Mithila's women paint their way out of poverty

By Naren Karunakaran

The Bharati Vikas Manch, in Bihar's Barheta village, has been instrumental in teaching poor village women the famous Mithila genre of painting. The skill has helped transform lives and ward off poverty in many backward villages in the state

Pushpalata still remembers the day she took home her first earning. It came from her work as a painter and practitioner of an art form alien to both her and the community to which she belongs. She had earned Rs 500 from the sale of her first set of greeting cards painted in the Mithila genre -- a folk art hitherto practised by women of the Maithil Brahmin and Kayasth castes of northern Bihar.

A tremulous Pushpalata, speechless with excitement, had quietly offered the money to her ageing father. “Babuji and mother were happy for me. I was learning to fend for myself and my young son,” she recalls.

Pushpalata’s brush with the art form strengthened her resolve to push on and reduce her dependence on the benevolence of kindly relatives. As her skills as a painter took hold, she also experienced a heightened degree of self-esteem, for she had begun to contribute towards the family income pool.

Life had finally taken a turn for the better from the time she and her son were abandoned by her wayward husband many years ago.

Pushpalata, still delving into the intricacies of Mithila painting, is a mentor to many young girls in her village of Ojol, in Bihar’s Darbhanga district. She and many others like her, both veterans and novices, attend classes at the Bharati Vikas Manch (BVM) in Barheta village, the institution that helped them turn painters and ward off grinding poverty.

Over the last two decades, the BVM has fought deep and well-entrenched caste prejudices in rural Bihar by successfully creating a legion of women artists, all trained and equipped to create and sell Mithila paintings -- works that have been celebrated and patronised by patrons of the arts across India and abroad.

The BVM has been instrumental in taking the art out of the houses of the Maithil Brahmins and Kayasths and into the homes of dalits. BVM’s Krishan Kumar Kashyap, activist, painter and teacher has involved women across religions and castes, also tribal women, in an activity that has sustained the livelihoods of scores of rural households across Bihar.

Kashyap and a few like-minded people in Bihar’s Mithila region have, in the process, rendered a new hue to the Mithila art form by incorporating the lines, waves and motifs common to people from the backward castes and tribal areas. It is now described as the ‘godhana’ influence on Mithila painting.

Kashyap even lived with tribal communities to absorb and learn about their unique art forms, expressed as tattoos on limbs and the body. “The elephant motifs of the Musahars, one of the poorest communities in Bihar, are extremely beautiful,” explains Shashibala, Kashyap’s first student, now a teacher at the BVM.

The going was not easy in the initial years of the BVM. Several years ago, Kashyap accepted a Dom girl, considered the lowest of the low in the caste hierarchy, and this led to an uproar in the village. The village elders and also the parents of his students wanted her evicted. “I didn’t budge. All my student girls supported me during the onslaught,” he recalls.

It was also extremely difficult, at times frustrating, for Kashyap and his small band of teachers to infuse a creative bent amongst the rural women, many of whom had done little else but harvest crops in the fields. For many women it was an uphill task to gently wield brush and pen on canvas when all they were familiar with was the forceful slash and cut of a sickle!

“We had to put them through a regimen to loosen their fingers,” explains Shashibala. Many, of course, failed to make the grade. They were instead trained to make baskets, decorative items or cut/stitch cushion covers and tablemats.

Muslim women too have trudged to the BVM. Many maulvis (Muslim priests) have commended the institution for its work amongst women from lower castes and minorities. Poverty after all doesn’t recognise caste, creed or religion. Muslim girls at the BVM have no inhibitions about painting scenes from Hindu mythology, so integral to the Mithila art form.

The present form of Mithila, or Madhubani paintings as they are popularly known, is a translation of the traditional wall and floor paintings onto canvas, paper and cloth. The stylised figures, lions with long manes, human profiles reminiscent of Cretan pottery and bright native colours have great appeal in the outside world.

The distinctive and vigorous Mithila art form was handed down from mother to daughter over generations. It normally finds expression in three forms -- paintings on floors, walls and on moveable objects.

For the Brahmins, wall paintings form part of the marriage rituals; painting pictures of gods and goddesses on the walls of the nuptial room (kohobar) is an elaborate ceremony. Symbols of fertility and prosperity like fish, parrots, elephants, turtles, the sun and the moon find prominent place on walls. It was a Brahmin lady, Sita Devi, who first ventured out and popularised this art form, characterised by bright colours and an absence of shade.

The Kayastha influence can be seen in the elaborate line paintings, primarily depicting the splendours of nature and village scenes. While the Brahmins opt for very bright hues, the Kayasths prefer muted colours, all prepared from natural sources like clay, bark, flowers and berries mixed with resin from banana leaves or ordinary gum. In recent times, synthetic colour has replaced natural colours.

The dalit influence also saw the washing of the canvas/paper in cowdung. The dalits also brought with them their pictorial alphabets, lines, circles, sticks and snails, etc.

For the women of Mithila, their paintings embody their desires, fears and aspirations and they are therefore seen as writers who express their feelings through the medium of painting. In that sense they are literate, and this is what prodded Kashyap, imbued with pedagogical inclinations, to experiment with literacy too.

“The alphabets are already there in the lines and curves of the paintings created by the women,” he explains. “It is just a small step for them to learn to read and write.” Along with mastering the art of painting, scores of women at the institution have also learnt the alphabet.

Over the years, Kashyap and his band of women activist-painters have set up training cells across Bihar, in 23 villages, 10 in Kusheshwarsthan alone -- one of the most backward areas of northern Bihar. Many continue to function on their own, without any assistance from the BVM. A number of Kashyap’s students have set up individual initiatives in the villages they marry into, thus spreading the movement.

Although there has been some negative fallout, in the form of crass commercialisation and to some extent a dilution of the art form, Kashyap says the bottom line is that it has enabled innumerable families to keep poverty at bay.

The BVM offers well-designed, curriculum-based courses for its students right from the elementary to the senior levels.

The basic or elementary course is four months long (eight months for farm labourers), and students learn the art by drawing on floors or donated scraps of paper. Beginners try their hand at cushion covers and greeting cards.

For seniors, books guide them through complex designs and painting techniques as they graduate to painting on canvas and also on saris, dupattas and kurtas. Painting a sari can take up to 80 hours and fetch a few thousand rupees (excluding the cost of the material).

The BVM doesn’t charge a fee. In fact, during its better years, students received a stipend of Rs 150 a month for a nine-month training course. But in recent years the institution has found it difficult to make ends meet. Steeped in the activist mould, Kashyap had refrained from building up an institutional corpus. He encouraged his students to develop their own marketing channels. “I didn’t want them to hang on to the apron strings of the institution. They had to learn to be independent,” he says. But that’s easier said than done.

Much of the burden of hawking his students’ work continues to fall on Kashyap’s shoulders, for which he often taps patrons of the arts in Mumbai and other cities. Earlier, almost the entire proceeds of the sale went to the women painters. But lately Kashyap has developed a system wherein the artist gets 55%, the institution 15% and the rest is set aside for promotional and other expenses.

Kashyap is enthused by the manner in which he recently managed to secure a bridgehead in the European markets. He was invited by the University of Naples to talk on Mithila paintings, and he used the opportunity to hold an exhibition of his students’ works. The Italians picked up all the paintings on display.

(Naren Karunakaran is an independent writer and journalist based in Delhi)