While teaching at the Rishi Valley School in Andhra Pradesh in the early 1950s, J. Sultan Ali came across the writings of Verrier Elwin, a British missionary turned anthropologist, known for his studies of the Gond and Baiga tribal communities of Central India. The artist’s “sensibility was captivated by the simplicity, dynamic energy, raw immediacy and naïve spontaneity inherent in tribal arts and crafts [...] His work in Delhi had led to his travels in parts of Bastar, Bengal and his native state of Gujarat, where he had lived for the first fifteen years of his life. In due course, the Gujarati script as well as its tribal and folk art and craft forms interfaced with his figurative metaphors [...] his initial use of script was legible, lending a visual texture to his pictorial surface. It served as a backdrop, enhancing the surface richness of the painting while reinforcing its imagery.” (A. Bhagat, Madras Modern, Regionalism and Identity, New Delhi, 2019, p. 194)
The present lot was executed a few years after his first solo exhibition in Delhi, where he was living and working as an official of the newly founded Lalit Kala Akademi. At once monumental and exceptionally detailed, this pen and ink drawing borrows from various religious traditions as well as folk and tribal iconographies to portray the artist’s interpretation of the origins of the Universe and of Man. A central figure with arms outspread contains within his body a multitude of figures and fragments of text, illuminating what could be a creation myth. This story also seems to be documented in a crucifix-like column of illustrated text in the background, populated with little birds and snakes. Most prominent among the meticulously wrought figures are a male and female that flank the central ‘creator’, perhaps representative of the first couple: the artist’s unique tribal vision of Adam and Eve. Other paintings by the artist from this period, including The First Sin (1965) and Tribal Myth (1967), extend his engagement with this theme, further integrating religious and tribal imagery and narratives.
In works like these, negative, unshaded spaces seem to effortlessly come together with the ones the artist has painstakingly worked in ink, to construct the forms and figures that make up his esoteric, refined visual vocabulary. The critic Richard Bartholomew described Sultan Ali as “a sensitive, conscientious craftsman, interested in creating a private mythology – an artist who still believes that in the human figure there is that perennial formation of man’s faith in things as they are, and as they should be.” (R. Bartholomew, ‘The Naked Truth: Paintings and Drawings by J. Sultan Ali’, Thought, 27 May 1967, unpaginated)