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Posted at: Sep 10, 2017, 1:24 AM; last updated: Sep 10, 2017, 1:24 AM (IST)

Madhubani gets a modern twist

From environmental issues to history, the popular folk art of Bihar is getting a makeover, thanks to artist Alka Das

Kavita Kanan Chandra

The pair of wooden kharau superimposed on hordes of oppressed peasants pique interest for it is done in the Madhubani style of painting. If one visualises this popular traditional folk art of Bihar; it’s the image of gods and goddesses that comes to mind, so depiction of Champaran Satyagraha is novelty.

Patna-based talented Madhubani artist Alka Das explains that she loves to do something different. As the centenary year of the Champaran Satyagraha is being celebrated, she wanted to do a series commemorating this important event in India’s modern history. She is doing 25 paintings in the series, each taking almost 10 days to complete. Her first painting symbolically uses ‘Kharau’ to depict Mahatma Gandhi’s arrival in Champaran in April 1917.

“Change is inevitable and like in any other field new ideas should be welcomed,” said Alka, when asked whether purists might scoff insisting on absolute adherence to traditional themes.

A native of Madhubani, she grew up in a village seeing her mother, Godawari Devi making beautiful Madhubani paintings on the mud walls of their house. She took to sketching outlines for paintings early on but not very inclined towards paintings as such. She remembers her mother putting layers of mud, cowdung and then mud to prepare the surface for painting. Then natural colours were made from marigold for yellow, green fava beans leaf (sem ka patta) for green colour, soot from lamps for black and so on. The colours were mixed in milk or gum. The brush was made of old bamboo stick that was manually sharpened to make a pointed tip.

From then to now, the canvas of Madhubani art rapidly shifted from mud walls to paper, fabric, wood, handmade paper, and even ceramics. The acrylic paints replaced natural colours, the pen nibs replaced plant twigs or bamboo for painting. The paintings look resplendent on silk sarees to the ceramic mugs, it is everywhere. But what remained constant is the traditional theme of Madhubani art. The figures of Ram and Sita. Radha and Krishna, Shiva and Parvati, peacock, lotus, Sun and moon are the most common. This is the essence of the 2,500-year-old art. Alka does a lot of traditional paintings but has brought a contemporary twist to the subject matter ranging from environmental issues to modern history.

Prompted by her meeting with a researcher Bhairav Lal Das in Patna, Alka did a series of paintings in 2015 on the ‘Ghadar mutiny’. This was a movement launched by patriotic Indian-Americans (mostly Punjabis) from the USA and Canada to free their motherland. The Madhubani paintings by her lend a beautiful visual narrative to the valiant uprising against the British rule. The paintings were displayed in an exhibition in the USA.

Her next project is Champaran Satyagraha, an important chapter in history when there was an intersection of peasant unrest in the country to the national movement for independence. This was Mahatma Gandhi’s first struggle on Indian soil that started in April 1917 and culminated by the enactment of Champaran Agrarian Act, 1918 in favour of indigo cultivators. This established Gandhi’s leadership and was a precursor for many such movements. 

Alka has also made it a point to highlight women contribution to Champaran movement. Reflecting on her involvement with Madhubani art and evolving into a commercial artist, she attributes support of her husband and mentors. She feels the talent of many artists, especially women, languishes without encouragement and opportunity. While staying at her in-law’s place in Madhubani she had joined a one-year professional course at Mithila Art Institute. Under the guidance of artist Santosh Kumar Das, she learnt a lot about the nuances of Madhubani art.

But home and children responsibilities put her art on hold till she got a platform to commercially sell her paintings in 2012. In a short time, her paintings have found space in exhibitions and fairs. She says it’s the traditional paintings on sarees, dupatta and other stuff that are hot selling pieces. As for her series on historical movements and environment; it’s her labour of love. She gets a lot of appreciation for these but this does not translate into sale. However, currently she is enthusiastically looking forward to the annual art exhibition by the Lalit Kala Academy to be held during September in Patna. She had been invited to put up her solo exhibition of Madhubani paintings there. 

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