Bhajju Shyam, The London Jungle Book

A thing I’ve occasionally done to amuse myself since I moved to the UK is to adopt a fake curious anthropologist’s gaze and marvel at the natives with their primitive food and orange war paint and television rituals (a story they keep telling one another about an immigrant doctor who averts disaster a lot and is basically my dad*; a weekly sport involving cakes).

All of which made rereading Bhajju Shyam’s London Jungle Book on a recent trip to London particularly gratifying.

From a recent column.

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The history of anthropology, like many other areas of study, is inextricably bound up with the history of colonialism, and the assumption that the subject positions of observer, recorder, analyser belonged as naturally to the European as the position of object for study belonged to the “native”. Verrier Elwin was a tribal activist who took up Indian citizenship after independence and whose expertise was drawn upon by Nehru; he was also a man who spent years studying the Gond people, married a Raj Gond girl (she was thirteen, he was forty) and wrote and published extensively about her sexual behaviour, eventually divorcing her after his work on her people was done. Nowadays this form of research would be considered somewhat unethical (to put it mildly) and it would be nice to think it wasn’t entirely accepted at the time.

But Elwin has been dead for half a century now, and it has been ten years since the grandson of his manservant wrote a book of his own. It’s probably reductive to read Bhajju Shyam’s The London Jungle Book entirely in the context of this history, and I don’t mean to, but while it can’t negate a few centuries of modern history, it is full of joyous inversions that make that history more palatable.

London Jungle BookCommissioned to decorate the walls of a British restaurant, Bhajju Shyam travels to London with mixed feelings. An artist, and one unfamiliar with the local language, he records his experience of the city through a series of paintings that draw upon the motifs he is familiar with, from Gond art. And so the London Underground becomes a giant worm, with the individual lines depicted by snakes (which connote the earth) and the stations by spiders at the centre of complex webs. Big Ben is a giant rooster (another keeper of time), its eye watching over the city. His regular bus, with its safe, familiar route, appears as a faithful dog. English people at a pub are represented by bats hanging upside-down on the branches of a tree—suggesting that they truly come to life at night, and that the pub itself is a sustaining, life-giving environment. The different varieties of London rain are depicted through a series of the patterns used in Gond tattoos.

There’s no sense that any of this is intended for a deliberate decolonising project; for one thing, it’s far more generous than such a project might be. The London Jungle Book is always kind to London, treating it with an openness and an interest even when speaking of unpleasant things. At one point he observes London’s homeless population; at another he points out that many of those watching him work were happier to speak about his art to one another than to him. Often it is playful and personal—the map of the underground includes a busker in one corner “because I like buskers”; later on Shyam speaks of the social cachet his travels abroad have brought him, so that he can now tell stories that other people want to listen to, and above him the crescent moon is transformed into an underground sign.London Jungle Book 2

 

And yet it’s hard not to read politically. Because here is a Gond artist from Bhopal observing the British metropole, using a title reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling (in their introduction to Bhajju Shyam’s book, Sirish Rao and Gita Wolf claim that Elwin compared one of his own books on the Gond to The Jungle Book), and insisting upon interpreting the city on his own terms, and through his own set of signifiers. The city is turned into a natural space, populated by snakes, dogs, bats, and similar creatures; it’s the author himself who figures as the human observer. And in the end he returns to his own country in the figure of a reporter and a teller of stories, someone whose words and representation of this foreign city and its people bear real weight

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*(Not my mum; it is an important part of the story that the Doctor cannot be a woman, for some mystical reason that an outsider cannot understand)

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