An active canvas

Different strokes

An active canvas

Last year, on the occasion of its 10th anniversary, the Essl Museum of Contemporary Art, Vienna in Austria, invited 10 international museums from Denmark, India, Poland, Italy, Austria, Japan, Croatia, Germany and United Kingdom to take part in an exhibition project titled ‘Aspects of Collecting’.

The selected institutions and museums were asked to acquire works of art they considered interesting, significant and contemporary. One among the three artists to represent contemporary art from India was Madhubani painter, Manisha Jha. The Delhi-based artist was in Bangalore recently with her show titled ‘Traditional to Contemporary: The Journey of Madhubani Painting’, featuring the works of six artists. Articulate in both English and Hindi, Manisha spoke to Sunday Herald on her own journey in the field of art.

On the exhibition at Essl Museum
“My painting was titled ‘The Feminine Tree’. It was a 7ft by 5 ft acrylic painting on canvas which was a tribute to Goddess Saraswati. Built on the philosophy of Vak, it symbolised the strength and substance of woman by incorporating elements of both traditional and contemporary art. The work evoked very enthusiastic response. Another painting of mine, ‘Widows of Benaras’, was also displayed at the show. 

About her initiation into Madhubani art
I find it amusing when people ask me when I actually started painting. Born into a community of Madhubani artists, I have been painting as long as I can remember. As a young girl I used to watch my grandmother, mother and other women in the small town of Raghopur in North Bihar where I was born; I would be mesmerised by their magnificent and colourful creations on walls and floors. Painting has thus been a way of life for me and my family. It came quite naturally to us. Both my sisters, Puja and Bandhana, are also accomplished Madhubani artists. 

Genius on canvas: ‘Maharas’ by Manisha Jha. On art and architecture
When I was about five years old, our family moved to Delhi. I did my schooling in the capital city. I hold a diploma in interior designing and display and a degree in architecture. My sisters are also qualified architects, and like me, nurture a deep connection with Madhubani. All of us try to integrate our sensibilities in art with our architectural practice. We also conduct workshops in schools, colleges and other institutions to promote Madhubani art.

We have realised that it is quite easy to enthuse uninitiated people and children into the art because they don’t come with preconceptions or biases. On the other hand, it is very difficult to teach Madhubani art to fine art students! They carry a very heavy baggage.
On the status of Madhubani art

As is well known, Madhubani art was principally a household affair; it was practiced by village women to decorate their homes during festivals and other happy occasions. But it has never remained a stagnant art but a dynamic one. Over a period many of our artists have developed their own aesthetics in terms of form, content, material and presentation. It is now common to find Madhubani artworks in paper, canvas and other mediums.

Today, many artists incorporate contemporary themes and forms in their work. The art provides immense freedom and many of today’s practitioners evocatively incorporate personal and even day-to-day experiences and interweave them imaginatively in their work.

Earlier, there were also restrictions depending on the caste of the artist: Brahmin, Kayasth or Dushadh (untouchables).  One could identify the works on the basis of colours, tones and themes. For instance, Brahmins used bright colours, while others had to be satisfied with muted ones. Now those restrictions are gone and a new generation of wonderful artists and art works has surfaced.  

On Madhubani Art Centre
While the demand for Madhubani art has been on the rise, there are many artists in the villages who are finding it difficult to make ends meet. I set up the Madhubani Art Centre about eight years ago to provide the vital link between the artists and the market. I am seriously concerned with economic sustenance of the artists in the villages. We have through our centre helped more than 100 artists at grassroot levels as of now.

On bringing Madhubani art to galleries
My first exhibition was in 1998 at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi. It was followed by many others in the past decade in different cities including Baroda, Panjim, and Mumbai. I was probably the first artist in the country to bring Madhubani art into the ambit of commercial galleries. Otherwise, it was seen only in craft melas and bazaars. I have to acknowledge artists like (Late) Sankho Choudhuri and Arpana Caur who motivated me to come out of the confines of my home and exhibit and even sell my works. It was a bit scary in the beginning, but now having exhibited extensively I am very excited about my shows.

In my exhibitions, I do not restrict putting on display my own works or the works of my sisters. I bring in other artists too. In the recent exhibition in Bangalore, we have also featured the works of Chandrakala Devi, Urmila Devi Paswan and Gopal Saha.
Chandrakala is a widow with four daughters in Chakdah village in Madhubani district. Urmila Devi belongs to Dusadh community. Gopal Saha who is into his 60s is physically challenged; he was a tea maker before he started painting. All of them are outstanding artists and bring in their unique sensibilities and experiences to their art. In fact, in one his paintings, Saha has pictured a cricket match in Madhubani style! In another, there is a bus which is so crowded that it has passengers standing on the footboard and squatting on the roof.

On her other activities
Besides painting, I pursue a freelance architectural career in New Delhi. I have presented papers on Mithila painting and am also involved in writing books on different aspects of Madhubani art. One of my pet ongoing projects is to depict tales from Panchatantra in Madhubani paintings.  

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