Sunday, October 04, 2015

The Tribal Art Paradox

The appreciation of folk art as 'art' is just skin deep, says Gargi Gupta of DNA as she discusses the destruction of a Madhubani painter's mural 

  • MuralMural by Madhubani artist Ganga Devi that was painted over

The recent destruction at Delhi's Crafts Museum of a large mural by Ganga Devi, a pioneering Madhubani painter, strikes at the root of the paradoxes surrounding tribal art today.
On the one hand is the lack of appreciation — the bureaucrats' disregard for a large, important work by an internationally-acclaimed artist, a Padma Shri awardee no less. Ganga Devi's mural was, according to Jyotindra Jain, the former Crafts Museum director, who first flagged its destruction on Facebook, "the only example of a complete iconographic rendering of Mithila's kohbar ghar". (Kohbar ghar is the nuptial chamber which would traditionally be covered with paintings depicting auspicious and fertility symbols. Madhubani paintings even now depict motifs ofkohbar ghar murals.)
Besides, its tragic history — it was one of the last works she executed while undergoing chemotherapy for cancer — added to its importance. According to Jain, "Ganga Devi used to weep due to the painful treatment and had painted the chamber to occupy herself with something she found creatively engaging." Undoubtedly, had it been a modernist master — Husain or Souza, for instance, instead of Ganga Devi — a work with such a poignant back story would never have been painted over in a thoughtless "modernisation" drive.
There has been a growing market for Madhubani and other forms of tribal art in recent years but it's mostly for small works, churned out in bulk by artists who've renounced the painstaking, traditional methods for modern, quicker methods so they can keep prices at the Rs1,000-2,000 levels.
Prices, even in auction (art auction house Saffronart has had a dedicated sale of folk and tribal art since 2012) where large works by senior, important artists come up for sale, have remained low, barring a few exceptions like Gond artist Jangarh Singh Shyam. At the recent Saffronart "folk and tribal art auction", for instance, a work by Baua Devi, an early exponent of Madhubani painting like Ganga Devi, sold for Rs 42,900, less than its estimated high price of Rs 45,000.
But over and above these, the Ganga Devi episode reveals the more fundamental paradox of Indian tribal art. Traditionally, these paintings were part of the artists' daily lives — they decorated their walls with them, re-touched them when they became faint and when they had completely worn out, the walls would be repainted and covered again with art.
This changed in the 1960s, when under the likes of arts administrator Pupul Jayakar, artists J. Swaminathan and Bhaskar Kulkarni, and American anthropologists Raymond Owens and David Szanton, those like Ganga Devi were persuaded to switch to paper. That gave their art-works longer shelf-life and mobility, and brought prosperity as well as new identity as artists.
But as the destruction of the Crafts Museum mural shows, the appreciation of our folk artheritage as "art" runs only skin deep — until the next renovation when the officials think nothing of destroying another lot of art-works instead of finding ways to preserve them.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Mural Copy Promise after Whitewash

Telegraph story based on a release issued by the Ministry of Textiles:

Our Special Correspondent
New Delhi, Sept. 15: The textiles ministry today announced that a "rejuvenation project" was in progress to "preserve" exhibits and artworks to the "maximum extent possible", days after whitewashing a mural by iconic Madhubani artist Ganga Devi at the capital's National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum.

The media release also "clarified" that an "excellent collection of works", including Ganga Devi's Cancer Series, was "well conserved" as part of the museum's collection.

It would be given its "due place" in the galleries, once the rejuvenation work is complete, the release said.

The Cancer Series refers to the four works of Ganga Devi, painted on paper, while she was being treated for cancer at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in 1989-90. The works depict the detection of her illness, delay in getting treatment and her journey to Delhi.

All these themes are painted in the Madhubani style and are displayed at the NHHM museum.

The Cancer Series does not include Ganga Devi's famed Kohbar Ghar or Bridal Nuptial Chamber murals that the artist, who passed away in 1991, had painted between breaks in chemotherapy sessions. But the entire room was painted over during the "rejuvenation project", on since the last few months.

Textiles minister Santosh Gangwar said a replica of the lost work would be made in the same room.

"We will get people from her place (north Bihar) who paint in the same way. They will paint this room again to restore it. We are seeking advice on how the works we have can be preserved. Walls with murals begin to crack 10 to 20 years after they are completed."

Former NHHM director Jyotindra Jain wondered how an artist's work could be replicated. "It is not a question of any painting. It bore the signature of an eminent artist named Ganga Devi. If you replace it, it cannot be called her work," Jain said.


Ministry of Textile Press Release Reproduced:

Government committed to conserve original concept of Crafts Museum

Work of late artist Smt. Ganga Devi is well conserved in the Museum Collection

The Ministry of Textiles wishes to clarify that the Government of India is fully committed to conserve the original concept of the National Handicrafts & Handlooms Museum and to preserve the exhibits and artworks to the maximum extent possible.  It is in this spirit that the Rejuvenation Project is being implemented.  The Government welcomes suggestions in this regard from all quarters.

It is further clarified that an excellent collection of works including ‘Cancer Series’, by the late artist Smt. Ganga Devi, is well conserved in the Museum Collection; it will be given its due place in the Museum Galleries, once the rejuvenation work is completed.

The National Handicrafts & Handlooms Museum was set up in the year 1956 and was moved to present premises in year 1979-1980. Keeping in view the need for upkeep and maintenance of the structures, Rejuvenation Project was planned in the year 2010.  Implementation of the Rejuvenation Project is being supervised by an Advisory Committee which has several eminent persons from related areas.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Erasing Ganga Devi and the Idea of Mithila

Article by Amita Sharma, knowledge editor at Financial Chronicle

There is a strange, sil­ent irony in the way the political party heading the national government is wooing Bihar’s votes and the nonchalant manner in which the national government has demolished an iconic cultural imprint of Bihar — a painted chamber with beautiful ceiling-to-floor murals by ren­owned Madhubani art­ist, the late Ganga Devi. This single demolition, part of a modernisation plan at the National Crafts Museum, says many things — all of which negate the public narrative of the national government to uphold Indian culture and tradition. At the very outset, it interrogates the idea of museumisation that first decontextualises art in the name of preservation and then erases the same art to usher in modernism!

In Delhi’s crafts museum Ganga Devi had created a kohbar ghar, the room where marriages are solemnised and consummated in Bihar. The tradition of Mithila wall paintings survives from the epic period. Tulsidasa’s Ramcharitamanasa describes the Mithila painting decorated for the marriage of Sita and Rama. Gauri, Siva’s consort, desired to participate in the actual marriage ritual and to paint the kohbar where the sumangalis had to perform songs and related rituals for the couple. Replete with mythology, folk themes and tantric symbolism, the central theme of a kohbar painting is love and fertility. Executed with prayer, it invoked the blessings of the gods into the house.

Madhubani paintings exemplify the integral relation of art and life, where life functions and creative art are inseparably intertwined and there is no dichotomy between the sacred and profane. Although Panini, drew a distinction between artists — the rajashilpi or craftsman employed by the court and the gramashilpi or village craftsman, in the Indian tradition, an artist is understood as participating in the divine pro­cess of creativity. In Hinduism, Vishnu’s thousand names include being an artist. In Islam, allah is also musawwer, the artist. Man, god and art are inseparable. Art is not removed from everyday life, it reflects a world view. This whole world view gets erased in the tho­ughtless erasure of Ganga De­vi’s Madhubani murals.

Ganga Devi represented a painting tradition where wom­en are at the centre, and of which, they are the sole custodian. More than art, the Mithila painting for them is a script in delicate line and vivid earthy colours through which they communicate with their men and the world. Originally, an art form practised by brahmin women, then the kay­astha and still later dalit wo­men, Madhubani shows how art creates a parallel history of social inclusion. Does a ‘modern’ museum delete a three thousand-year-old tradition that empowered women thro­ugh its artistic idiom?

Madhubani artists have also responded to new market demands by transferring their traditional work on walls to diverse materials exploring new themes and forms, exemplifying the in­imitable modernity of Indian folk art.

Awarded Padma Shri in 1984, Ganga Devi placed an ancient folk art on a contemporary, international horizon, moving beyond the limited vocabulary of symbols and images, to investigate the unlimited potential of line drawing and incorporating the ‘brave new world’ in paintings as America series, Moscow Ho­tel, Festival of American Folk Life, and Ride in a Roller Coaster. She demonstrated the power of an Indian village artist to mythologise contemporary urban symbols. Is erasing Ganga Devi’s painting the tribute to Bharat? Is there an equality in the government’s treatment of an artist and a craftsperson? If this work had been Jamini Roy’s in a Kalighat pata style, would the museum have thrown it out?

Ganga Devi channelled her personal agony -– desertion by husband, poverty and cancer in painting the museum chamber in between her chemotherapy, creating pathbreaking works such as the Cancer series capturing the avarice of money-grabbing village quacks and the loneliness of hospital rooms. Fine, exquisite lines sketch her visits to doctors, the stretcher she lay on, and the medical tests she underwent.

Maybe Ganga Devi’s indomitable will and talent came from her birthplace Mithila, one of the first kingdoms of eastern India, where Rama, prince of Ayodhya and incarnation of the Vishnu, married Sita; where Buddha and Mahavira, founders of buddhism and jainism, respectively, and scholars of Sanskrit learning such as Yajnavalkya, Vachaspati, Gautam and Kapil were born. In Parijataharanamahakav, a classical Sanskrit epic, Krishna tells his beloved Satyabhama, “Th­is is Mithila. Here in every house, Saraswati dances with pride on the tip of the tongue of the learned.”

Ironic, that a museum sho­uld be so history-less at a time when the government asserts its pride in India’s ancient past and more, seeks a mandate in Madhubani the land of ‘forest of honey’. The Taliban and the ISI demolish their art deliberately as ideological statements. The wh­ite wall that replaces Ganga Devi’s Mithila art — whose ideology is that?


Saturday, September 12, 2015

Ganga Devi’s Left The Building

Destruction of her murals shows the rot in the museum, says,  Laila Tyabji  chairperson, Dastkar Society for Crafts & Craftspeople.

The mindless destruction of Ganga Devi’s extraordinary last works at the Crafts Museum is terribly sad. It highlights the caste system between art and craft, the indifference to the creative integrity of a craftsperson’s vision. The quoted reaction of a Crafts Museum official, “Don’t worry, I’ll get another kohbar ghar painted” shows that, even for someone who claims to have worked there for 30 years, one piece of craft is much like another. So Ganga Devi is no more, let’s get Sita Devi or Champa Devi or Ambika Devi. It’s all Madhubani after all, so what’s the difference? There was an eerily similar response when rumours of the transformation of the Crafts Museum into a Hastkala Academy evoked a public outcry. “Why the fuss? Nothing much happens in the Craft Museum,” was one bureaucrat’s reaction.

Typical is the lack of communication and consultation. Bureaucrats naturally cannot be experts in everything. They need inputs from specialists. Earlier, there was always a process of consultation. When new schemes were being planned, when changes in an established institution or practice were contemplated, when programmes needed evaluation, a committee or working group would be set up, consisting of a cross-section of experts — representative, knowledgeable, and hopefully objective. If there was occasionally too much talk and not enough action, there was at least informed debate.

These days, this interaction with civil society is simply not happening. Ad hoc decisions are taken and no one knows how and why. Occasionally there’s a political agenda but often (as in the case of the Ganga Devi murals, I suspect) the people involved are neither wilfully wicked, nor have axes to grind. They simply don’t know much about the matter and take knee-jerk decisions without asking anyone or thinking them through. Whether it’s building a six-storey glass and concrete building next to a heritage site, changing handloom policy, withdrawing Delhi’s bid to be a Unesco Heritage City, deciding who is to head a prestigious cultural institution, or even renaming a road, neither legalities nor long-term implications are considered. Things are decided by a few individuals who then become defensive and surprised at the ensuing outcry. Not rolling back the decision becomes a matter of prestige.

To return to the Ganga Devi murals, the present head says the decision was taken before her tenure, and the former director, Ruchira Ghose, says that though the space certainly needed major repairs, the destruction of the artworks was done after she left. Since I myself was on the museum rejuvenation committee previously, I can vouch that though we all agreed that the building urgently needed restoration and upgrading, destroying existing parts of the collections was nowhere on the agenda. The murals could have been restored. Intach performs miracles. There is a paradox here, however. The cost of proper professional restoration is considerably more than a Madhubani craftswoman would receive for an original painting.

Restoration is seen as a 21st-century technical skill, Madhubani, a rural “handicraft”. No surprise it was decided to simply paint over the pieces. Unfortunately, we were not consulted. The last meeting I attended was in mid-2014. At that time, slabs of plaster were falling dangerously from ceilings supported by wooden struts, the godowns which housed the priceless reserve collections were seeping damp and mildew, the galleries had no temperature or humidity controls.

We were all ecstatic that the long-delayed funding had finally come through, and that the museum would be brought to international standards. In the last six months, media reports and rumours about the future of the Crafts Museum and its amalgamation into a Hastkala Academy began circulating. No one in the sector was informed or consulted. Ministry officials were tight-lipped, saying only that “the status of the Crafts Museum would remain unchanged”.

Why can’t we know what’s planned for its future? When the prime minister talks of Make in India and Skill India, he should rcall those amazing undervalued skills we already have. Let’s not demolish them in our haste to acquire new ones.


Thursday, September 10, 2015

Please Sign: Restore Late Ganga Devi's Madhubani Murals at National Crafts Museum in Delhi

According to a report in Times of India, Titled, Crafts museum ‘renovation’ wipes out famed Madhubani murals, A painted chamber which had beautiful ceiling-to-floor murals by renowned Madhubani artist, the late Ganga Devi, has been demolished as part of a new modernization plan at the National Crafts Museum, sparking an outcry from art lovers in the Capital. The room was painted by Ganga Devi over six months in the 1990s when she was undergoing chemotherapy and had to stay at the Crafts Museum. She distracted herself from the pain by devoting her energy to creating a Mithila style kohbar ghar, the room where marriages are solemnized and consummated in Bihar. She died a year later. Jyotindra Jain, who was then director of the Crafts Museum and saw the artist at work, said he was shocked by the destruction. "Ganga Devi gave new direction to Madhubani painting. She was a legend and her contribution was recognized with a Padma Shri. The chamber was a unique monument in the history of contemporary folk and tribal arts of India.

Here is the link to the petition, pl sign and lend your support.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Saddest Moment for Madhubani Art

Crafts Museum, Delhi Demolishes Late Ganga Devi's Madhubani Murals

Monday, September 07, 2015

Khadi panel move to benefit Mithila painting artists

By C S Jha ‘Azad’

Madhubani: The initiative taken by the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC), ministry of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME), Government of India, is likely to revive the almost 'dead khadi' industry in the state.

The move is likely to benefit the artists of Mithila painting in Madhubani district mostly. Hundreds of such artists of the district, majority of them women, would be freed from the clutches of 'middlemen' by this move and get proper remuneration of their products. To implement the scheme in a phase-wise manner, the All India Khadi Gramodyoga Board, the nodal agency for the project, has shortlisted Madhubani district in the first phase followed by Darbhanga and Sitamarhi districts in the second phase.

As per the plan, a cluster of artists would be formed and a total of Rs10 crore would be spent on them during a span of five years. About 1,000 artists from the district will form the cluster, said KVIC PRO S C Jha here.

He said an extensive survey of villages of the district was conducted by Bihar State Khadi Board director R S Pandey, between August 7-8 last and he alongwith Vijay Kumar Singh, deputy development officer, State Khadi Board, is contacting artists from Ranti, Jitwarpur, Mangarauni, Pilakhwar and other villages of Mithilanchal since September 3 last with a view to persuading them to join the programme.

Several private agencies of Madhubani, Darbhanga, Sitamarhi and Bhagalpur would provide silk and other raw materials directly to these artists and the finished products with Mithila paintings on them would then be sent to the Board's Delhi-based sales outlet in Connaught place for marketing, said the PRO.

Jha said 100 pieces of silk saris and 100 pieces of dress materials have already been made available to about 50 selected artists of different villages for making Mithila paintings on them.

These items would be put on display at an 'Exhibition-cum-Sale' at Khadi Gramodyoga Bhawan, Connaught Place, New Delhi, on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti on October 2.