Being able to paint what I want is freedom to me. Art is the means through which I express myself, share my stories and traditions with the world. I am fortunate no one has ever told me what or how to paint.
In the mid-’60s (artist) Bhaskar Kulkarni visited Jitwarpur village in Madhubani (Bihar) at the behest of Pupul Jayakar (then director of the All India Handicrafts Board) to find talented artists.
He knew that women in our villages used to paint on the walls to decorate their homes. I was still a young girl, having been married off at 12, and during one of his field trips, my work caught his attention.
I was the youngest in the group of women whom he asked to paint on sheets of paper to take to Delhi. Though we were happy to give it for free, he insisted on paying Rs 1.50 to each of us. We were elated when he returned a few months later and told us everyone had liked our work and he wanted more. Gradually, we began getting Rs 15, Rs 100 per work and now it sells for lakhs. I don’t really get involved with the commercial aspects even now.
Painting is not something that was taught to us – we learnt it through observation. I had seen my mother and grandmother paint on the walls and just transitioned from accompanying them to making work independently. The imagery ranged from basic geometric patterns to paintings of goddesses such as Durga and Kali, to more elaborate designs during festivals.
Initially, my mother-in-law used to communicate with Bhaskarji on my behalf as I was too young, but, over the years, I learned how to find my way. During the day, I would be busy with my children, who were still very small, but the night was mine and I was free to paint. In fact, I found it less cumbersome to work on paper as wall paintings took much more time to dry, making the process much longer. We also used to make paints ourselves — blending soot and cow dung for black, using green for leaves, rice powder for white and vermilion for red.
Sometime in the ’70s, Bhaskarji told us about a project at the National Crafts Museum for which we had been invited to work in Delhi. My husband accompanied me and we went in a group, including Sita Devi and Ganga Devi. Not only did we earn a daily stipend of Rs 20, we also got a chance to speak to people about our art. It was the opening up of a new world in several ways — this was, in fact, the first time I travelled up to Patna, from where we had to take the flight to Delhi.
I am fortunate that my family was encouraging and supportive. As the popularity of the art form grew, the number of invitations and commissions increased. I remember how excited everyone was when I was invited by the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1988 for the exhibition “Magicians of the Earth”. I saw the Eiffel Tower, carried back gifts home. As my children grew, I began stepping out more, exploring different cities and countries, including Spain, Japan, Germany, London, America. I could never have dreamed of this journeys but for my art.
Though I do respond to contemporary concerns at times, I still largely paint our local legends and folklore, stories I grew up listening to. I paint still, but I am also focusing on training the young generation. My two sons and four daughters are all artists and now my grandchildren are also taking interest in art. I often visit the Bihar Museum for interactions and am also teaching students at an art college in Saurath (Bihar). I want our tradition to be carried forward, for them to fulfill their aspirations through art like I did.
As told to Vandana Kalra