As an artist J Swaminathan defied convention. Painter, poet, political activist and thinker-critic, he found individuality in pieces of art, then exoticised as tribal art.Swaminathan sent urban art students out to scour the countryside to see what might be there. They uncovered immense artistic talent. The December 31, 1992, issue of Down to Earth carried a poem by this artist who gave Indian art a new direction
Arms outstretched on the edge of the cliffs Stand a few trees Ready to fly away with the clouds.
They say these deodars once Kissed the Koku nala And embraced the skies so tight That the stars were startled By the village glow-worms every night.
Now when the corn touches gold A scoundrel bear Swoops down the slopes Blazing destruction All our pistols and double-barrelled guns Fail to stop him. Maharaj, where is that old rogue this year?
The mountain before you Hides another from view. Ascend the slopes to Rana Ki Kot And look across But the mountain will not appear It is drowned in mist To float up staid Unmoved.
The slate on the watermill still shimmers The corn spreads in yellow sheets The cowherds laze around, watching Across the valleys the cattle are grazing You say the mountain Shrouded in mist Would reappear.
But see how clear is the sky No mist, no fog No wisp of a cloud stuck on a cliff-top That mountain is not visible, Maharaj.
You cannot see on the mountain The Gujjar camp With long-waisted women dressed in black And the wild dogs with eyes of burning coal
That mountain is not visible, Maharaj Its silence hides behind The mountain before you A wounded deer waiting to spring.
J Swaminathan, who passed away in 1994, was not the first to find muse in tribal people. But he led a movement to extricate art inspired by experiences of people from tribal communities from descriptions such as folk and tribal, descriptions which often lead artists from these communities to submit their individual imagination to the regime of the museum