The London Jungle Book: I Want it!

Bhajju Shyam is a clear example of why an expensive art camp is not necessary for your child’s imagination grow.

He grew up in a village in India, as part of the Gond tribe, watching his mother paint the walls of her house. When he was a teenager. he started helping her fill in parts of the traditional Gond mural.

Here are the stunning results of what he has produced as an adult, in The London Jungle Book by Tara Books. Tara books describes it as “a visual travelogue of his first encounter with a western metropolis. With radical innocence and great sophistication, Bhajju brings the signs of the Gond forest to bear on the city, turning London into an exotic jungle”.

I love the unexpected collision of inanimate and animate objects to create surreal images that capture exactly what the artist is feeling in a very succinct way.

Imagination can never be taught. [Note to Self] Technique, on the other hand, is a good thing to hone every single day.

I have included some of my favorite pictures and words from the larger feature about the book in Brain Pickings: The London Jungle Book: What an Indian Tribal Artist Can Teach Us About Rediscovering Our Capacity for Everyday Wonder by Maria Popova, in addition to his interviews from a wide variety of media sources.


Having never flown on, or even seen, an airplane, nor traveled underground on the subway, Shyam, who doesn’t speak English, brings to these exhilarating new experiences the only language of interpretation he knows — that of symbolism, deeply embedded in the Gond style, which is unconcerned with realism and narrative sequence but rather focuses on representing “what is in the mind’s eye.” Gond art is a form of prayer, using its intricate lines, geometric patterns and symbolic vocabulary to connect the human experience with the cosmos. It’s almost beside the point, then, to note that Gond art evolved not as a commercial commodity but as a community’s private celebration.

Bhajju Shyam. London (from The London Jungle Book). 2014.
Bhajju Shyam. London (from The London Jungle Book). 2014.

“I started to feel something strange.

It’s a feeling I call 50-50.


The mixture of pleasure and pain you feel when you leave home

and set out to travel to an unknown place.”

 After accidentally calling his uncle in the middle of the night, unaware of the time difference between London and Delhi, Shyam visits Big Ben on a tour of London and once again captures the cultural differences in his symbolic drawings.

“I have combined the rooster, which is the symbol of time in Gond art and the Big Ben which is the symbol of time in London. I have turned the dial of the Big Ben into the eye of the rooster. It seemed to me that the Big Ben is like a big eye forever watching over London. Symbols are the most important thing in Gond art and every symbol is a story standing in for something else. This painting has two perfect symbols coming together.”

When Two Times Meet (from The London Jungle Book). Bhajju Shyam. 2014.
When Two Times Meet (from The London Jungle Book). Bhajju Shyam. 2014.

“I saw Big Ben, and I thought:

so this is their temple of time.

It’s beautiful, and carefully built because they are very careful about time here.

If you are five minutes early for an appointment, they will tell you to wait because you are early.

If you are five minutes late, they will tell you that you are late.

Everyone checks their watches all the time.

I have a watch too,

but my symbol of time is still the Gond one —

a rooster.

It wakes you up at sunrise.

Then the day follows its course,

and the next event that marks the passage of time

is the sun going down.”

In restaurants, he finds himself overwhelmed by the variety of dishes and the unrecognizable ingredients of his food, especially the meat. In this drawing, he depicts himself as an octopus, “a greedy customer with noodles for arms, eating everything on the menu.” Never sure of what animal became the meat he ate, he draws a menagerie of possible creatures, numbering their bellies to reflect the menu number the dish he imagines came from the respective creature. The fork and knife are tucked neatly to the side, almost an afterthought to the drawing.

Bhajju Shyam. What I am Eating (from The London Jungle Book). 2014.
Bhajju Shyam. What I am Eating (from The London Jungle Book). 2014.

“You couldn’t tell what it was just by looking at it.

Sometimes it was in a tube, or in discs, or in long strips, like paper…

I have put in the fork and the knife because they are strange implements to me,

tools that I would never associate with food.

But to the people of London, they are the symbols for food.”

He depicts the Underground as a giant earthworm, and snakes for its passengers  with a “King’s Cross” station sign and a musician thrown into the mix.

Bhajju Shyam. 'King's Cross' The King of the Underworld (from The London Jungle Book). 2014.
Bhajju Shyam. ‘King’s Cross’ The King of the Underworld (from The London Jungle Book). 2014.

“As per Gond belief, there is another world below this one, which is ruled by the earthworm.

I discovered there is such a world in London as well.

Although different from the Gond one,

in London’s world below the earth,

the tube as the earthworm rules it!

So I have thought of the tube as an earthworm as it is the only thing built by humans

that moves around underground.

Snakes signify earth in Gond painting, and I often use them to show the roots of trees.

Between the snakes are the stations, like spiders sitting on their webs.

I wanted a busker in the picture

because to me he is the only human being who is relaxed in the underground –

everyone else is trying to move on and get somewhere above the ground again.”

Bhajju Shyam. Loyal Friend - Number 30 (from The London Jungle Book). 2014.
Bhajju Shyam. Loyal Friend – Number 30 (from The London Jungle Book). 2014.

“I turned number 30 into a dog,

because it is faithful and loyal friend to me.

London buses look very friendly too.”

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