While Madhubani art has remained the prerogative of certain kinds of narratives centred on the Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, a young Dalit woman is attempting to break this monopoly by introducing Buddha’s life stories into the visual imagery of the art form.

Tracking significant events of Buddha’s life, from before his birth to Mahaparinirvana (his death), Malvika Raj from Samastipur in Bihar has been etching folklore from Buddha’s epoch in the Madhubani painting genre.

Typically, one finds stories of Radha-Krishna, Sita or other figures from Hindu mythology in Madhubani paintings, apart from depiction of nature. Representation of Dalit symbols including Buddha is rare, if not absent.

While the motifs, technique and style in Malvika’s paintings is traditional Madhubani, the content marks a remarkable shift from the Hindu narratives of Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Although art has that inherent quality to embrace innovation and advancement, not everybody is happy with what she is doing. While her paintings were welcomed for display at Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai, locally in Bihar there have been several questions she has had to face. Recalling an incident, she says, “I remember a day in Patna Art College where I was exhibiting my paintings; a guy in saffron robe walked in and without even viewing all my paintings, he started irritating me with his nasty comments as how can I divert Madhubani from its original forms of Hindu gods and goddesses to Buddha and offered several other prejudiced analyses.” These incidents happen, but she brushes them off by saying, “I paint Buddha’s stories in Madhubani because I think first of all Buddha stays in my heart. The starting reason might be my father who himself is a Buddhist. We kids often heard stories about Buddha and his preaching from him. Later on I studied some literature on Buddha too.”

Malvika’s father, Bahujan Samaj Party General Secretary from the area encourages her and whenever there is an exhibition, he sits there all day long while outside, his security men keep guard. She values his support and wonders whether she would have been able to paint and exhibit these paintings without his backing; had she been a regular Dalit woman.

“The other reason for adopting Buddha’s life, his teachings and his perspective in my paintings is that one can hardly find his stories or his complete story in Madhubani paintings.”

While completing the series on Buddha remains her priority, she is also simultaneously training young Dalit girls of Bihar in this art form. Despite the restrictive market for art of this kind, Malvika thinks it is important to pursue.

“I am a feminist and I strongly support women’s empowerment but Dalit women are considerably lagging behind in this movement and unable to move shoulder to shoulder along with other women in every walk of life as they are facing three-fold inequality and suppression -- first, they are Dalits; next, they are women and lastly, majority are uneducated and poor.”

A graduate from National Institute of Technology (NIFT) Mohali, Malvika’s interest in painting was nurtured by her sister in her childhood. Attributing her talent building to her sister, Malvika says, “though my elder sister was a good artist but somehow she managed to end up with being an engineer but helped me to search my dream.” She even has her own website: buddhapaintings.org

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