Art speaks the language of beauty, but what it says relates to truth. And there can be neither beauty nor truth without justice. Often, people misconceive beauty as being about order and symmetry, resistant to change. In my life—growing up in Bihar, aware of caste realities from early childhood—I’ve often encountered that instinct. Once, during one of my exhibitions at Patna Art College, a saffron-clad man came up to me and rebuked me for placing Lord Buddha in the centre of Madhubani art. How could I subvert tradition by not painting the Buddha as the ninth avatar of Vishnu, he asked. It was nothing new; I’ve been subjected to many such caustic remarks. What’s my answer? For me, the Buddha is human, deeply human, and that’s the very subject of art. His teachings are steeped in rationality and justice—that’s why Babasaheb Ambedkar was attracted to Buddhism. Those ideas resonate with us deeply. That’s why I was never inclined to merely adopt, in my Madhubani art, the traditional narrative of Hindu mythology. Instead, I learned the art precisely to tell the stories of the downtrodden and the people who fought for them. I’m the only Madhubani artist who broke away from that traditional path—I want more artists to join me—but my inspirations are as old as this land. If I see it as part of the artist’s responsibility to integrate beauty and justice, the source of that resides in our soil itself.
Literally, soil. The traditional artwork of Bihar was made out of mud, on walls, in mural form. Madhubani art is seen as the preserve of the elite castes—their themes are perceived to be the tradition. That’s not the case. The history of this art form is difficult to trace, its original themes were about real life, nature and working women. Hindu mythology took over much later. Even so, many subsets of Madhubani art persisted through history, even if less feted. I have personally mostly employed Kobhar; its themes are close to nature. I feel ‘traditional’ Madhubani art lacks emotion and feeling—it tends towards pure formal beauty. For me, aesthetics comes into play when it touches something real…I also paint emotions onto my canvas.
Although interested in painting from childhood, I did fashion designing from NIFT Mohali, and worked in Delhi for three years as a designer, before health issues forced my return to Patna. That’s where I learnt Madhubani. I did try, in an academic sort of way, to paint Krishna and Radha, but failed terribly. My first work was on the life of Buddha, which took a year to complete. I made 30 paintings, tracing the journey of Buddha. That led to my first exhibition in 2011, at Bodh Gaya itself. It was like completing a circle.
The caste prejudices in the art world are as deep as they are absurd. Once I went to meet an artist who teaches Tantric Art, a stream of Madhubani practised by Brahmins. I asked him if he could teach me. He refused. That art belonged to the dvijas, he said—apparently some cosmic order would be disrupted if Dalits learnt it! The channels are kept separate. I am therefore part of no elite network—even in Patna—nor do I get invited for exhibitions in the mainstream art world. I have no qualms about it. I believe the Dalit art movement is a vital and necessary one. Our art needs to be seen on its own terms…there are many Dalit artists out there who need support. I ensure I work among my community, where nobody has any difficulty seeing the appropriateness—or the beauty—of having the Buddha or Ambedkar or Savitribai Phule in the centre of a Madhubani canvas. My work on the life of Ambedkar, which took me one-and-a-half months to paint, is displayed at the University of Edinburgh. I have many stories to tell…this is only the beginning. I want to work more on revolutionary figures like Babasaheb, Savitribai, Periyar, Bhagat Singh. My art is political—through it, I tell the world about a Dalit woman’s dreams about freedom.
I studied in a government school and, like any Dalit child, grew up enduring caste taunts. It was a bruising experience, but my parents prepared me to face the world—my father, a retired police officer, had introduced us early to the Buddha and Ambedkar. Now, I want to do books for children—telling the stories of Buddha and Ambedkar through paintings. I also run a fashion brand called Musk Migi; we make hand-painted sarees and other accessories. (Migi means ‘deer’ in the Pali language.) Over 30 Dalit women are working with me…. The Hathras incident felt like someone jabbing at an existing wound. I don’t know when this injustice will end. My work keeps me going in this unjust world.Malvika Raj is a Madhubani artist based in Patna