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Ancient Art in Modern Times

Bharti Dayal’s Madhubani paintings have abstract elements and themes that appeal to the new generation alongside figurative motifs with Radha-Krishna and other deities as focal protagonists

Born at Samastipur and growing up in the Darbhanga district of Bihar’s Mithila region, National Award-winning artist Bharti Dayal is among those who have helped transform the once dying Madhubani into its contemporary art form. She has played a significant role in the re-emergence and propagation of this art form and is credited with contemporising the art form through the use of modern media (acrylic and canvas); and for bringing Madhubani art recognition within the world of fine art..She has represented India at various global platforms and through fusion of ancient Madhubani and modern times, Dayal in her 40-year-long art journey has not only revived it, but ensured that it gets a significant recognition and distinct positioning among leading art forms of India. Dayal’s art has been a token of national pride, especially that her work has been displayed by various presidents and prime ministers all over the globe. While being an advocate of the Madhubani style of painting, she’s also been supporting and mentoring up-and-coming Madhubani artists to create unique works of art. Talking about the history and origin of Madhubani painting, Dayal says the art form traces its origin to “Ramayana” where it is believed that King Janaka of Mithila commissioned local artists to paint murals and decorate the town with this art form for the wedding of his daughter Sita. “Gradually, Madhubani art came to symbolise women’s empowerment, as the women began to paint pictures of gods and goddesses. Women have transmitted the beauty, love, care, environmental consciousness, traditions and faith incorporated in this art form for generations,” Dayal informs. The art started transforming in 1934 when there was an earthquake in the region and most of the walls crumbled. “It was William G. Archer, who was the British colonial officer of Madhubani district in the 1930s, while inspecting the damage noticed these paintings on the walls and photographed them,” she says, adding, “He wrote about them in an article and after a few decades, between 1966 and 1968 a drought crippled the agricultural economy of the region. Bhashkar Kulkarni, who was then the director of the Handicrafts Board, based in Mumbai, encouraged the women to replicate their mural paintings on paper and facilitated sales, as a source of income to ensure their survival.” Beginning from a young age, Dayal also learnt Madhubani painting from her mother and grandmother. A Master’s in Science, she continued her passion drawing alpana on the floor and sketching epic scenes on the walls to celebrate auspicious occasions. Using natural vegetable dyes and crushed rice paste on handmade paper, cotton and silk fabric and canvases, she continued to practice in her spare time and refined her skills. Her works are essentially an amalgamation of the ancient Madhubani art form and modern times, without deviating from the core features of the Mithila tradition. Marked for its rich colours and dense form, in Madhubani style, her art has a refreshing feel, given its assimilation of newer imagery with folk imprints and philosophical underpinnings. The focal protagonists in her works are Radha-Krishna and other deities worshiped in the region. “My paintings have abstract elements alongside figurative motifs.

They are a combination of tattoo motifs, lines, concentric circle motifs of flora and fauna, figures from the spirit world and elements from animistic traditions. Care is taken to encompass elements and themes that appeal to the new generation besides divine icons,” she tells. Dayal says the art form is known for its five distinctive styles: Bharni, Kachni, Tantrik, Gobar and Godna (tattooing). Each style was practiced by a particular social group although all styles retained a uniformity in their focus on the depiction of divinity, rituals, natural elements and daily life.

Talking about the significance of Madhubani, Dayal says the philosophy of this art form, which is a living tradition, is essentially based on the principle of dualism. She explains: “Opposites run parallel to each other: life and death, day and night, joy and sorrow, body and soul etc. They are featured in the imagery to represent a holistic universe. For example, the fish is an auspicious sign for growth and prosperity, the parrot signifies love and sexuality and the peacock suggests romance and devotion. There are also bamboo trees and lotus leave symbolising fertility and the continuation of human life.” Geometric patterns and sacred enclosures, within the composition, drawn in multiple lines are inspired by the tantric traditions of the region. “The elaborate kohbar, or paintings on the walls of the nuptial chamber during weddings, always comprised the moon, sun, tortoise, snake, lotus and bamboo trees as symbols of the female and male genitalia,” she explains further. “Navgraha or the nine planets – the sign of the cosmos, bestows love, prosperity and fertility on the newlyweds. Turquoise blue, which is mostly used in the paintings, symbolises the water and sky. Red signifies auspiciousness and also suggests aggression and passion. Green is associated with greed as well as nature and blue stands for peace.” Showing professionally since 1991, Dayal says to keep the art form alive, we must have a museum with proper documentation of the history of this art form to protect this heritage. “At the same time we need to train children to paint and also give them the opportunity to imbibe, appreciate and preserve this art form for the future generations,” she avers. Commercialisation has also been affecting this art form in a negative way. “Duplication and replication are rampant, which is bad for the art form,” says Dayal. “It is losing its glory, essence and originality. The most important aspect of this art form is its feminine expression, but with the changing scenario, that has been lost. We need to create and think of new and contemporary subjects to bring back the glory of this ancient art.” The artist, whose work has been exhibited in numerous shows across India and internationally and in documentary films made by French Television and Discovery Channel, says she sought to redress a deplorable practice that had seeped into the work of Madhubani painters. Dayal informs, “Most of them, scarcely educated, only replicated earlier works even if the original piece was stricken with egregious flaws. While remaining true to our traditional roots, I sought to induce an intellectual edge into my paintings, thus lending them a more contemporary look. Today, I have several associate Madhubani artists in Bihar with whom I work in unison to create unique works of art. No time frame can be given for the completion of a painting. It can be a whole day under the effect of inspiration, while others can linger on for months.”

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