Horses of Raja Salhes,
Aptly named, 'Bihar shows the way' is a book published in 1977, that documents the emergence of a political movement that began as a socialist student led insurrection calling for totaly revolution against virtual one party rule of the Indian National Congress since India's independence in 1947. It is a photo-documentary by the renowned photographer Raghu Rai who follows Jai Prakash Narain, as he clamours up support in the eastern state of Bihar during the period of the 'Emergency - 1975 to 1977' - where the basic fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution were suspended . The movement seized political power in 1977 unseating the Congress led by India's first woman Indhira Gandhi. In the two years to follow, a government led by one of India's first coalitions fell apart as the socialists were disunited sharing political space with constituents in the coalition that had clear righ wing agendas. Bihar, witnessed consecutive decades of slow economic growth, erasure of the rule of law, an increase in poverty and a communist gurilla led insurgency boradly termed as Maoists. Probably such anarchy was needed to upturn a strong feudal presence and control of the states economic and political fortunes. Laloo Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar had emerged as student leaders from the Patna University Campus during Jayprakash Narayan's movement. Laloo became the Chief Minister of the state in the 1990s. His rule was marred by unarchy and corruption but notably he was able to rid Bihar of the dominance of upper caste treachery. This was a period where militias of upper caste men would hunt down Dalits or India's untouchables, surrounding their villages and burning them to ashes. Laloo effectively provided political empowerment to the disadvantaged castes of Bihar but just after the millenium Laloo's large loyal constituency had began to abandon their leader, large scale corruption and the lack of development saw Nitish emerge as the Chief Minister defeating his adversary with the help of the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party or the Indian People's Party. The image of Bihar was to rebranded, it was no longer to be synonymous with Laloo, as India's poorest state or provider of cheap labour throughout India. During the same period in Bombay a Xenophobic campaign against Bihari migrants had begun, by a political party that claimed to be ' a sons of the soil' movement eager to preserve the local language and culture. Nitish set up a high level comittee that would attract much needed investment to Bihar , and to do so he had to begin with Culture.
In early 1960s, just after the great Bihar famine of 1962, Bhaskar Kulkarni a young social worker and photographer was sent by Pupul Jayakar - a known cultural activist, and Craft revivalist who was responsible in reviving many India Tradtions of folk craft and creating the basis of a large handicraft industry in India. She was also the personal biographer of Indhira Gandhi and she had been persuaded by Lalit Narain Mishra, a politician from Bihar who had emerged as the Congress's pointsman in Bihar. Mishra had wanted to create a certain aura around the region from where he came - Mithila and around his caste - he was a Brahmin or the priestly caste. Mihtila is a region situated on the North-Eastern Gangetic plains, a wetland area that begins in the terais of Nepal and extends up till the northern bank of the river Ganga. The region has its own language - Maithili which is mutually intelligent with Bengali, Nepali and Assamese. It shares a long history of poetry and literature with Bengal, which often leads to disputes over claims on legendary poets such as Bidyapati. Even much after independence the region remained remote and unaccessible due to its topography which is largely a wetland on a floodplain. Thus the region has a distinct culture , its own religous almanac , cuisine and a certain imbibed sense of feminism. Mithila is prominently mentioned in the epic of Ramayana, as the birthplace of Rama's consort Sita, it views the ending of the epic differently holding Ram at fault for being suspicious of his wife. Shankaracharaya , a philosopher from the 8th century and Hindu revivalist, was defeated by Udaya Bharati, wife of the theologian Madana Misra, when she questioned the celibate Shankaracharya on the art of lovemaking, doing so she ensured the cultural sovereignity of Mithila, from the rest of India, where philosophers of might who had been defeated Shankaracharya leading to the virtual anihilation of Buddhism from India.
A 'Godna' painting by Uttam Prasad Paswan using black ink depicting a Gahbar - the shrine of Raja Salhes.
But most caste groups in Bihar were migrants who had arrived to clear the forests over a period of two millenia. The indigenous people consisting of the Dusadhas and the Musahars (rat-eaters) had been forced onto the margins of the society deemed as untouchables and were found on the outskirts. Here they have a shrine made of a mound of mud and a thatched roof which is dedicated to King Salhes, he had protected Mithila from attacks of the Tibetans in the 5th Century, and since then the Dusadhs and the Musahars have offered him female goats and horses made of clay. Refused entry into Temples, or any recourse to organised religion, the indigenous people of Mithila have been fortunate to preserve their cultural traditions. Surrounding communities hold similar prejudices against them like those held against the Roma in Europe even though they form a majority of the populations in the districts. For instance the potters who sculpt the clay horses consider Raja Salhes the god of thiefs, who the Dusadhas pray before embarking on missions of dacoity.
A kiln of the potters or Kumhars in the village of Gohi Bishunpur, Samastipur district, Central Mithila.
Even though on the margins the cultural practices of the Dusadhas have been appropriated by the colonializing upper castes. Of this what is prominent is the traditions of paintings. Temple building was never popular in the plains of Mithila. As no building would survive the wrath of floods that emerged from the Himalayas as they swept through the plains each monsoon. Thus for each festival or religous celebration on a wall or a stump of Bamboo a mixture of clay and cow dung was plastered creating a flat surface to paint. Here images from the large pantheon of Hindu Gods and Godesses were drawing using the charcoal from the cinders of the kitchen, and colours created by crushing flowers, seeds, leaves and spices. The images had a visual vocabulary akin to those found in Jaina texts , ones that had predated the Persian influenced Mughala and Rajput miniatures. There was no tradition of using cloth or paper as a surface and the practice until the sixties remained primarily as frescoes or as decoration on clay pots.
When Bhaskar Kulkarni arrived he came with a camera and some handmade paper from Bombay called 'Poona Paper'. He was retracing the path of William Archer a British official sent to assess the damage caused by the great Bihar earthquake of 1930. Archer's documentation of these images opened up some studies on these traditions but until Kulkarni had not ventured into Mithila, this art practice was virtually unknown. Kulkarni ventured north from the provincial headquarters Darbhanga, outside the town of Madhubani, he chanced upon his first mural. As he approached the village of Jitwarpur he came upon the thread ceremony of initiation amongst the priests, here on the walls of the house a woman was making a large mural of the mother godess. He approached her, this led to large aproar, the villagers had not met man with such a long beard. She was Sita Devi, her husband was an educated graduate and he saved Kulkarni from the attack of the villagers. He took him home, upon which Kulkarni asked him he could register Sita Devi, as a part of a goverment led initiative that would provide folk artists with free paper and water colours. Sita Devi and her husband readily agreed. Through her Kulkarni met other artists in her village. Jitwarpur was to become an epicentre of a folk art movement, that would eventually destroy this tradtion of painting.
Sita Devi initiating a girl.
Her career hadnt begun and she began to recieve national awards, India sent her on long international sojourns to Europe, Japan and the United States, she was part of the travelling 'Festival of India' and soon museums called her to residencies, to showcase her practice. Kulkarni set up a regional depot in Patna and Madhubani to collect the handicrafts produced in the villages of Jitwarpur and Ranti. These regional centres supplied paintings to emporiums in Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta. A small village industry, on lines of what Mahatma Gandhi had thought of was sucessfully established. She began filling her paintings with colour, she would draw the outline and her son who would travel with her began to fill in colour in the blank s.
Her albums of her visits abroad.
Her grandsons gaurd the the entrance to Jitwarpur, they share a palatial home, often meeting visitors narrating stories about the begining of the tradition. They paint like their grandmother, though traditionally men were not painters. Their genre includes miniature paintings. After much persuasion they lead us to the back of the villages to the part where the Dusadhas reside. Most of the homes are made of baked mud and thatch, its here that the story reveals itself. On close inquiry one understands that the motifs used in Madhubani painting were motifs that had actually originated from the depictions of Raja Salhes. The Maithil Brahmins and Karna Kayasthas had learnt of these technques from women whom they considered untouchables. The uppercastes had introduced a different pantheon of Gods using the same motifs.
Ranjit Kumar Paswan's home, Jitwarpur.
We meet Ranjit Kumar Paswan, he is a young boy in his early twenties, he studies painting at a school run by an American artist in the town of Madhubani. Despondent and bored from working as an folkart labourer. He has begun making works that he conceives after viewing the world around him. Having never travlled to Bombay, the terrorist attack on 26/11/2008 on the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay has left him in awe of the city and disheartened by the tragedy he watched thousand miles away on a television set.
At the home of Bindheswar Paswan, the women are buying glass bangles and jewellery from a wandering community of bangle sellers called Lahiris. They have been able to beat poverty by working for various other established artists on commission for detailed works that now copy motifs from Indian Miniature Painting, Warli Tribal Folk from Maharashtra, and paiting tradtions from the state of Orissa. His wife Sheela Devi though resents the painstaking work involved in copying blindly, she has been creating drawings that illustrate stories taught to her children in school. One such story talks of Mahatma Gandhi on his way back from South Africa, when he visited Bihar to lead a satyagraha - a non-violent non-cooperation movement for the indigo farmers. She imagines him having met members of her community whom he called ' Harijans' or God's own people, and how they complained of the discrimination that was meeted out to them.
The discrimination of the artists of the Dusadha community continues, and it becomes apparent in the village of Ranti, which is closer to the town of Madhubani. Here within the pillared ceremonial hall of a local prince, there is a factory at work, where about 60 women from upper-caste families come to work each day, they copy styles, introduce Gods who are uncommon in Mithila - Ganesha - the elephant god or Krishna and Radha. They are presently working on a huge commision that almost costs 250,000 dollars, using arcylic paint and canvas for the Bombay International Airport. They employ artists from the Dusadha community to assist them but prefer to call them servants. An enterprising lady from the group takes us to the village to the home of Godavari Dutt, she is a lady in her late seveties known for her minimal pen and ink drawings. Dutt has spent many years in Japan at the Mithila Museum on the island of Honshu, it was here where Jangarh Singh Shyam a known Gond painter from Central India comitted suicide. He had been imprisoned by the museum's curators who were forcing him to make works. The economy around the handicrafts industry in Madhubani seemed similarly forced. Designers from Bombay now dictated what was to be drawn or painted. Nitish Kumar in his rebranding effort had only visited the homes of the awardees, of whom all were uppercastes. Mithila Paintings were now published on each publication on Bihar - dealing with economic developement to the rights of the girl child. Little did he know his system had outsourced the design to Bombay, the artists were renegated to being labourers.
Often these artists are deemed as the 'Vernacular Contemporary' or 'Magiciens de la Terre' such romanticism refuses to recognise them as contemporary art practitioners. They fall pray to Folkart Syndicates and we read their history from a perspective coloured by caste prejudice. Surprisingly no academic writing on Madhubani painting deciphers the origin of the visuals and almost all of them ignore the Paswans. Ranjit Kumar and Sheela Devi return to the tradition once enshrined in the cult of Raja Salhes where these forms were used as secular historical records documenting the passage of culture .
Ishwar Chandra Prasad Gupta , is a sculptor who lead similar revolt and has been at it for now more than four decades. Not many know his name, he is known as as 'London Baba' or the wandering hermit from London. We finally locate him near Kishori Lal Chowk, a crossroad in Madhubani, where people from his family run provision stores and small businesses. He is man in his seventies and wears long dreadlocks, clothing himself with a cotton sarong. Gupta, went to study sculpture at the Royal Collage of Arts in 1969 after graduating from the Patna College of Art. He was also at Shantiniketan where he excelled as a sculptor in terracotta. At RCA, due to politics within the Indian Embassy he lost his scholarship even though his tutors at school found his abilities at painting remarkable. His colleagues from Patna, claim he had out done his teacher Ramkinkar Baij in terracotta. But yet he was now a forgotten mad man who roamed the streets of Madhubani. When we met him he told us, that anyone walking on the street would describe him as mad, according to him they said so because he spoke the truth. Warning us that he was to reveal the truth, he told us he had lived in England for more than a decade untill 1980 as an illegal immigrant having overstayed his student visa. He believed the Queen had led a conspiracy against him to have him deported. Back in India he came to live with his mother in Madhubani, a spurned love affair in England and a complex state supported art scene in India , other claim turned him mad. He has met two researchers one of them French and another an art critic from London, both in the 1990s to whom he has shown his work. We were allowed to see but not photograph. Each year he makes a public work, during a nine day the festival of the Goddess Kali in October. Most of his canvases and other works are now destroyed, they lie under the debris of his parents home
Ishwar Chandra Prasad Gupta at his studio. A local blacksmith who runs a shop that sells utensils helps him cast in bronze.
Bireswar Bhattacharjee, is senior to Gupta, and was a proffessor at the Patna College of Fine Arts for since the 1950s. In 1969, after having lived on a sabbatical in Istanbul where he studied painting at the academy of fine arts, he returned to teach again at Patna. He had encountered Duchamp, the Fluxus Group and Arte Povera while he was in Europe. Coming back to Patna, he was able to gauge the discontent amongst the students. He along with the Printmaker Shyam Sharma curated a series of performances, that dealt with the challenges they faced at art school. The project was called Neo-Dynamisms and consisted of mainly students from the college. They scripted short performative plays, made a few installations such as one where a man comes and urinates outside a toilet, once he reads the line of caution written above the commode : ' Create no nuisance here'. Bhattacharjee believed this was the relationship young citizens of India shared with the laws of the state. His practice can be termed as political, though he claims he paints when he is hurt by certain social situations, and thus the reading is often seen as political. He has been living in exile in Kolkata for the last decade, he was frustrated with the worsening law and order situation of Patna, but more importantly of a certain Xenophobia. Last year when he won Bihar's first prize for distinguished artists from the state, there were protests, the protestors claimed that he was Bengali and not someone from Bihar. Bhattacharjee was born in Bangladesh but crossed over to come and live in Patna in 1951. After having spent more than 6 decades in India, in Nitish's Bihar, he was an outsider. In the 1970s he painted a well dressed monkey sitting away from a door, inside a beautful woman stood with her back towards the door. He claims he sees Bihar's politicians today in the same light.
Bhattacharjee won the award along with Shambhavi Singh his student. On his advice Singh had left for Delhi in the 1980s. Her works are now collected by the many institutions such as the MOMA in New York. She works with sculpture making simple agricultural implements, adapting from those used by Bihar's numerous farmers. These sickles do not represent a communist revolution but Bihar's migrants, who began leave in the 19th century as indentured labourers to the sugarcane plantations in Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad, Jamaica, Gaudeloupe, Mauritius, Fiji, Burma and South Africa. While on a residency in Amsterdam she met with Surinamers who were descendants of these immigrants, she felt a sense of kinship. Nitish Kumar and his governement are setting up a modern museum costing millions of dollars one that will outshine the museum that stands near the arts college in Patna, talks of a Biennale are there in the offing, he recently funded a public sculpture garden just outside the Patna railway terminus, but artists and labourers continue to migrate from his state. Consultants on art and economy fail to grapple and understand the real issues that palgue his state - a people divided by caste.
'Hemispherical Sickle', Shambhavi Singh 2012, Experiments for the Magyar, at the Hungarian Information and Cultural Centre, New Delhi.
On her way back to Delhi a few years ago, Shambhavi Singh gave a lift to young artist couple ,known to her as they had recently graduated from the Patna Arts College. The couple were fleeing Bihar, their relationship and subsequent marriage was seen unacceptable by their parents and their respective communities. They left Patna, heeding on advice from Bireswar Bhattacharya who always encouraged his students to move out Bihar for better exposure. The 'Unknown Avenue is a work by Naresh Kumar, where he documents his journey in watercolour from Patna to Delhi in Singh's car on the Grand Trunk Road - built to connect and create the Indian nation.