The Night Life Of Trees

Last month my daughter gave me this book of magical trees for my birthday. It’s a collection of hand-pulled screenprints on black paper, bound by hand into a gorgeous book where, according to John Berger, “the nightingale sings until morning”.

It features artwork by Bhajju Shyam, Durga Bai and Ram Singh Urveti. Their pictures of trees illustrate stories from Gond folklore. As traditional forest dwellers they believe that trees are central to life, providing shade, shelter and nourishment by day and revealing luminous tree spirits by night.

From the state of Madhya Pradesh in central India, the Gonds are a community of highly visual people. They surround themselves with their art, which is traditionally painted on the mud floors and walls of their houses. Art is a form of prayer, and they believe that good fortune befalls those whose eyes meet a good image.

Gond art is not concerned with realism, perspective, light or three-dimensionality. It signifies rather than represents, deriving its energy from flowing lines, intricate geometric patterns and the symbols that connect human beings and workings of the cosmos. And since most Gonds used to be forest dwellers, trees loom large in their imagination.

Circumstances have changed the way they paint. The Gonds now paint on paper and canvas, using a palette of commercial colours. Yet remarkably, even though many of them no longer live in the old way, their imagination is still linked to the forest. The tree is at the heart of it, providing not just shade, shelter and nourishment, but also a rich imaginative universe of narratives and beliefs.

The Night Life Of Trees features art by three of the finest living artists of the Gond tribe of central India. Although they share the same art tradition and mythical cosmos, each of them has a distinctive style and a creative source that is uniquely their own.

These hand-made books are published by Tara Books in limited editions of 2000, each edition with a different cover. The trees are depicted as individuals, each on a separate leaf in this book, bound together they become a forest of stories, branches intertwining so that everything is connected, everything is everything, each is reflected and shakes hands with the next.

Frames of reference

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