Sangita Jogi’s illustration Women Partying, a joyful depiction of an all-girl disco nightclub, looks very much like something you might see in Teen Vogue. In reality, it’s on the wall at the National Gallery of Victoria, as part of a new exhibition highlighting new acquisitions from contemporary Indian artists in rural, regional, and Indigenous traditions, some handed down for centuries. What is unique about 19-year-old Sangita is that she works in a style practised only in her family: Jogi art, an energetic drawing style using in black ink on white paper, featuring detailed patterns and large, complex composition. It’s been practised for three generations of the Jogi family – which is to say, it’s startlingly modern.
“What’s distinctive about this family, as opposed to others, is that they haven’t inherited this style,” says Wayne Crothers, senior curator of Asian art at the NGV. “It’s come out of them preserving their narrative traditions or their singing and performing traditions.”
“I was inspired by the idea of women celebrating,” Sangita says of her work. “Women are so burdened, and women who are poor, even more so. So I just thought of making a work about the opposite scenario – of women enjoying themselves”.
The Jogi artform started with Sangita’s parents, Ganesh and Teju. Their family name derives from their community, the Jogi, in rural Rajasthan. Untrained in visual art, the Jogi were traditionally roving musicians, singers of devotional songs and stories. Their music also had a practical function.
“The Jogi were the alarm clocks of earlier times,” says Minhazz Majumdar, a New Delhi curator who worked with the NGV on the exhibition. “They’d sing songs at the crack of dawn … we always had a barter system going, somebody would pay them.”
By the 1970s, urbanisation was making such a livelihood increasingly untenable. Then severe drought hit. Facing crop failure and famine, Teju and Ganesh were forced to move to the city of Ahmedabad, Gujarat, in search of work – often dangerous, low-paid manual labour.
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It was then that Ganesh met anthropologist Haku Shah, part of a wave of Indian scholars and curators seeking to preserve cultural traditions threatened by the pace of social change. Shah urged Ganesh to record the narratives in Jogi songs, to protect them from being lost to history. Ganesh could not write, so Shah suggested he draw the stories.
“He was so scared he would break the pen at first,” says Majumdar – she’s worked with the family for over 20 years – “and now, the children do it in their own style.”
Ganesh and Teju had 10 children, of whom six have survived; all of them paint and draw.
“Drawing is like a meditation, like a healing space for me – I lose myself in my drawings, in creating all the details … they make me forget my struggles,” says Prakash, Sangita’s older brother.
In his intricate work Cityscape (2017), Prakash depicts his home in Ahmedabad the way he saw it as a child; tall apartment blocks, puffing smoke towers, and masses of tiny human figures scurrying between them, uniformly intent on their business, ignoring the fish and turtles in the Sabarmati River that winds through the city. A close look reveals every figure is unique – they all have different socks, or hair, or eyes.
Prakash is teaching his teenage son to draw in the Jogi style; nobody in the family sings any more, except Teju and Ganesh. But while the Jogi family’s pivot to a whole new medium is dramatic, all the art forms featured in the exhibition are undergoing rapid transformation.
“A lot of these families, who have been practising these works for centuries and centuries, it’s been more within the domestic context,” says Sunita Lewis, project officer at the NGV. “But the last few decades, they’ve been changing the medium, or they’ve been changing the themes, in order to make them a commodity and reach a far wider audience than just their own communities.”
“Commodity” is a word curators often shy away from, but these artists aren’t hobbyists or members of India’s urban middle class. Art is their livelihood: if their traditions are to survive and stay relevant, they need a market. Sujuni, a style of embroidered quilt, was traditionally a way for women to reuse scrap fabric for practical gifts; now, they’re made for display to sell on the international art market, providing village women with a livelihood. Contemporary sujuni work often features motifs of women’s independence like laptops and mopeds. Similarly, Madhubani art originated with murals painted in homes for significant events like marriage and childbirth; now, Madhubani artists are working on paper in order to sell or display their art internationally, tackling themes like climate change, female foeticide, and Covid-19.
Artists are also increasingly signing their work – something that wasn’t always done in the past, or demanded by collectors. Most of the older works in the NGV exhibition are by unknown or unrecorded artists.
“The fact that the market has woken up is making it easier now to promote these artists as artists, and not as nameless, faceless carriers of tradition,” Majumdar says.
But, she concedes, increased interest from the art market doesn’t always translate into a secure future for artists. For the most part, the Jogi family are still pretty much where they were 20 years ago – except Sangita, who recently moved away from Ahmedabad. She lives in rural Rajasthan with her husband, and she’s just had her first child – a girl.
Sangita has never been dancing in a nightclub. Women Partying, she says, was based on parties she’s seen in movies and TV, and her imagination.
“My style is more fantasy-like, compared to my family,” Sangita says. “I draw what I would like to see – empowered women enjoying life.”
And, she says, she’s teaching her daughter to draw.
Changing Worlds: Change and Tradition in Contemporary India, at NGV, free admission, until 28 August.
Minhazz Majumdar provided translation work on this feature.