Madhubani Art, like any other art form, is embedded in various relationships of power that impact our everyday lives. To understand the present position of the art form and its future, it is important to situate it in the larger context of artistic production.
This blog explores various debates and discourses associated with Madhubani art and how the younger generation of artists brings new perspectives that ignite debates around artistic authenticity.
Politics of Art
We often understand art through the perspectives of aesthetics, without realising how art and artistic production are embedded in a multilayered art world where the politics of culture are forever shifting, where the power to define, legitimate, and value a work of art is always challenged and reinforced.
It is this politics with an interconnected arena that influences the artist’s perception of the world, which is ultimately reflected in the artwork. Apart from artists and their artworks, the world of art also includes communities, dealers, critics, galleries, histories, political and cultural debates, the government of the time, and the ever-changing trends of the global market.
Apart from these external sources of power, politics embedded within the imagery of the artworks and the message artists want to communicate through them are equally important. Therefore, while engaging with an art form, along with its aesthetics, techniques, and motifs, we also need to understand the forces of power of historical and contemporary relationships, which influence the artistic production of our times.
For the past 50 years, Madhubani painting has evolved quite substantially in terms of the subject matter formatting dense debate among circles of critics and art scholars as to which is authentic Madhubani art and which is corrupted with commercialisation. As we look at various debates around Madhubani art, we find how forces of imperialism, caste, gender, nationalism, and generational differences influence our perception of the traditional aspect of Madhubani Art.
Western Categorisation of Madhubani Art
In January 1934, W.G. Archer said himself to have ‘discovered’ an exciting ancient wall painting in which he saw modern beauty, paralleled with contemporary Western art. Looking through Western eyes, Madhubani paintings appeared to be a very busy space occupied by themes drawn from the Mithila region. This fullness of expressions and themes, like birds, fish, leaves, blossoms, ants, worms, snakes, centipedes, turtles, and toads suggests Horror Vacui (the horror of empty spaces).
Archer looked at Kobhar through a Freudian lens, popular in the early twentieth century, by correlating the long, pointed smiling face at the top that runs through the drawing with the phallus. Archer was an imperial officer and a big contributor to the Victoria and Albert Museum reinforced his definition of Mithila art, as an artistic practice of upper-class women, relegating artworks of other castes as a mere derivative.
Caste and Class in Madhubani Art
For a long time, Madhubani painters from lower castes have been denied the cultural identity of ‘Madhubani Painters’. In the 1970s, artists like Shanti Devi who was a Dusadh, the largest Dalit community of Mithila, challenged the upper-caste monopoly on both Madhubani art and the values it represents, by drawing attention to the epic of her own community, Raja Salhesh, an equivalent to Ramayana. Thereby, Shanti Devi’s artworks of Raja Salhesh challenged the upper castes’ representation of themselves as superior.
Another artist from the Dusadh community, Urmila Devi appreciated the famous Indo-European motif of the ‘tree of life’ to depict the lives of migrant workers.
Dulari Devi, an awardee of Padma Shri from the Mallah community who are the fisherfolk, is the only Madhubani artist who has taken class differences and local politics as subjects of her artworks. Apart from paintings of traditional subjects like episodes from Ramayana, Dulari Devi depicted differential access to government medical care for the rich and poor and the flood of 2008.
Also Read: Madhubani Painting: Bihar On The Front
Resistance of Patriarchy through Madhubani art
In the patriarchal society of Mithila, upper-caste men are often able to study and become professionals in various fields. On the other hand, upper-caste women are limited to the four walls of their homes, where they engage in family rituals. They usually have no control over their lives, and often move from the control of their fathers to their husbands and then to their sons. Sugata Kumari highlighted this condition of upper caste women in her painting, ‘Woman as a Beast of Burden.
With education and media, women of Mithila are becoming aware of their position in society, and the restraint it puts on their movement.
Rani Jha in her painting, ‘The Abortion Clinic’ shows the illegal sex detection of the foetus, where the abortion of a female foetus is carried out by a female doctor and moderated by the mother-in-law of a pregnant woman. It shows the deep-seated nature of patriarchy, explaining the low sex ratio and literacy rates among women in Bihar.
A similar example comes from the artwork of Guneshwaran Kumari, ‘Better a Flowering Tree than a Baby Girl.’
Feminist Works of Madhubani Art
It has been decades since Madhubani has been recognised for its aesthetic value all across the world. Women artists now step out of their homes to visit various places nationally and internationally. They come in contact with dealers, curators, and other artists. This exposure helped them to expand their worldview.
As Madhubani artists are no longer restrained to the four walls of their domestic lives, their new lifestyle and experiences have led them to include more non-traditional subject matters in their paintings. This shift among young artists of Madhubani is visible in the artworks of Shalinee Kumari’s Women Can Do Everything, Annu Priya’s Traditional Women vs. Modern Women, and Rani Jha’s feminist work, Breaking Through the Curtain.
What is Traditional in ‘Traditional Art for Madhubani’?
The critical and feisty subject matter chosen by young Madhubani painters created serious debates among art critics. Many upper-caste academics and senior women artists insist that Madhubani art must focus on traditional religious and spiritual themes. Younger artists’ preference for secular themes is often seen as corruption by various senior critics who blamed commodification for this shift towards secular themes. In contrast, many young artists argued that as long as they retain the specific aesthetics and technical properties of Mithila art, they can represent the subject matter of deep concern and still produce Madhubani art. However, the sharp distinction between traditional and modern themes is not definite, as many Madhubani artists continue to use traditional imagery with modernised concerns to express their individual selves.
Lalita Devi once painted a many-armed Durga, holding brooms, pots, and pans in her hands instead of weapons, which she justified by saying how men keep looking at the sky to find Durga without realising that there are hundreds of Durgas around them. The communication gap that patriarchy builds between men and women is also reflected in how men understand the symbol of Kobhar, which is painted in the rooms of the bride and bridegroom and represents a celebration of female fertility. It is the observation of many art historians that when they ask men about the meaning behind Kobhar’s design they reiterate the pseudo-tantric explanation propagated by the 20th century imperial ethnographers, instead of asking their wives what they are painting and why!
While talking about Indian traditional art forms, it is important to emphasise changes they are experiencing in a time when they are able to reach a wider audience than they earlier did. The increasing focus on the creative genius of the individual is pushing artists to depict ideas and realities they care about, thereby adding an element of going against the grain. Rambharos Jha, a younger generation artist talking about Madhubani art, says ‘tradition is like water which must keep flowing to stay clean. Since art has shifted from walls to paper, everything has changed.’ Even the older artists, Sita Devi and Ganga Devi have created their distinct elements, it is easier to differentiate between the works of the two, yet both represent Madhubani art tradition, just like artists of the younger generation.
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