The description of Bhuri Bai’s journey as a daily wager who became a world renowned Indian folk artist doesn’t do justice to her story. Bhuri Bai transcended many societal and familial barriers to establish herself as an artist. Her art is not only a testament to her innate talent but also to her courage, tenacity and fortitude.
Bhuri Bai is an internationally renowned Bhil artist from the tribal village of Pitol in the Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh. The Bhil community is one of the largest indigenous groups in India. One of their traditional art forms is the Pithora mural painting. This painting has generally been done by male priests on the walls of homes. Women were generally not allowed to paint and the few women who did were relegated to only decorative art.
Despite the restrictions, Bhuri Bai learnt this ritual art and even painted it on the walls of her home. As destiny would have it, Bhuri Bai would be the first Bhil woman (and the first Bhil, as a matter of fact) to paint on paper and canvas. She would then go on to be the first from her community to establish herself as an artist to be reckoned with.
A Turn of Fate
After her marriage, Bhuri Bai moved to Bhopal in 1980/1981 with her husband. She worked as a daily wage worker at a construction site. There she meets artist and writer, Jagdish Swaminathan. He was also the Director of Roopankar, the arts wing of the Bharat Bhavan. At his request, Bhuri Bai made her first paintings on brown packing paper with paints and paintbrushes supplied by Swaminathan. This process continued for years while Bhuri Bai continued working at the construction site.
As she dedicated more time to her art, she started getting invited to display her work around the country. This was a big step for someone who has never left Bhopal. This also went a long way in refining her art and helping her gain recognition.
In 2002, Bhuri Bai started working full time as an artist at the Adivasi Lok Kala Academy (later the Madhya Pradesh State Tribal Museum). From here she started building a substantial body of work.
Developing her style
Although traditionally the colours used in Bhil paintings were made using turmeric, soot and leaves, Swaminathan introduced her to a new inventory of colours she could work with. This expanded her creative potential.
Her earlier works were rich in Bhil iconography but as she started travelling and collaborating with other artists in India and internationally, she started experimenting with urban themes.
A Collaborative Spirit
Bhuri Bai has regularly collaborated with other indigenous artists on a number of paintings.
Her work with fellow Bhil artist, Lado Bai has appeared in the book, The Perceiving Fingers published by Bharat Bhavan.
She has also worked with Jangarh Singh Shyam, a leading Gond artist and Australian artist for a workshop organized by the Australia-India Council at the National Crafts Museum and Hastkala Academy in New Delhi.
Breaking New Ground
Bhuri Bai’s work has featured extensively in many exhibitions in India as well as internationally.
One of the recent exhibitions in India that has garnered significant attention is the online exhibition, Bhuri Bai:My Life as an Artist, organized by The Museum of Art & Photography, Bengaluru. This curation is autobiographical in nature and is distinctive because the audience is guided through the paintings by the voice of Bhuri Bai.
Prior to this, her first autobiographical series, Aadi Anaadi, consisting of 55 paintings is part of the permanent collection of the Bharat Bhavan.
Her art continues to grace the murals of the Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum.
Her painting, Story of the Jungle, sold at the famed Sotheby’s auction in 2007.
She has also exhibited her works at the ‘Other Masters of India’ exhibition at Musée du Quai Branly, Paris and at Kaleidoscopic India at Maison Guerlain among many others.
Exploring New Avenues
Bhuri Bai’s prolific body of work also includes illustrations of several literary works on the Bhil community. Bhili Kathayein, Bhil Janjateetya Geet and Lok Akhyan are a few of them.
While working as an artist at the Adivasi Lok Kala Academy, she regularly contributed her illustrations to the Chaumasa magazine published by the Academy.
Her illustrations also feature in a children’s book, A tree, by Klara Kottner-Benigni.
She has also co-authored an autobiographical work, Dotted Lines, with research scholar Debjani Mukherjee. The work has been shortlisted in the Picture Book category of the Neev Book Awards 2020.
Recognition from the Government
Over the course of her career, Bhuri Bai has earned accolades from the creative community. Some of the numerous prestigious awards she has received are the Shikhar Samman, Madhya Pradesh’s highest civilian award, Rani Durgavati Award and the Devi Ahilya Samman also from the Government of Madhya Pradesh. In 2021, she was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian award.
An Inspiration for the Community
Bhuri Bai continues to light the way for others in her community to pursue art. She has not only shared her art with her family but also with many within her community.
It is our honour to have Bhuri Bai as part of our Maestros program. She brings to our series not only her superlative artistry but also her narrative of courage and steadfastness.
Don’t miss this rare opportunity to explore the endless possibilities of vibrant dots and colour. Sign up for our upcoming Bhil painting course with Bhuri Bai.