An exhibition traces the journey of Madhubani alongside the women practising the exquisite art form
So many of us have those exquisite Madhubani paintings in our living rooms. Their presence at popular hangouts has ensured sure registration in the psyche of a urban residents. Quantity unfortunately hasn’t kept pace with quality with the sameness of content in mass produced Madhubani paintings shaping our understanding of the art form that originated in the Mithila region in Bihar. Visiting ‘Traditional to Contemporary: Journey of Mithila paintings’ an exhibition showcasing divergent styles of the masters to recent artists, can be an effective exercise to understand it. Organised by Mithila Art Centre of Manisha Jha, a young architect and artist who has contemporarised the idiom of Madhubani, most of the works except for her own, are not for sale.
Having documented and collected the works of artists like Baua Devi, Karpoori Devi and late Sita Devi, Manisha says, she can’t even dream of selling their works. “Most of them were more well-known abroad than here. Their works aren’t easily available. You will find their works in several museums outside like Mithila Museum in Japan but not here. Some of them have passed away and some have stopped painting,” says Manisha who intends to curate more exhibitions out of this collection to further the understanding of the genre.
Showcasing 100 works rendered in three distinct styles of Madhubani — bharni of Brahmins, katchni of Kayasths and godana of Dalits — by artists like 87-year-old Godavari Dutt, Bimla Dutt, Urmila Devi Paswan, Shashikala Devi, Chandra Kala Devi, along with her own, Manisha traces the evolution of the genre. From a 45-year-old work of late Sita Devi, which is a figure of Krishna in bharni style (pigments on handmade paper) to a young artist like Bandana Jha, who has just drawn from her surroundings — a leaf of a tree that is in her backyard in Mauritius, where she lives and dwelt on a single motif in madhubani style, the exhibition presents the journey Madhubani has undertaken along with the journey of women, the primary practitioners of the art form.
Rushed to the region by the Indira Gandhi government in the wake of a drought, Bhaskar Kulkarni, arrived with handmade paper requesting the women artists to shift from their house walls to paper. Sita Devi, Karpoori Devi, Mahasundari Devi, Godavri Dutt and Baua Devi were one of the first few who accepted the challenge and some of them feature in the show. Subject matter drawn from Ramayana, local customs and rituals, festivals, local deities and nature find expression with kalams on handmade paper. “They all had a very distinct style and this is what I want people to understand. Baua Devi arrived at an image of snake which appeared as the central motif in all her works, Chano Devi came up with a godana style after German scholar Erica Moser asked them to translate the tattoos on their body on to their art. And looking at their work I can’t make any distinction between contemporary and traditional. In our local jargon, we call it likhiya which means an expression. Sothe form has been an expression of their experiences. Sita Devi drew Krishna while she was in her aangan and the same Sita Devi drew from her surroundings in Japan. So how can we say they were not contemporary artists,” says Manisha.
The art also became a tool of empowerment for women in Madhubani. “Godavari Dutt was deserted by her husband but she held forth because of this skill. While documenting them, a lot of them told me how they came to be respected by their husband and villagers after gaining fame and money worldwide. Their name and fame helped develop infrastructure in their village,” expresses Manisha pointing at ‘Sita Swayambar’ by Dulari Devi, who picked up the art form from Karpoori Devi’s house where she was a midwife.
Out of 18 artists, two are men — Krishnand Jha and Gopal Saha. While Krishnanand has given Madhubani a tantric colour, the differently-abled Gopal Saha, not a very well-known name but a magnificent artist, has imbued Madhubani with an immediacy. His works on floods, a local bus, and a cricket match that he watched on TV leave the viewer spellbound. Saha runs a small tea shop in Madhubani and has stopped painting due to old age. Urmila Devi Paswan takes it to another level by giving it a graphic quality.
In her own canvases Manisha plays with scale but doesn’t let go of the details. She experiments with surface as well using canvas onto which is applied cow dung and then painted with kalam. “A lot of people in Madhubani have started using canvas because they believe canvas is more expensive but what they achieve is a bad quality work. A lot of the young ones are obsessed with the idea of ‘contemporary’ and they want to do it without knowing the history,” says Manisha.
(The exhibition is on at Lalit Kala Akademi, till November 24)