Amit Dutta

Extending Arts Practice

Grant Period: Over one year

A graduate of FTII, Amit Dutta has been making award-winning films for several years now. Amit has abstracted written texts into the moving image, creating some of contemporary India’s most celebrated experimental films. Amit is now keen to reverse his current practice by first doing visual documentation and then writing ‘a metaphysical detective novel’ on the life and death of Gond artist, Jangarh Singh Shyam. This seed grant supports Amit to research the artistic trajectory of Jangarh Singh Shyam, which will deliver an in-depth analysis of all the events, characters and art philosophies that led to his untimely death in Japan.

When Amit learnt about Shyam’s mysterious suicide, he found himself greatly perturbed, but was unable to articulate why. He read how Jangarh’s talent for drawing and painting was recognised by J. Swaminathan, who subsequently took the tribal artisan from his native village, Patangarh, to the city, and then to the museums of Tokyo and Paris. Recognising similarities on how the art world has pigeon-holed both their work within the exotic and the avant garde, Amit feels drawn to understanding Jangarh’s artistic complexities and confusion alongside his own.

On July 2, 2001, Jangarh was found hanging in his room at a relatively unknown museum in a remote village in Japan. Leading artists, folk art experts, and sociologists urged the governments of India and Japan to inquire into the mysterious circumstances involving the alleged suicide. It took a week for the body to be brought back to India because the  Japanese museum director, Hasegawa, declared that he had not “budgeted” for such a contingency. Why had the young man taken his own life so abruptly? It is believed that Jangarh had been persuaded to go to the Mithila Museum in Japan for a low monthly fee. Given the Japanese penchant for productivity, one can assume that he was pushed to produce far more than he felt comfortable doing. The story goes that Jangarh had wanted to return to India, but was prohibited from doing so by Hasegawa, who took possession of his passport and got his visa extended by another three months. This might have convinced Jangarh that he would have to stay for a much longer time than he had originally intended, resulting in the bout of depression that led to his suicide. Deeper conspiracies like murder have also been suggested, but the Japanese authorities have ruled out foul play. By focusing on Jangarh’s art and background as a whole, Amit plans to write a novel that would create and explore the multiple fictional narratives that could have lead to Jangarh’s suicide.

By concentrating on this major tragedy in the art world, he is keen to raise important points for discussion in the context of modern, folk and contemporary Indian art. The whole series of incidents around the ‘artisan’-turned-‘artist’ involves quite a few characters, who almost assume prototypical significance. Through an analysis of each of the characters involved, Amit hopes not only to offer new perspectives on the identity of the contemporary Indian artist participating in the international art arena, but also to address issues around the globalisation of art and the emergence of new means of production, fusion, dissemination, and support systems. As a product of a state-funded film school himself, Amit does not carry an indigenous ‘tradition’. So, to be interested in alternative artistic forms, as he is, also raises questions about his artistic self. Amit explains that “a bit of Swaminathan (the ‘mentor’) or Hasegawa (the ‘connoisseur’) is present within us as well, besides the self of a confused artist. And now the question is, how do we negotiate with these co-ordinates as it is not possible to gaze at both the realities and worlds simultaneously?” Jangarh's life can be viewed through various lenses. One can look at how the contemporary art world pressured him into adapting and reframing his art practice into a new form that was disembodied from his community belief and ritual system. He was also urged to be an ‘individual’ creator of his art objects.

The life of Jangarh throws up intriguing questions about the notion of artistic ‘individualism’. When Jangarh went to Bharat Bhavan he started signing his paintings indicating the development of his artistic self. Such an idea was considered completely absurd to his own community. Therefore, one of the crucial focus areas for this project will also be the issue of how to assert the identity of the self through the creation of an art object. To study these issues and create new perspectives/narratives on Jangarh’s life in the context of contemporary art practice, Amit will build a library of books, articles and journals related to the characters, places, and art discourses connected to the man. He will travel to Jangarh’s home, Cholamandalam, MS University of Baroda, and Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal. The understandings and perspectives developed through the research will form the basis for his subsequent proposal to write the novel he has in mind.