Creation: Ancient Indian Origin Myths, Brought to Life in a Breathtaking Illustrated Cosmogony
By Maria Popova
“We don’t need to credit an all-seeing God with the creation of life and matter,” Douglas Rushkoff wrote in contemplating consciousness, “to suspect that something wonderfully strange is going on in the dimension we call reality.” And we don’t have to believe in such a god to appreciate the beautiful and imaginative ways in which the origin myths of the world’s various spiritual traditions capture this wonderful strangeness — from our earliest depictions of the universe to the marvelous mythic creatures that populate our legends. In advising parents on what to tell kids about Santa Claus, Margaret Mead made the crucial distinction between “fact” and “poetic truth,” and this is precisely what origin myths offer — an invitation to celebrate these ancient masterworks of storytelling, even if we recognize that they aren’t rooted in scientific fact.
Nowhere does this celebration come more vibrantly alive than in Creation (public library) by Bhajju Shyam — the best-known artist of India’s Gond tribe and the talent behind the extraordinary London Jungle Book. Shyam captures ten origin myths from Gond folklore in absolutely breathtaking illustrations.
A master of the traditional folk art style for which his tribe is known, Shyam conveys the core symbols and stories of Gond cosmogony in this simple yet enormously evocative masterpiece of visual storytelling. There are the blue crows, “whirling out from the eye of a storm, from the center of creation” to bring the birth of air; the seven types of earth that arise from the mud — sand, clay, loam, rock, chalk, silt, and marsh; the Sacred Seed, which “holds a miraculous possibility within itself, and when the time is right, lets it unfold.”
Hand-bound in a limited edition of 5,000 numbered copies and silkscreened on handmade paper with traditional Indian dyes, this beautiful book comes from South Indian independent publisher Tara Books. For the past two decades, founder Gita Wolf and her team have been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on books handcrafted by local artisans in their fair-trade workshop in Chennai — treasures like The Night Life of Trees, Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit, and Waterlife.
Life exists because there is death — one contains the other. Just as joy has no meaning without sorrow, a beginning must have an end. But every end makes a new beginning possible.
In Gond villages, when you see smoke rising from a house, you know someone has passed away. Everyone gathers in the house of mourning, bringing the family food and comfort. There is no food cooked in the bereaved household until the third day, when they invite the whole village to a meal of fish. This signals the beginning of normal life again. You cannot accompany the dead, and in the course of time, will have to return to your own life.
One can’t help but notice the intriguing parallels with other spiritual traditions and secular philosophies: The fish, also found in Christian scripture, is the Gond symbol for water — Shyam depicts this “fish-shaped emptiness, bubbling in the water,” the first something that appeared out of the nothingness as the world was born, not unlike how evolution unfolded; the duality of day and night, sun and moon, symbolizing the male and female — two inextricably linked parts of one whole — call to mind Virginia Woolf’s notion of the androgynous mind; the Egg of Origins, “from which all life emerges,” mirrors the science of reproduction; the notion of life and death as complementary counterpoints evokes Rilke on mortality as a vitalizing force.
Day and night, beginning and end, life and death — creation is made of opposites. For human beings, life is measure din time.
Time for human beings is made up of day and night. Each is a half of one whole. Human beings themselves are made up of two halves: man and woman. A man is associated with the sun, and a woman with the moon — together, they stand in for day and night. They are opposites that make the whole.
The most delicate timekeepers are insects. Their short lives measure time in hours and days.
The project itself has a most heartening origin story: Over the course of numerous collaborations with Shyam through the years, Wolf found herself so enchanted by the tales from Gond folklore he was telling that she offered to transcribe and translate the stories — reading and writing are not part of Shyam’s orally-driven tribal culture — turning them into a beautiful book celebrating both Gond mythology and the Gond folk art tradition.
She writes in the afterword:
The Gonds were originally forest-dwellers, with settlements spread across the dense jungles of Madya Pradesh. With the large scale destruction of forests, they’ve since become peasants and farmers — many have moved to the city in search of work. This is the fate of many tribal groups, but the Gonds are unique in that they have managed to preserve a memory of older times when their community was close to the forest and the rhythms of nature. They have kept this heritage alive — at least in the last few decades — primarily through their art. From its humble beginnings as patterns decorating the walls and floors of village homes, Gond art has now evolved into a highly complex aesthetic.
Typically, a Gond painting condenses a long and complex oral tale into a single intricate image. The best artists are highly conceptual, using symbols and metaphors to draw out meanings which connect the lives of human beings to the workings of the cosmos.
There can be no earth, and no life, without mud. It is more precious than gold. We call the earthworm the King of the Underworld. He burrows deep under the ground, kneading and churning, until he emerges again, bearing perfectly formed mud. I’ve thought of him as a potter, who softens and moulds the clay into a pot that can hold water and food.
Couple Creation, the tactile mesmerism of which these pixels on a screen profoundly fail to convey, with the contemporary Western counterpart A Graphic Cosmogony, then treat yourself to other favorite gems from the Tara Books family.
Published April 15, 2015