Portrayal of Goddess Parvati lying unconscious after getting bitten by Bishahari. (Courtesy: Soma Roy)

In Conversation with Soma Roy: Can Manjusha Art be as Popular as Madhubani Paintings?

in Interview
Published on: 30 January 2020

Archana Sharma

Archana Sharma holds a Master's degree in Architectural Conservation, School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, and Bachelor's degree in Architecture, School of Planning and Architecture, Bihar. She is a resident of Hajipur, a small town in Bihar, and interested in tangible and intangible cultural heritage resources. She has worked on wide variety of projects through her association with CRCI, New Delhi. She is also associated with Sahapedia as a Heritage Walk Leader.

Soma Roy is a graduate in textile designing from NIFT, Hyderabad. She has been practising Manjusha art for two decades.

This interview focusses on the origin of Manjusha (locally known as Angika), its history and practice.

Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted on September 21, 2018 at Roy’s residence in Patna. 

Archana Sharma (AS): Can you tell us about the story depicted in Manjusha art and how it relates to Bishahari Puja? 

Soma Roy (SR): The folktale is about a girl named Bihula who saved her husband from a snake bite which was the result of the wrath of Bishahari, the snake goddess. It is said that one day Lord Shiva was taking a bath in Sonada Lake and five strands of his hair fell into the water. They became five lotuses. Shiva saw those lotuses and asked them to reveal their true form and they turned into five women who came to be known as Jaya Bishahari, Dhothila Bhavani, Padmavathi, Mynah Bishahari and Maya/Manasa Bishahari. Bishahari Puja tells the story of the origin of Manasa Bishahari.

I believe that Manjusha art started as a result of the flora and fauna that exist around the region of Bhagalpur. The topography and soil type of this region supports a wide variety of reptiles, rattlesnakes being one of them. The art form must have been a method to educate the people about their surroundings. Snakes play a vital role in this art form and so do the plant life including lotus, paddy and belpatra (wood apple leaves). The Bihula-Bishahari story also illustrates the immediate steps one should take if bitten by a snake, including the use of local plants and herbs for treatment. Thus, this story also touches upon the importance of Ayurveda. 

Bishahari Puja was originally celebrated in Bhagalpur and areas around it but has now spread farther. It used to be an occasion when women would paint abstracts from folklores on boxes in which materials related to the puja were kept. However, this practice is gradually going out of fashion.

AS: Are you familiar with the origin of this art form? Which regions still practise this art form?

SR: Manjusha was originally practised by the residents of Tilka Manjhi in Bhagalpur. Initially, only a handful of women were involved. Even 10 years ago, it was not as popular. The initiatives of the Bihar state government and Upendra Maharathi Shilp Anusandhan Sansthan (UMSAS) have helped attract the attention of many artists. Now even men have also started practising the art. 

Manjusha art has started to spread beyond Bhagalpur and much credit for this must go to UMSAS. There is a cluster of 10–15 houses in the old city of Patna where people are practising this art from. There are artists in Bakhtiyarpur too, which means that it is spreading in Bihar and will continue to do so if proper measures are taken for its upliftment.

AS: Is there a specific time in the year when this art form is practised? 

SR: Traditionally, it was practised on the occasion of Bishahari Puja. Some households would also paint abstracts from the Bihula-Bishahari folklore on the first night after a wedding as it was believed to be a good omen for the newlywed. Today, the art form is practised all year round, but most so during Bishahari Puja.

AS: Since when have you been practising this art form? How did you learn it? 

SR: I have been practising Manjusha art for 20 years now. I also practise Madhubani, Pattharkati and block painting along with some forms of embroidery such as sujini and kantha.

I got acquainted with Manjusha art while staying at my grandmother’s house in Bhagalpur. Our domestic help, a Tilka Manjhi local who was very much a part of our family, taught me the art form. 

AS: Has the practice of the art form evolved over time? 

SR: Manjusha has evolved a lot. It has gradually become more polished. In the early days, only three colours (pink, yellow and green) were used for painting, and they were all natural colours. Since attention to detail took prominence, the tools and the medium have changed. The colour palette is more diverse as various shades of red, orange and yellow have been introduced. Fabric and acrylic colours have replaced natural colours. These changes are necessary for Manjusha art to survive. 

When we speak of illustrations, colour combinations and geometry, Manjusha art suffers some serious disadvantages compared to Madhubani painting, its counterpart. This art form showcases dead bodies and snakes in a colour combination of fluorescent pink, yellow and green, which might not be appeal to those looking for a certain idea of beauty in art. How many would want to hang such brightly coloured paintings of dead bodies and snakes in their living room? Moreover, Manjusha paintings follows a strict straight-line geometry because of which figures appear stiff and angry. To attract more connoisseurs, the art form needs to evolve and adjust in terms of composition and colour combinations. I often test a combination of Manjusha and Madhubani to aesthetically alter the former’s appearance. 

AS: What are the basic steps involved in completing a Manjusha painting?

SR: The painting is sketched before it is filled with colours. It goes through various stages of detailing before it becomes a final product. 

AS: What are the medium and tools you use for the painting? 

SR: Originally, pens made from bamboo or sticks with brushes tied or clothes wrapped around them were used for Manjusha paintings. The tools had to evolve to meet the demand for more refined details. Nowadays, we use pencils, brushes of all sizes, pen nibs, rulers, compasses and other geometric instruments for detailing and finishing.

For the base, different varieties of paper, such as handmade paper, and fabric such as raw silk, paper tassel silk, cotton, woollen material, etc., are used. 

AS: Could you elaborate on the additions that have been made to the colour palette? How did the shift from natural colours affect the art?

SR: Originally, only three colours—pink, yellow and green—were used for Manjusha paintings but now shades of red and orange have replaced pink while shades of yellow are used to make the whole composition more pleasing to the eyes.

Natural colours have been replaced by fabric and acrylic colours. Natural colours are environment-friendly and they are also not harsh on skin. However, they appear faded and wash off very easily. Since the paintings have a lot of flat area, they require large quantities of colours in their making. As it requires more time and effort to make natural colours, they have been replaced by chemical colours. 

I know how to make natural colours. For example, neem leaves, which are very good for skin, are used to make light green; yellow is made from turmeric and if a tint of orange needs to be added to it, shiuli flowers are used to make that colour; pink is made from stigma of hibiscus flower or aalta (a red dye that married women from the eastern parts of India apply on their feet); red is made from mercury or pomegranate; and black is made from iron or horseshoe. I have made some pieces in natural colours but they are not appreciated by buyers as they appear worn out.

AS: How much time and effort does completing a painting take? 

SR: Time management depends on a lot of factors such as scale of the painting, its medium, level of finishing and detailing and also on the amount of money that is being offered for the painting. 

For example, a 15 x 22 in canvas takes around two days to complete (with 16 hours of work per day) if done freehand; finishing on the same painting will take even more time. If the size of the canvas is doubled, it does not mean that it will be completed exactly in double the amount of time—instead of four, it might also take six days. Similarly, the amount of time required also depends on the medium. If the medium is fabric, it takes less time than paper, where finishing becomes more important. 

AS: Recently, Manjusha art has started to appear on a lot of products in Bhagalpur. What kind of products are these? 

SR: Manjusha painting is now being done on sarees, scarves, stoles, shawls, shoes, hair ties and wall hangings along with other gifts and stationery items. Recently, I have started experimenting on jewellery based on Manjusha paintings. The art form has also found place in embroideries made by women in Bhagalpur; the embroideries carry the traditional motifs, colour combinations and patterns of the paintings.

AS: How many artists still practise this art form and how is the newer generation of artists engaging with it? 

SR: There has been a decrease in the number of artists but I believe the initiatives of the Bihar government will have a positive impact on Manjusha’s popularity. An art form flourishes only when monetary benefits and incentives are provided to both established and upcoming artists. The next generation prefers to learn and practise Madhubani paintings because of the hype that it has received over the past few years. If the same is done for Manjusha art, it will boost its popularity. 

AS: What initiatives has the government taken to create awareness about this art form? 

SR: In 1984, in an attempt to save Manjusha art from extinction, the Bihar government started an initiative called Jansampoorna Vibagh in which they went to the villages of Bhagalpur and showed the residents slideshows of Manjusa art, educating them about this traditional art form. Jansampoorna Vibagh soon became a template for other government organisations and NGOs interested in the promotion of the art form. 

In its continued effort to revive the art form, the Bihar government also organises regular fairs and workshops for artists to sell their products and showcase their talent.

AS: How do you envisage the future of Manjusha art? 

SR: If Manjusha art is to survive, changes are required in the way it is practised. As discussed, the composition of paintings and colour combinations need to be altered to make it softer and more appealing to the general public. Monetary benefits and other incentives will also make people take interest in it. Another important factor is the availability of good teachers who are willing to pass on their knowledge to eager students. If all these issues are addressed, I see no reason why Manjusha art cannot become as famous as Madhubani paintings.