In Conversation with Artist Rani Jha
· When did you start painting?
I have been painting for the past 35 years.
· How did you learn to paint?
In the beginning I used to paint at home as these paintings are made on every religious and social occasion in our community. Fortunately, my grandmother was a great painter and even though I never actually saw her, there was beautiful kohbar art made by her in our home. One of my aunts used to paint on the floor, which is called alpana, I used to sit by her while she painted and also tried my hand at it.
· Which specific rituals are these paintings connected with?
In Mithila we make paintings for each and every ritual, from birth to shradh (rites performed after death). When a woman becomes pregnant for the first time, paintings are made on the floor with rice powder paste and vermillion. Making a perfect alpana is a work of art. You start by drawing three lines with three fingers using the rice powder paste. According to our belief these three lines signify Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwar. The alpana is incomplete without some vermillion as it is considered a symbol of power. However, vermillion is not used in the floor paintings made on the occasion of shradh, and these are made with only one finger. A circle is also made which according to Brahmatattwa, is a void. In total there are sixteen rituals but now we do not practice all of them. Today, only rituals like janm (birth), mundan (shaving the first hair growth of a newborn), janeu (tying of the sacred thread), shaadi (marriage) and shradh, are considered mandatory. For each of these occasions a different set of paintings is made.
Apart from this, paintings are also made during festivals. In the month of Chaitra during the puja of Junsital, alpana is made for the family deity. This features lotus flowers which we call kosa. For weddings during the month of Shravana, people perform a thirteen day ritual for which half of a room is decorated with paintings. Apart from that, paintings are also made during Ananth Chaturdashi.
The family deity is welcomed into the house either three or five times a year during Mahashtami, Kojagari Lakshmi puja, Garwa Sankranti, Diwali and Devthan. Each welcoming ceremony involves complex rituals for which houses are decorated with paintings. For Devthan, astadal, which is a special kind of painting, is made on the day of Ekadashi. Astadal has eight corners symbolizing eight hands. It is made both inside the house and in the courtyard. The one which is made inside the house comprise a pair of feet and is for the female deity and the one in the courtyard comprising kharams (sandals) is for the male deity. During this time, young girls get to learn this style of painting. For their training, each and every object from daily life is drawn in the courtyard. Astadal is made by the women themselves, while all the other objects are painted by the younger girls who are still learning.
· Could you tell us about the various kinds of painting styles in this region?
After the 1960s, with the rise in popularity of Mithila painting, a few other styles also began developing. One style, known as the godhna style of painting, came from the tattooing traditions of the region. A German anthropologist called Erica Smith, who came to Madhubani in 1976, was involved in the development of this art. When she arrived here, she saw that several women had unique tattoos made by women from the migrant community called Nat. Erica Smith visited the Nat community’s camp and requested them to make the tattoo designs on paper. There was some initial hesitation, but eventually a woman called Reshma came forward and made one design on paper. At that time the Nat community was camping at Jitwarpur and so Erica encouraged the women from the Dalit community there to learn Godhna painting. Chano Devi, who was a great artist, was the first one to adopt this style. She later received the President’s award and also trained other women in this art form. As for Erica Smith, she mainly wanted to help the Nat community generate a livelihood through this art form so that they could live in the area permanently. However, after a few days, Erica left for Germany and when she eventually returned, the Nat community had moved away to another location. Nevertheless, in the time that they had spent at Jitwarpur, Reshma had managed to teach other women in the area and thanks to that the godhna style of painting still lives on.
After the awareness spread that Mithila painting has become popular outside of the community, and that it can be a good source of income, women from the Dalit community started painting stories of their gods and goddesses. So in terms of style, there is Mithila painting, godhna painting, Harijan painting and then there is Tantrik painting. Erica Smith is also the one who is responsible for the Tantrik style of painting on paper. She used to visit the Tantriks and observe their rituals throughout the night. This style of painting is a bit difficult- there are measurements to be followed while drawing the figures and objects in these paintings. According to our beliefs, if someone makes a mistake in the proportions, it will bring misfortune. The first few artists that painted in this style were Batori Jha, Krishnath Jha, Batori Jah’s son, Vidyanath Jha. Now even though many more people are practicing this form the total number is still less as Tantra is complex and people are still scared to practice it.
· You mentioned that different castes originally had different styles of painting. What is the current situation?
· Painting is the medium through which caste barriers have been broken down. Now you can see Harijan themes being adopted by artists from the Brahmin community. Artists from the Harijan community are also making mainstream Mithila painting. Godhna painting is being made by women of all castes. Here, no one enquires about the caste of a painter anymore. Everyone is the same and the only identity anyone is concerned with is that they are all artists. Everyone gets the same respect. One can say that Mithila painting is like a movement which broke the caste barrier. We respect Chano Devi as much as Mahasundari Devi, Ganga Devi, Jagdambha Devi or Sita Devi.
· When did you join the Mithila Art Institute? Could you tell us a bit more about this institute?
The institute was started in 2002-03 and I has initially joined it for one year in 2004. After that, I left the institute for pursuing my PhD and then started teaching here in the year 2011 and have been working here ever since. This is a wonderful institution and I’m not just saying this because I am a teacher here! The institute has certain unique features which I believe make its presence in the community, a positive one. For example, earlier only the children of artists would get a chance to learn the art form, but here all kinds of students irrespective of background can enroll. We teach anyone who has a sense of art.
At the institute, we mainly teach the techniques of painting. Sita Devi was famous for her fine lines and I think only a few have the talent to draw with such finesse. We want the new generation of girls to bring in knowledge and imagination into their paintings without deviating from the traditional techniques. About sixty to seventy years earlier, the women of Mithila had a very narrow world-view. Even though they would tap into their inherent creativity, they still had only two worlds to decorate- their parent’s and in-law’s house.
A gentleman named Raymond Lee Owens came to Mithila in 1972. He really liked the paintings and collected many of them. He wanted to test how people around the world would react to this art form and soon enough after he helped in providing Mithila art exposure abroad, they were being appreciated by many people. Raymond realized that there was something special about these paintings. One of his main aims in promoting Mithila art was also to do something for the painters. Raymond passed away in 1999 and after that David Szanton, Joe Elder and P.N Jha founded the Mithila Art Institute in his memory.
This Institute has certain rules and its courses are pre-set just like at any other educational institute. There is an admission test through which we select thirty students annually and train them according to a proper syllabus. There is no tuition fee and we also provide the necessary materials free of cost. The syllabus is divided into three sections. In the beginning, we improve the students drawing skills by training them in the art of drawing a fine border. Then we ask them to paint small motifs such as fish, tortoise, birds or trees. Then they learn how to paint the smaller motifs and assimilate those in their paintings. We ask them to paint by combining our training with their vision. In the second phase, we train them in drawing human figures complete with various gestures, postures and anatomical details. In the third phase, we teach them how to tackle the more difficult themes such as kohbar, Ramayana, Mahabharat. After a year of training we select eight students for the advanced course and they are also offered a scholarship for this.
The students that come from far away often find it difficult to afford the fare of the journey from their home town to the institute. In such cases, our Institute covers the cost of travel so that the student is able to continue her training without any burden. My own daughter was also a student at this institution. In addition to this, when any painting gets sold through the institute, the artist gets all the money. First, a price that has been decided by the painter, is set. Then, for example, if the work gets sold abroad, they send all the money to the artist. Often, the artist herself is sometimes pleasantly surprised by the price her painting can command!
· Apart from traditional themes, artists are also experimenting with contemporary themes. Could you please tell us about that?
I myself have made paintings on several contemporary themes. If Mithila Art Institute did not exist, there would be no Rani Jha! I would have been just another artist making paintings on traditional themes. In our time our world was very small, we had limitations. Today’s girls grow up with some freedom and as a result their horizons have broadened. They have television and can stay up-to-date in terms of current affairs- for example they are aware that tragedies such as the destruction of the World Trade Centre or the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks have happened. In their works, they are trying to depict events such as these by using the traditional painting style. Keeping the traditional style and technique while they experiment with various themes, is a very positive thing, and is the heart and soul of the art form.
I personally believe in protecting our cultural heritage. I ask my students to paint on any themes they like using the traditional style. I ask them to paint about the problems they see in society and any solutions they can think of. There are many young artists like Shalini, Amrita, Monalisa, Supriya, Madhvi, Pinki, Archana and others who are making wonderful paintings with cotemporary themes.
Madhubani, Bihar, November 2015