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The Undefeated Power of Art – Mata Ni Pachedi and the Convulsions of Caste 

Long before humanity got a grip on the intricate system of language and literature, communication suffered in the clutches of severe limitations. But in that bleak world, around 40,000 BC, something powerful showed up, shining light into the dark corners of expression. With the tool of art, humans began painting their stories and sculpting their emotions into tangible forms. From Impressionism in the West to Mata Ni Pachedi in the East, art busted through silence, letting ideas explode beyond just words.

Art represents a medium of expression, a space where the human mind can represent its purest, most unfiltered self without feeling the need for words to convey meaning. 

To the artist, it is a boundless canvas, it is a flag of identity, it is a marker of solidarity. It can be anything that its creator wishes it to be.

Art as Resistance

(Source: Unsplash)

More often than not, art defies the constraints of normative society. It isn’t bound to adhere to rules, it speaks its mind, and it tugs at your emotions. 

When art intersects with discourses revolving around issues of power and dominance, it transforms into a revolutionary force. These artistic expressions not only question prevailing perspectives but also challenge existing power structures, emerging as a potent tool for instigating change.

According to Dr. Michael Shank, “Utilising the arts strategically and systematically is crucial, as they wield emotional power and serve as a transformative medium”. India has observed art as a tool of transformation and resistance for decades and centuries.

Art as a Tool for Resistance in Indian History

Critical studies have examined instances in Indian history where art functioned as a weapon of resistance, particularly during the national movement for independence and the tradition of Godna. 

Swadeshi Movement 

The Swadeshi movement, a manifestation of Indian protest against British rule, unfolded on two significant fronts: the boycott of British-manufactured goods and the promotion of indigenous products. Swadeshi’s impact extended into the cultural realm, with artists actively engaging in politics and employing their craft as a means of political expression.

Bharat Mata by Abanindranath Tagore (1871–1951) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

During this era, cultural initiatives aimed at discarding British Western literature and visual arts in favour of creating distinctly Indian works emerged. This led to the resurgence of ancient Indian painting styles. The Bengal School of Art emerged as a result, guided by Abanindranath Tagore. A notable creation from this period was Abanindranath Tagore’s iconic painting, Bharatmata, which set the tone for patriotic themes in art. (Malakar, 2021)

Godna – The Dalit Art of Resistance 

Godna Tattoos on a Woman (Source: Pinterest)

Art as a tool of resistance also manifested itself as Dalit women in Chhattisgarh pioneered the art form of Godna tattoo painting. Initially imposed as markers of caste identification, these tattoos became a powerful expression of subaltern art, symbolising the annihilation of caste and oppression. 

Rinku Kumari, in her article, “Godna: The Resistance Art Form Of Madhubani’s Dalit Dusadh Women” narrates the story of a Dalit woman in Jitwarpur village in Bihar and her experiences with casteist policies. These policies restrict women like her from accessing Brahmin ritual spaces and handling their sacred items. This constant perception of being an outsider is a recurring sentiment for many Dalit women like her.

The woman recounted how Brahmins discouraged them from depicting gods like Ram and Sita, claiming ownership and warning of misfortune if they painted these deities. Fearing for their lives, the women artists took the initiative to create their own Godna paintings with local deities like Salhesha, Chauharmal, Rahu, and others.

The assertiveness of these women artists brought newfound fame and dignity to their lives, challenging untouchability and casteism. (Kumari, 2023)

Mata Ni Pachedi and the Art of Resistance 

How do you respond when you’re not allowed to worship your Creator? What do you do when those in authority hinder you from expressing your beliefs? What tools do you use when you lack the means to confront them? 

Globally, the response often takes the form of a revolution. The Vaghari community in Gujarat mirrored this approach, substituting their weapons with brushes and words with paints. Staging a rebellion through the art form that is known today as Mata Ni Pachedi (Nisha, 2019).

Mata Ni Pachedi Artists washing the dyed fabric in the Sabarmati River (Source: Craft Canvas)

This rebellion dates back 400 years, along the banks of the Sabarmati in Gujarat, where echoes of casteist resistance unfolded in the form of Mata ni Pachedi made by the Vagharis. But who were these people, and why did they make this art?

Who Are The Vagharis?

A Mata Ni Pachedi artist (Source: D’source)

The Vagharis, once considered nomads dwelling along the Sabarmati River in Gujarat, belong to a lower caste and were historically labelled as ‘untouchables’ in Hindu society. This semi-nomadic community, comprising about 22 sub-castes, engaged in various occupations such as basket-making, rope-making, net-making, selling dental chew sticks, and fruits, and providing seasonal labour on farms (Ahuja and Kopariha).

Around 300 years ago, the Vagharis transitioned into artists and creators of the Mata ni Pachedi, a distinctive form of textile art that evolved as a shrine for the marginalised and excluded Vaghari community. 

On being barred entry into Hindu shrines, they devised a solution by crafting textile canopies to serve as makeshift temple walls for their semi-permanent shrines. These shrines, located in their settlements called Vaghri Vaados (which were located outside villages due to the community’s low-caste status), were considered semi-permanent due to the tribal community’s nomadic lifestyle (Ahuja and Kopariha).

Although historical records typically date the art form back 300 years, some artists claim that their families have been practising the art form for the past 700-1000 years. Over the years, the Vagharis migrated along the Sabarmati River, making it challenging to pinpoint the exact origin of their art. Presently, many of them have settled in Vasana, Ahmedabad, and Gujarat (Ahuja and Kopariha).

Read More: Rooftop App Artist Spotlight – The Chitara Family Of Gujarat (Mata Ni Pachedi)

The Vagharis and the Politics of Caste

In the sociopolitical context, the Vagharis’ marginalised status is rooted in historical prejudices. Despite attempts to shed their criminalised image, they continue to face challenges, and the consequences of the Criminal Tribes Act persist into the present day. The Vagharis’ rich cultural heritage, including their artistic contributions, provides a glimpse into the complex intersection of caste, art, and social dynamics within the Indian context.

Members within the Vaghari community actively contribute to their folk art form of Mata Ni Pachedi at different levels. Key figures, such as the Chitaras responsible for painting shrine hangings, the Bhuvoor Bhuva performing rituals as a priest, and the Jagorias interpreting the Pachedis through songs, play crucial roles. Although some restrictive practices have been abolished, the community is still actively involved in creating and worshipping Mata Ni Pachedis (Nisha, 2019).

The Socio-Political Landscape 

Understanding the socio-political landscape of the Vaghari caste sheds light on the intricate and pervasive roots of casteism in India. The traditional four-tier varna or caste system consisted of (in decreasing order of purity) Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras, with a fifth layer comprising the “untouchables” or Dalits/Avarnas/Atishudras and the Adivasis/Indigenous communities. Examining the specific case of the Vaghari community within this socio-political framework reveals a complex history. 

Sushila Yadav, a sociologist, highlights that the Vaghari were initially small-time traders and forest hunters in Gujarat and Rajasthan. Their religious practices included the worship of goddesses, and their origin myths linked them to the Middle East. 

The Vaghari community, despite possessing distinct characteristics, did not neatly align with caste or tribal classifications, which were becoming more rigid during the colonial era. The British regime seized upon this ambiguity and enacted the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) in 1871. This law significantly prolonged the social marginalisation of the Vaghari community, and the associated stigma persists to this day, even after the De-notification of Criminal Tribes in 1952.

The Need For Mata Ni Pachedi

While the emergence of Mata Ni Pachedi can be traced back to the needs of the impoverished and marginalised Vagharis; we are pointed to yet another thought – the need for this art form highlights people’s need for worship, belief and faith. 

As per this legend on the origins of Mata ni Pachedi, the need for worship is deeply rooted in the desire to find solace during adversities.

The story goes that the Vaghari, Bhangi, Dhedh, and Rabari communities once neglected to worship their protective deity, the Mother-Goddess, leading to her wrath and the infliction of various calamities and illnesses upon them. In their distress, they sought the guidance of a shaman, who advised them to create an image of the goddess on cloth, hang it in the temple, and perform ritual offerings. Following these instructions, the Goddess was finally appeased, giving rise to the tradition of Mata-ni-Pachedi. 

The Need for Faith, Religion and Worship

The Vaghari community, in coming together against oppressive practices, sought more than just a common motive for worship. They needed a unifying factor that everyone could equally recognise, and it was their shared faith that fulfilled these conditions, enabling them to bond and resist collectively. 

The more we look into these aspects, the more we see how intrinsically linked they are. Without feeling a need for a connection outside the realms of human experience, there would be no need for faith, worship, and ultimately, religion. 

The intersection of art and faith is a rich and complex relationship that goes beyond aesthetics. Art serves as a vehicle for the expression of religious beliefs, the formation of identity, the fostering of unity, and the preservation of cultural and spiritual traditions. It plays a central role in meeting the human need for a connection to something greater than oneself. 

For the Vagharis, their art served as a tool to express and reinforce their faith, offering comfort as they navigated through life’s uncertainties. 

For instance, amongst the Vagharis, worshipping the goddess and presenting a pachedi is thought to address all challenges faced by the devotee. In times of adversity, individuals offer Devi’s Chunari or scarf in votive prayers, seeking resolution to issues such as crop damage caused by excessive rain or floods, or the withering of crops due to insufficient rainfall. The revered cloth is renowned for its efficacy in resolving the believer’s difficulties. (Nisha, 2019)

For these believers, their worship offers them a sense of agency and control, providing solace by attributing meaning to challenges, even amid trouble.

Many Matas For Many Maladies

In the case of the Vagharis, their devotion involves a unique practice of worshipping various Matas, akin to having their own set of ‘patron saints.’ These goddesses are distinct in that each one is dedicated to fulfilling a specific role within their belief system.

Mata Ni Pachedi
Meladi Mata in Mata Ni Pachedi art (Source: Sarmaya)

For example, the Vagharis venerate Meladi Mata – According to one narrative, she is the daughter of Ravana who chose to defy her family by marrying a man from the ‘untouchable’ caste. The climax of the tale unfolds as she immolates herself on her husband’s pyre. This tale of Meladi Mata serves as a reflection of the challenges faced by her worshippers, particularly those from marginalised communities. She is revered for her spirit of resistance – one that mirrors that of the Vagharis. 

A Mata Ni Pachedi showcasing Hadaksha Mata (Source: Sarmaya)

Hadaksha Mata is yet another goddess who specifically safeguards her followers from rabies. Due to the significant population of dogs in Gujarat’s towns and villages, rabies poses a genuine threat. As we observe, there are as many Matas as there are maladies, with each Mata being presented to the devotee as a remedy for their unique ailment.

Nonetheless, for the Vagharis, it was this belief and faith that gave them an identity and brought them together to fight towards a greater purpose. Through their artistic devotion, they bridged an alternative way to reach the Divine. They devised the art of resistance by using art as resistance. 

Read Here: Lesser-Known Motifs Of Mata Ni Pachedi

Religion and Exclusivity

(Source: Unsplash)

In the discourse around religion and exclusivity, the fundamental question persists: who determines the so-called “eligibility criteria” to worship God and why must there be one in the first place? 

Established religious institutions and doctrines often wield this authority, delineating boundaries that, when overly exclusive, lead to the marginalisation of certain individuals or groups. 

At times, this resultant ‘othering’ becomes a catalyst for transformative change. It sparks the creation of new artistic expressions, alternative forms of worship, and even the emergence of entirely new deities – all of which we’ve observed in the case of the Mata Ni Pachedi art form.

Understanding the concept of ‘art for all’

This transformative process challenges the very notion of a singular, universally accepted way to connect with the divine, encouraging a more pluralistic and inclusive understanding of religious practices and beliefs. 

In breaking down barriers, fostering understanding, and celebrating diversity, the interplay between religion, exclusivity, and artistic expression shapes a more harmonious and interconnected global spiritual landscape. 

It not only emphasises the concept of a God who is made for all but also sheds light on the concept of art for all. 

Very often, what we consider art is synonymous with art created by the upper castes. As TM Krishna underscores, art linked to marginalised castes often gets labelled as folk, rural, raw, and ethnic. While these terms may initially appear appreciative, they also subtly undermine the value of these expressions, implying they are unpolished and inferior. (Krishna, 2020)

On the contrary, the arts associated with the upper castes are revered, with the perception that they demand more discipline and sophistication. This patronising attitude, however, is nothing more than a form of casteism disguised as “aesthetic evaluation” and “sophistication”, as it disregards the richness and depth of the “other” art forms. (Krishna, 2020)

As he discusses further, such ‘othering’ results in many artists moving away to other means of livelihood. It is then up to the government to give due recognition to the art forms created by marginalised communities without harbouring a saviour complex but rather coming from a place of genuine admiration for their skill.

The Legacy of Mata Ni Pachedi

(Source: D’source)

The tradition of Mata Ni Pachedi art has, fortunately, been able to escape this othering due to the perseverance of its artists. Its legacy leads us to one truth – what does the Goddess care for her devotee’s identity papers as long as it’s true worship from the heart?  

In its evolution from being a symbol of resistance to one of true devotion, this art form stands as a powerful symbol of inclusivity. 

Today, the art of Mata Ni Pachedi has expanded its reach from catering to the local community to captivating a global audience that values the finesse and sustainability of this craft. Ultimately, those who were once oppressed have emerged victorious.

Also Read:  Learn Mata Ni Pachedi Online Through Rooftop Maestro Courses

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By Naomi Fargose

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