cross-legged on the floor discussing each work and the meaning behind it. His tragic suicide in Japan in 2001, when he was only in his late thirties, remains a great loss to the world of Indian art.
Janghar Singh Shyam, Marahi Devi (The Goddess Marahi), 1991
Jangarh often mentioned the thick verdant forest which surrounded his ancestral village of Patangarh in eastern Madhya Pradesh where he spent his formative years. Many of his most spectacular works depict the trees, animals, birds, and creatures which inhabited the dense vegetation of what he liked to call his ‘enchanted forest.’ But, what fascinated me most was his depiction of the gods and goddesses of the Pardhan Gond pantheon. Jangarh was the first of his tribe to give them form and this clearly worried him. I remember one visit when he seemed highly disturbed and I asked him what was bothering him. He replied that he had not asked permission from the gods and goddesses to show what they looked like and he feared that they might be angry with him. I consoled him the best I could and said I am sure that they were happy to have their form revealed at last to all their devotees. He seemed to accept this and, over the years, he continued to paint them in a variety of creative and powerful ways. One of his most striking black-and-white drawings, and a personal favorite of mine, depicts the goddess, Marahi Devi, a totemic deity of the tribe. Jangarh told me that the gods lived in the trees and they came out at night. In this perceptive drawing done in 1991, the fearsome and formidable goddess emerges, fully clothed in leaves and branches, from the tree itself. 

The fourth artist propels us into the present. Jodhaiya Bai Baiga is a tribal artist who was discovered in 2008 at the age of sixty-seven by Ashish Swami, a contemporary artist and an accomplished teacher, who had set up an art studio dedicated to the revival of folk and tribal art in the small village of Lorha near the town of Umaria in eastern Madhya Pradesh, the heartland of tribal India. Paper, brushes and paint were all free to use for anyone who wanted to try their hand at art. After some hesitation, Jodhaiya Bai decided to join the classes and Ashish realized from the outset that she had an exceptional talent. When interviewed recently, Jodhaiya Bai recalled her first experiments with art. “When I learned about a teacher who was willing to teach for free in our village, I decided to give painting a try, something I was never interested in. Yet, on the very first day, I found my passion. Painting takes me to another world where I am as free as a bird.” 

Jodhaiya Bai Baiga, The Burning of Bandhavgarh Forest, 2021

Now in her early eighties, Jodhaiya Bai loves to paint the trees, birds, and creatures of the nearby Bandhavgarh forest reserve as well as the gods and goddesses of the Baiga tribal pantheon. A bit temperamental at times, she never hesitates to tell you exactly what she is in the mood to paint and also likes to imbibe now and then. I still remember when she whispered in my ear, her eyes twinkling, that she had heard somewhere that rum is good for health. Her work continues to exhibit a masterful artistic vision, very much her own, which is amazing considering the Baiga tribe did not have strong artistic traditions from which she could draw. One of her largest and most compelling recent paintings which is joining the Tia Collection is The Burning of Bandhavgarh Forest which shows her beloved forest on fire with the faces of the creatures and birds traumatized in fear as flames engulf their world. In March 2022, Jodhaiya Bai received the Nari Shakti Puraskar for women’s empowerment and was then awarded the Padma Shri in March 2023, the highest civilian honor for cultural and artistic achievement by the President of India. She was the first of her tribe to receive this prestigious award and it has encouraged many tribal girls and women across the country to explore the world of art.