SAngita Jogi’s Women Partying illustration, a cheery depiction of an all-female nightclub, looks a lot like something you might see in Teen Vogue. In fact, it’s on the wall of the National Gallery of Victoria, as part of a new exhibition highlighting new acquisitions by contemporary Indian artists in rural, regional and indigenous traditions, some handed down for centuries. What’s unique about 19-year-old Sangita is that she works in a style practiced only in her family: Jogi art, an energetic style of drawing using black ink on white paper, with detailed patterns and a large, intricate composition. It has been practiced for three generations in the Jogi family, which is to say that it is surprisingly modern.
“What sets this family apart, as opposed to others, is that they didn’t inherit this style,” says Wayne Crothers, senior curator of Asian art at NGV. “It came out of them preserving their storytelling traditions or their singing and performing traditions.”
“I was inspired by the idea of women celebrating,” Sangita says of her work. “Women are so overwhelmed, and poor women even more so. So I just thought of doing a work on the reverse scenario – women having fun”.
The Jogi art form started with Sangita’s parents, Ganesh and Teju. Their surname derives from their community, the Jogi, in rural Rajasthan. Without training in the visual arts, the Jogi were traditionally itinerant musicians, singers of devotional songs and stories. Their music also had a practical function.
“The Jogi were the revivals of old,” says Minhazz Majumdar, a curator from New Delhi who worked with the NGV on the exhibit. “They were singing songs at dawn…we always had a barter system, someone paid them.”
By the 1970s, urbanization was making such a livelihood increasingly untenable. Then a severe drought hit. Faced with crop failure and starvation, Teju and Ganesh were forced to move to the city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat in search of work – often dangerous and poorly paid manual labor.
It was then that Ganesh met the anthropologist Haku Shah, who was part of a wave of Indian scholars and conservatives seeking to preserve cultural traditions threatened by the pace of social change. Shah urged Ganesh to record the narratives in Jogi songs, to protect them from loss of history. Ganesh could not write, so Shah suggested that he draw the stories.
“At first he was so afraid of breaking the pen,” says Majumdar – she has worked with the family for more than 20 years – “and now the kids are doing it their own way.
Ganesh and Teju had 10 children, six of whom survived; all paint and draw.
“Drawing is like a meditation, like a healing space for me – I lose myself in my drawings, in creating all the details…they make me forget my struggles,” says Prakash, Sangita’s older brother.
In his complex work Cityscape (2017), Prakash depicts his home in Ahmedabad as he saw it as a child; tall buildings, billowing smoke towers, and masses of tiny human figures scurrying between them, evenly focused on their business, ignoring the fish and turtles of the Sabarmati River that meanders through the city. Close examination reveals that each figure is unique – they all have different socks, hair or eyes.
Prakash teaches his teenage son to draw in the Jogi style; no one in the family sings anymore, except Teju and Ganesh. But while the Jogi family’s pivot into an entirely new medium is dramatic, all of the art forms featured in the exhibit are undergoing rapid transformation.
“Many of these families, who have been doing this work for centuries and centuries, it is more in the domestic setting,” explains Sunita Lewis, project manager at the NGV. “But over the last few decades they’ve changed mediums, or they’ve changed themes, in order to commodify it and reach a much wider audience than their own communities.”
“Commodity” is a word that curators often fear, but these artists are not amateurs or members of India’s urban middle class. Art is their livelihood: if their traditions are to survive and remain relevant, they need a market. sujuni, a style of embroidered quilt, was traditionally a way for women to repurpose scraps of fabric for practical gifts; now they are made to be exhibited to be sold on the international art market, providing village women with a livelihood. Contemporary sujuni the work often features patterns of women’s independence like laptops and mopeds. Similarly, Madhubani art originated from murals painted in homes for important events like marriage and childbirth; now Madhubani artists work on paper in order to sell or exhibit their art internationally, tackling themes like climate change, female feticide and Covid-19.
Artists are also increasingly signing their works, which has not always been done in the past or required by collectors. Most of the older works in the NGV exhibit are by unknown or unregistered artists.
“The fact that the market has woken up now makes it easier to promote these artists as artists, not as anonymous, faceless bearers of tradition,” says Majumdar.
But, she concedes, increased interest in the art market doesn’t always translate into a secure future for artists. For the most part, the Jogi family is still pretty much where it was 20 years ago – except for Sangita, who recently left Ahmedabad. She lives in rural Rajasthan with her husband, and she has just had her first child – a daughter.
Sangita has never danced in a nightclub. Women Partying, she says, was based on parties she saw in movies and on TV, and her imagination.
“My style is more whimsical than my family’s,” says Sangita. “I draw what I would like to see – empowered women enjoying life.”
And, she says, she is teaching her daughter to draw.
Changing Worlds: Change and Tradition in Contemporary India, at the NGV, free admission, until August 28.
Minhazz Majumdar provided translation work on this feature.