Paint it black

Mithila artist, Santosh Kumar Das’ show pays homage to his mother’s art and his fascination for Indian mythology

August 14, 2017 08:25 pm | Updated 08:26 pm IST

“The rightful place for an artist, his real world, is a pot of black ink. I believe it contains all the magic, all the forms, everything that human beings can imagine and render. It hides inside itself the seeds of creation.” These words by contemporary Mithila artist Santosh Kumar Das not only portray his belief but also aptly depict the thought behind his book Black – An Artist’s Tribute as well as his first solo exhibition that is currently ongoing in the city.

Das, who hails from Ranti village in the Madhubani district of Bihar, is a prolific artist who has been practicing the Mithila style of painting since several decades. His passion for the arts started since his childhood when he saw his mother, Savitri Devi, draw calendar-style images with black, which was made of the soot that she collected on a night lamp. He says, “My mother’s art was simple yet beautiful. I was fascinated by it as well as the way she used black. She loved my paintings and encouraged me a lot as she felt I was creative.”

Later, Das started working for an American ethnomusicologist for three years and her husband, an anthropologist, who was making a movie on Mithila painters. They stayed in the neighbouring village and were impressed with Das’ work. The duo suggested that he study Fine Arts in MS University, Baroda, so that he could hone his skills further.

Unlike most other Madhubani artists, Das has trained within Indian and western traditions. After the completion of his course, he returned to his village and joined The Ethnic Arts Foundation’s Mithila Art Institute in Madhubani as a teacher and later became its director. He encouraged students to respond to issues of gender, politics, and identity through art. “I wanted to get back to my roots again. My stint at the institute helped me understand the power of the medium. For the first time, students from nearby villages came to learn Madhubani art,” he adds.

His works merge tradition with modernity and are replete with clear and precise lines as well as intricate geometric patterns. He draws inspiration from Hindu mythology and iconography, incidents in recent Indian history and anecdotes from everyday life. The exhibition features five paintings that are a part of his book Black: An Artist's Tribute . The illustrated handmade book which has been launched in collaboration with Tara Books focuses on Das’ journey as an artist and pays an ode to his mother. Inside its pages lie simple and poignant prose and illustrations. Together they make for a conceptually rich reflection on an artist’s relationship between the real world, imagination, and storytelling through art. The title “Black” references the colour his mother painted with. The black in his own works are not simply from a black pot of ink, but a combination of colours such as red, brown and green.

The idea for the book came when he was selected by Tara Books in 2009 for a workshop in Chennai. Director Geeta Wolf asked him if he would be game to do a pictorial story for the project. Das instantly thought of naming it Black while deciding to chronicle his life and talk about the basics of the Mithila art form.

The 55-year-old, who now stays in Mumbai, ensured that the paintings which are on display at the exhibition are from various series that he has never showcased before. They explore myriad themes such as his mother’s plight as an ashmathic patient, Das’ love for the arts and how he sought inspiration from calendar style images while drawing on the roof of his house and his fascination with mythology.

Black, an Artist’s Tribute to Contemporary Mithila Art by Santosh Kumar Das is ongoing till August 16 at Artisans’, Kala Ghoda

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