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?

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