Painting a positive picture

Painting a positive picture

STROKES OF FREEDOM Culture, it is said, is a reflection of education. But for Madhubani artists living in the country’s remoteness, much education comes from art and culture, reveals Tahir Ahmed

At first glance, it seems to be just another nondescript rural hamlet in India - acres of flat, green agricultural land, stacks of harvested crops by the roadside, a small cluster of modest dwellings…Yet, this rather plain countryside has a remarkable history and heritage. It is home to one of the most intricate, colourful and expressive traditional art forms – the Madhubani.

Ranti village is where the “barely literate” Mahasundari Devi shed her purdah (veil) and picked up the brush to make a name for herself as one of the foremost
practitioners of a fine art that draws its inspiration from Hindu mythology or scenes from everyday rural life.

Today, the great artist may be no more, but her sister-in-law, Karpuri Devi, resides there and paints along with several other women who are keen to take the legacy
forward. Meet Karpuri, 86, Dulari, 49, and Mahalaxmi, 26, three generations of women artists in Bihar’s Madhubani district, who are generously using the characteristic colours of the Madhubani to give this ancient art form their own new twists.

Humble beginnings
Sitting in the veranda of her single-storey home, which she has painted with ornate patterns and figures in Madhubani, Karpuri reminisces the days when she had first picked up the brush, “Decades ago, women in the village were not allowed to step outside the confines of their homes.

We had to be very discreet about our work. Typically, we used twigs, brushes, matchsticks or nibs of pens to make paintings with themes from the Ramayana or what we saw of daily life around us. For years, the wall was our canvas. Paper came much later.”

Karpuri strongly believes that it is from their ancestral home in Ranti that
Madhubani has gained real popularity across India and around the world. It
started off with Mahasundari, who received her first felicitation in 1976 from the
Bhartiya Nritya Kala Mandir for her work that depicted the struggles of a Maithil girl.

With every passing year, their repertoire grew and by the 1990s, both Mahasundari and Karpuri had carved their own niche in the world of Madhubani art. Their works, commissioned by the government of India, also found a place in the famous Mithila Museum in Japan.

From the window of the room where Mahasundari and Karpuri once created their masterpieces, one can spot the home of Dulari Devi, one of the duo’s most
celebrated students. Belonging to the poor mallah (fisher folk) community, she had first stepped inside their home as a domestic help.

She shares, “While doing my routine cleaning chores I used to observe them painting these beautiful, intricate works of art. Many a times, I used to wonder whether they would teach me as well. So one day I asked Karpuri Devi outright. To my great surprise, she readily agreed!”

Dulari has taken Madhubani to the next level. While the first generation stuck to the traditional themes of Ramayana and used only basic colours – red, yellow, green, black and geru – Dulari expanded the palette. “Not only did I start using more colours, but I also decided to tell different stories, ones that honoured my heritage,” she says.

One of the first paintings she sold was of a fishing village. Although Dulari can’t read, she has a biography, Following My Paint Brush, in her name today, which is a
collaborative effort with Gita Wolf.

Education of children belonging to the mallah community is an issue close to her heart and Dulari wants to use whatever star power she has to influence parents to give their children a formal education.

Education meets art
Educated, artistic and confident young women from Ranti and its neighbouring villages are infusing new life and ideas into Madhubani. There are numerous artists in their early twenties nowadays who are eager to project the concerns and challenges of the woman of today.

One such artist, who is focused on highlighting modern issues, even as she maintains the characteristic geometric patterns of the Madhubani style, is Mahalaxmi, a recipient of a scholarship by the Ministry of Culture.

Proud of her work, she
maintains that she would like to continue painting even after marriage, although she admits that “our society is still not ready to accept the idea of a married woman
pursuing a fulfilling career”.

Like Mahalaxmi, Radha Kumari, 18, believes in portraying the problems that girls like her have to deal with these days – like this painting she had done on eve
teasing. For many new-age artists, the Madhubani is a medium through which they can raise their voice in support of gender justice and equality.

Times are truly changing from the days when Karpuri was convinced that in the Madhubani style, women had to be rendered as a mirror image of Sita, the epitome of feminine virtues, courage and self sacrifice.

Incidentally, Karpuri still sticks to her version, “That was Satyug (an era of truth as described in Hindu philosophy) and it was important for everyone to remain within their boundaries.”

Mahalaxmi, however, doesn’t quite concur with her mentor’s ideology. Referring to the story of Ahalya that finds a mention in the Ramayana, she says, “Ahalya was a beautiful woman who had been cursed and turned to stone.

She was ultimately liberated by the touch of Lord Ram. But why should a woman wait for anyone to ‘rescue’ her? I truly believe that the time has come for us, women, to be our own Ram and free ourselves from the shackles of patriarchy.”

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