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Issue 241
March/April 2007
Urban Ecology

Reviews

A THOUGHTFUL TORTOISE
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Cover: Clinical Centre Westend, Germany Photograph: M.Haddenhorst/Still Pictures

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A THOUGHTFUL TORTOISE

The Night Life of Trees: Bhajju Shyam/Ram Singh Urveti/ Durga Bai Tara Publishing, India, 2006, £25.00

FOR THE FOREST-DWELLING Gond tribe of Central India, it is inconceivable to make a painting without a tree in it. So central are trees to the Gond ethos and cosmology that they are worshipped as life-givers, sanctuaries for spirits, on equal footing with the gods. According to Gond belief, trees work hard during the day to provide shelter, shade and nourishment. At night-time, though, their true nature is revealed, transforming the forest into a luminous, enchanting, other-worldly place.

It is this luminosity that Tara Publishing has tried to capture in an exquisite new book called The Night Life of Trees, which features paintings by three of the finest contemporary Gond artists, Ram Singh Urveti, Durga Bai and Bhajju Shyam. Every page in this book is an original print, silk-screened by hand on black paper with accompanying text describing the legend, myth or folktale associated with that particular tree. The result is not only a visual and poetic arboretum of the forests of Central India; it also offers a rare glimpse into the Gond imagination – a place where squirrels dream, serpent goddesses hold up the Earth, and fireflies lead cowherds to their missing animals.

For centuries, Gonds have been decorating the mud walls and floors of their homes with intricate scenes of village life and creation myths, drawing heavily from the rich environment of their surroundings. They believe that good fortune befalls those whose eye meets a good image, so it is in the community’s interest to be surrounded by beauty. The function of art for them isn’t just restricted to practical and aesthetic pleasure; it also ensures a continuum between the past and the present, and in this sense the very act of painting is considered spiritual: an act of prayer.

Along with their remarkable ability to paint, the Gonds also possess a natural gift for story-telling. Consequently, their paintings are heavily stylised narratives which eschew perspective and realism and concentrate on an intricate ordering of symbols and designs to depict their myths, stories and beliefs. In Night Life, with its intense focus on trees,the effect is akin to stripping a piece of bark away and laying it under a microscope to reveal the many hidden colours, cells and geometries that lie hidden beneath the deadened surface.

As you enter this special Gond universe, you will learn how the creator, Shankar Bhagwan, created trees from three strands of his body hair, coating them with ash so they could bear fruit and flower. You will learn of the many animals of the Gond forests – the industrious silkworms, the shifty chameleons, and the peacocks who with their enticing dances transform trees into flaming feathers. You will also learn that if you were ever to get lost in the jungles near the Satpura hills of Madhya Pradesh, you should make your way to the Sembar tree, for good spirits live there, glowing like gold in the night.

This book is burgeoning with trees: trees that were once lovers, trees that intoxicate and drug, trees that encircle and protect – from the Saja tree of song to the holy Peepul, the Dummar whose flowers look like birds and whose fruits can only be seen by gods, the Mahlain which holds itself in thick embrace, and the serpent’s hood Nagphani, whose wood makes the best bridal palanquins and whose sap has special healing powers.

Each of the artists in this book – though they share the same creative tradition and mythical cosmos – has a distinct style. Together, they present a different way of looking at the world – where the practical, aesthetic and spiritual are inseparable. The images they have created are full of the magic of metamorphosis, and yet are rooted firmly in the Earth.

Night Life is an important book, not only because it pays tribute to the majesty of trees, but because it forces us to consider the place of trees in our own context. How many of us live near trees, or realise the extent to which we depend on them? Do we know them by the finely structured veins of their leaves, their shape and smell, the uses of their wood, flower, fruit? Night Life may not convert you into a certified tree-hugger, but it will force you to think about a special tree in your life; how it too can become a deer with twelve horns.

Tishani Doshi is a writer and dancer based in Madras, India.

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