Sunday Monitor

Exploring Vaidehi: Sita beyond her body

Rajdeep Pathak

It is 11 am. Unlike other days, the road leading to Western Court in Janpath is strangely not crowded. There is little chaos in this part of the Capital City that is already reeling from rising temperature touching almost 49 degrees. A black Bolero zooms past the Western Court building, across the Janpath Metro Station which is presently housing the prestigious Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts. The guard inside Gate No. 1 is sitting next to a tree fanning himself with his gamcha (towel) and smilingly guiding the visitors to the central gallery where 125 plus paintings of Madhubani Art from seven nations, including India, Germany, Nepal and Sri Lanka are displayed from one end to the other, depicting the journey of ‘Vaidehi: Sita Beyond the Body’ in the international exhibition of Mithila Painting.


As one enters this sprawling gallery, the decorated walls with various descriptions of Vaidehi and her different forms depicted through Madhubani/Mithila art, greet the visitors, welcoming them to another world, and engages them in the nuances of story-telling, where the life of Sita is dexterously decorated through a tradition and history that spells out different narratives of Vaidehi — the daughter, the devotee, the queen, the epitome of sacrifice, the yogini, the wife, the mother, the rebel and above all, the woman who never surrenders.

One is also greeted here with a cacophony of young voices from Mount Abu Public School Rohini, who are engaged in a conversation with Vijay Kumar Mandal — a Madhubani artist from Bihar. Mandal explains the nuances of the swayamvara (marriage ceremony) of Sita, her life in the forests with her husband Ram and her strength as an embodiment of Parvati (Shiva’s wife).

As the children are awestruck with the rich unleashing of flood of vibrant colours, they approach Vijay Jha – another well-known Madhubani artist and son of the famous Shanti Devi – curiously, who joyfully embraces the role of a teacher and says, “Making natural colours for a Madhubani painting is a deeply meditative act. From picking leaves, roots and flowers at dawn to grinding them on a silbatta (traditional hand grinding tool on a stone slab with a stone roller), to passing the pulp through a sieve, it’s all about dedication, service and above all a labour of love”. He adds more precisely that “before the colour goes on, the canvas is coated with a thin layer of cow dung that acts as a natural pest repellent and helps the paint absorb better”.

Echoing a similar sentiment, Vandana Jha, another traditional artist from Bihar with a mesmerising voice, can be seen singing Sohar (a traditional song often that is sung at the birth of a child). She says that women have been the pioneers in this field of art. “This is a matriarchal painting tradition that emerged in a patriarchal society, and we have kept this tradition alive”. Singing a Sohar, she does an aripana (floor painting), that serve as a form of worship to the Goddess and also welcomes her.

Dexterously moving her fingers, Vandana shows her skills on the floors. “Each part of the painting is a story in itself that we sing along”, she says. “While there are traditional Sohar, based on our imagination of how we are depicting Sita and her various forms, we even compose our own Sohar”, she points out proudly.

Speaking about the music of Madhubani, National Awardee and Madhubani painting artist from Samastipur in Northern Bihar, Bharti Dayal (who is also a judge at this exhibition), says, “For every ritualistic drawing, there is a song. There is a festival called Devotthan in which you wake up the God, and He leaves the deity chamber. There’s a song sung at this occasion and a full-fledged drawing is made on the floor of the courtyard and the women flawlessly in communion draw from their heart what they sing invoking the blessings of the deity.”

As you walk through the gallery, the 5×3 ft painting on canvas by Padma Shri awardee Shanti Devi grips your attention for she intricately describes the journey of Vaidehi, her birth, early childhood. Dr. Savita Jha Khan says that this is one of the most classical styles of Mithila or Madhubani art where “you can actually see how the painter is balancing imagination and creative design sense, with the richness and interplay of lively colours”.

It is Savita’s — Founder Director of Centre for Studies of Tradition and Systems (CSTS) — imagination, determination and tireless work that has brought literary connoisseurs, artists and communities that live and breathe Sita’s life and philosophies under one umbrella to celebrate the eternal journey of Vaidehi through this vivid exhibition in collaboration with the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA) and Nari Samvaad Prakalp.

Sharing her dream on the thought behind this exhibition, Savita says, “Sita is often seen as the uniting force, a deep spiritual tradition. It appears all the conflicting traits and attributes prefer to come together in an unusually harmonious manner on the issue of Sita. Also, Sita is an extremely sensitive, but movingly powerful character who always respected the sanctity of human love, dharma and marital relationship, but never lost an opportunity to question”.

She continues: “The imagination of Sita is so vast and deep that from Nepal to Sri Lanka, Sita exists as everyone’s own. Every collective owns her in their own right and on their accord and yet she transcends their being, to being her – in her gloriously inscrutable self”.

She further adds: “As Vaidehi, Sita encapsulates being the daughter of Videh Raaj and yet simultaneously transcends the limits of body to a higher spiritual realm and multiple dimensions of metaphysical possibilities”.

This was reiterated by Padma Shri Ram Bahadur Rai, Chairman of IGNCA at the inauguration of this exhibition on May 10. Ram Bahadur Rai had said: “Vaidehi is a spiritual concept referring to the one who rises above vasanas, desires, attains mukti while being alive, and lives only to accomplish her kartavya karma/duty. And Sita can teach us how to perform our duties diligently”

As these children are engrossed with each of the display, Dr. Savita engages in conversation with Bhumika, Karnika, Sauhardh, Rashi and Yashika from Mount Abu School and underscores the power that Sita epitomises. She says, “Sita is not just the wife of Ram or daughter of king Janak, but was born as Vaidehi, born outside the womb, a daughter of Nature, a perfect example of dignity and grace, strength and sacrifice”. Other students Jahnvi, Zaidh, Tanishka and Deepak along with their teacher Ms. Anchal Singh form The Samarth School join this engaging dialogue.

Dr. Savita points to the artist Supriya Jha who shows Sita holding her two children, Luv and Kush, but her eyes are full of pathos and anger. Says Supriya, “It is because her life was full of sadness, but still Sita was a determined woman. I have used only black colour over a golden canvas to show her”.

“Black brings you closer to the core, to the essence of your expression It’s a colour that is firm like a mountain. It doesn’t give in to distractions”, exhorts Santosh Kumar Das, an acclaimed Mithila artist whose work has been appreciated worldwide.

Then there is Aashi Mehta, who has described Sita as ‘the warrior princess’, which is also very poignantly presented through the choice and use of colours red, white and black with orange borders.

There is young Ojasvi Sharma from Kullu Himachal Pradesh, who presents the narrative of Sita through her grandmother whom she has depicted in her painting of telling different episodes from Sita’s life. Ojasvi informs that as a child she has regaled in these stories from the Ramayana and she is trying to take the legacy forward.

Here in one of the walls one can get a glimpse of Anushree Dutta’s Vaidehi, almost like providing great energy to all beings on Earth. Says Anushree, “Sita is so resilient that she inspires us to stand tall in all the situations and she is so benevolent that even her tears collected, never dries and can become a source of life”, and adds, I have tried to develop a connection between Hinduism and Buddhism bringing the two religions and the cultures of India and Sri Lanka together. I have symbolically represented Vaidehi in the form of tree to show her s Prakriti (Nature) that can only give to everyone that surrounds her”.

Another exhibited painting that cannot miss the eyesight is of Sanjib Kumar Jha – son of great artist Shri Krishnanad Jha from Harinagar in Madhubani Distt of Bihar – who has profoundly depicted the power of shakti of Sita in the form of Goddess Kali as she finally evolves as the supreme power, leading to the death of Ravana.

Jha is a Tantrik painter, where his painting incorporates symbols of the cult and relate to episodes from mythology. Here, Jha has Sita as an incarnation or a daughter of the different manifestations of Maha Kali, Maha Durga, Maha Saraswati, Maha Lakshmi to rid the society from the demons.

Then there is artist Neha Sharma who depicted Vaidehi as the tree of life. “It is she that gives, nurtures and sacrifices. While mythology tells us numerous versions of her story, however, introspection tells us about our societal values. How we tread Mother Nature and the bounty she provides is a reflection of us. This is ever more relevant today when non-sustainable practices of industrialisation, deforestation, overfishing and over-farming are depleting resources for future generations”, explains Neha.

Amidst preparing a space for lecture demonstrations and workshop, and finalising the interaction with the academician, Savita Jha categorically points to the need for the preservation of this art form which has more to offer beyond the body, frame, colours and textures. “There is an entire sanskriti (culture) behind this art form that needs to be saved from being uprooted” she says.

Savita understands the sereness of the bamboo brush that is used for painting. She also understands the significance of the marketability of the art which she knows has high market value. “But what about the artist and the art, she questions?”

“This art form has expanded beyond its commercial value and has plunged itself into education for raising awareness on various socio-political and even religiously controversial issues by artists who want to explore”, adding, “It is pertinent to bring the art into open which is still hidden behind the veil and inside four walls so that many others may become like Shanti Devi, Santhosh ji, Bhumi Devi.

Beyond the exhibition that will soon conclude, one needs to see, explore and understand the vivacity of this form of art and what the artist wants to portray. “Vaidehi: Sita Beyond the Body is just the beginning”, says a smiling Savita before holding the hands of Shanti Devi and breaking into a Sohar.

This is what Madhubani art is all about. Breaking free, yet telling captivating tales of love, romance, sacrifice, heroism with all its subtleness and purity. Ram and Sita live in the hut, heart and soul of the artist. And it is this continuity that lives through generations of Madhubani artist.

There is a need to take this continuity farther.

(The author is programme executive at Gandhi Smriti & Darshan Samiti)

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