Caste shadow on Madhubani art form, Harijan painting gives it new twist
Although art agents have packaged the spin-off as ‘the art of the rebel, the oppressed, downtrodden and subaltern folks,’ the bottom-line is that now the art form is defined by the caste of the painter.
When Jamuna Devi, an illiterate woman from Bihar’s Madhubani district impressed Pupul Jayakar, then cultural advisor to former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, with her indigenous style of paintings at an exhibition in the 1980s, little did thousands of other artists in her village Jitwarpur realise that Mithila art form would get a new brand name.
Nearly four decades have passed since then. The art form, globally known as Mi- thila or Madhubani art, has of late thrown up an offshoot with a new tag — Harijan painting. Almost every woman and man in scheduled caste families of Mithilanchal, Bihar, is taking to it with gusto.
Art agents with links to the Western markets have packaged the spin-off as ‘the art of the rebel, the oppressed, downtrodden and subaltern folks’ in a new tactic to commercialise it. The impact is slowly sinking in as it creates a wedge in Madhubani art, which was previously never segregated by caste or class. Today it’s defined by the caste of the painter.
A look at canvasses of recycled paper made from waste; or mud walls of homes; even the cow dung brushed Aangans (courtyards) in Paswan tola or Chamar tola, provides a touching, yet powerful and all-too-real glimpse into the day- to-day life of the downtrodden castes of Bihar, like Dusaadh, Chamar (cobbler), Keots (water carriers) Musahars and Kahaars (palanquin carriers).
There are rich, colourful scenes and images from the lives and adventures of folk heroes such as Raja Salhes and Deena Bhadri -- gods of the downtrodden-- painted in vegetable dye.
“This phenomenon is new; almost like a silent protest, creating distinction between richer, better-off castes and the downtrodden, though in the villages such differentiation was rare, till commercial interests created the feeling,” said Kamalnarayan Karn, nephew of the first Padmashri award winning Mithila painter Jagdamba Devi.
“There was no sub-art culture like Godna (tattoo)painting or Gobar (cowdung) painting, or the now well known Harijan painting as Madhubani art had actually been democratised so as to be available to all women, irrespective of communities and divides,” he said.
Now, the differentiation is visible. It is almost like a rebel art form, challenging the Madhubani style, as is globally known and recognised, and insisting on a separate identity with consciousness and a sense of ‘we-ness’ backing the subaltern artists. Many variants have emerged.
Karn pointed to the tradition of the Likhiya genre of Mithila painting, which was created over mud walls of houses by every woman in the village on auspicious occasions such as marriage or festivals. They were created with the help of women cutting across castes, but promoted by the original Brahmin and Karna Kayastha families.
“On such occasions, especially marriage, art was created on a large scale and many hands were needed to finish the work. While women from Karna Kayastha and Brahmin families created Kohbar designs--another Mithila art variant-- their domestic help from scheduled castes, used to share the work and created designs in the courtyard or outside homes,” he said.
Scheduled caste women picked up the art from families they served and learnt the rudiments at convivial occasions. Later, they started decorating their homes. As they were more familiar with their folk heroes and deities like Raja Salhes and Deena Bhadri , these characters and scenes from their lives found a place in their works, instead of the Krishna-Meera, Ram-Sita motifs of upper castes. Some even started drawing incidents from their day-to-day life or themes with roots in the animistic culture of bygone era as opposed to Hindu culture.
Another variant is Godna, tattoos which were earlier used to decorate the human body with sharp, pointed needles.
“We call it Godna painting, which is now created on hand made paper. Even the government has recognised it as a distinct style of painting. There are state and national level awards for excellence in this art,” said Urmila Devi Paswan , a proponent of this art-form, who received the Kalidas Samman instituted by Madhya Pradesh government.
“Now even my niece has started painting. Recently we finished drawing the adventures of our deity, Raja Salhes on the walls of my verandah,” she said.
Some of these variants originated by happenstance. According to Rajkumar, a young painter who uses only one name, poorer women used to draw designs over the walls and on the ground with cow dung initially, as they could not afford colours, which gave rise to Gobar (cow dung) paintings.
Over time, some of these variants practices by the under-privileged and the oppressed acquired a rebellious streak, as evident in the work of Jamuna Devi, a painter from a lowly Chamar family.
One Harijan painting which won her a national award displays Chamar Tola people taking a carcass of cow out of the village. “Jamuna Devi explained, that initially her community was considered a forward caste but poor. Once a cow died in their Tola and as none had money to hire a professional to discard the carcass, her community people took off the Janeu (ceremonious thread used by forward castes; and disposed the carcass themselves). Since then, they have been categorised as scheduled caste,” Kamal Narayan, an artist, said. “The painting on the theme was a protest against the de-Sanskritisation of the community”, he added.
Some experts rue the commercialisation of the art form that, in their opinion, has resulted in the offshoots. “There never was this notion of Harijan painting 10 years ago. It’s a marketing gimmick. Art brokers and dealers knew a rebel art tag would help sell cheaply bought art work abroad,” said Bishwambhar Jha, a senior painter and social activist.
Sharad, a papier machie artist who uses only one name agrees: “The divide in art and society here is totally the handiwork of the Bichauliyas (brokers). Unfortunately (some) artists have now become quite aware of the benefits of this tag and are also trying to cash it. Talk to any of them and you will find them demanding awards and benefits on the basis of caste,” he said.
Indeed, even those who admire the paintings as a form of protest admit that commercial interests have played a part.
According to Dr Snigdha Prosad, a well known Patna based sociologist and professor: “This is a rare genre of protest through art by subaltern classes. However, it is a trend of the times, where ‘outsiders’ create a divide and stoke differentiation to meet a commercial purpose, which ends up dividing the cohesiveness of the society. ” For the painters themselves, though, it’s all about identity.
Binda Devi, a Madhubani artist and daughter-in-law of Jamuna Devi, proudly introduces herself as a ‘Harijan painter’ now. “Our art is misunderstood and looked down upon because we are low caste. Had we been from an upper caste, our members too would have won a Padmashri, or a national award. The reality shows up here, as to how the better off sections .