Mithila artist Rambharos Jha’s book, Waterlife, is many things, all at once. In places, it is a page out of a young boy’s mental scrapbook while he sat beside the Ganga, in Mithila in Bihar, watching a huge snake forking through the water, and a valiant frog, leaping away.
On another page, it is an illustrated fable from the Panchatantra, wherein a crane fools a shoal of fish in a pond and eats them all up. Turn another page, and the book is a tribute to the motifs in Mithila art — the fish, for instance, which is believed to bring you good luck if you see it before setting out on a journey, or starting something new.
Actually, for 35 year-old Jha, Waterlife is an honest rendition of an inseparable part of his life — Mithila art. Jha says he was born in Darbhanga, a district in Bihar known for its rich traditions of folk art. His father, however, soon moved to Madhubani with his family and began working with government-supported art and cultural projects. And Jha’s mind closely worked with the art created within those four walls.
“A self-employed women’s association was a part of the art project, too. Everyday, I’d see these women — some who had been thrown away from homes by their husbands, some who were married off as children, others who had faced dowry-related abuse — and they created the most beautiful Mithila art,” says Jha. “That’s when I fell in love with the art form.”
Interestingly, Mithila art deeply reveres the female energy. It is done with aripan, a mixture of rice paste and vermillion, which is believed to denote female energy. In fact, Mithila art owes most of its beauty to the women of Bihar, not the men. Women in Bihar, says Jha, aren’t treated well.
“I think most of them fill their void with this art, because Mithila paintings were originally done on the walls and floors of homes. Gangadevi, a renowned Mithila artist, was abandoned by her husband because she couldn’t bear children. People here prefer not to look at women who cannot conceive –– but look at her. She doesn’t need any validation from them anymore,” says Jha.
In the ’70s, it was Bhaskar Kulkarni who took Mithila art beyond the confinements of walls, and brought it to paper with government support. “Thanks to his efforts, humble artists like me can bag a book deal,” says Jha, as if he cannot believe his luck.
When Jha was in high school, he began making sketches of Haider Ali, Tipu Sultan and Akbar in his history textbooks. Soon, the hobby consumed him and he decided to become an artist. “Even then, I was obsessed with the Ganga and the creatures in it.
I have made more than a hundred Mithila drawings of the species of fish I have seen (and invented).” Waterlife is rich with traditional motifs of Mithila art — fish, snakes, the traditional drawing of a spider crab beside a crab (a Mithila tradition), lotuses and so on.
However, he has not shied away from taking the art beyond its historical confines, even while he keeps it deeply rooted in tradition. There is, for instance, a lush drawing of a lobster, which finds no mention in traditional Mithila art.
Jha explains that he wanted Waterlife to depict the life in water as closely as possible. Sticking to fresh-water creatures would not have done justice to the idea, so Jha decided to introduce salt-water creatures — like the lobster — too. “I don’t want to lose touch with my tradition, but I want to experiment, too, like all artists would love to. It is a heady feeling…when you can do both, ” he smiles.
Apart from motifs, Jha merrily plays with his colours and textures, too. He loves how his colours come from flowers — the orange from the harshringar, the yellow from mustard and the kaner flowers, and the black from soot. “But Mithila art has changed over time. Nowadays, young, college-educated boys and girls start learning Mithila art on paper, not on the walls, like it was originally taught,” says Jha.
The wall, he says, poses its own challenge in terms of textures and discipline. You cannot, for instance, easily erase a drawing from the wall, but you can simply crumple your sheet of paper and start afresh. “Learning on a wall teaches you to be patient and disciplined,” says Jha.
Early this year, Mithila art expert and enthusiast, Peter Zirnis visited Madhubani and met artists working on Mithila art. Jha took him around the region and discussed the art form in detail. Zirnis has been a part of the Ehtnic Arts Foundation, a non-profit arts organisation founded in Berkeley, US, in 1980.
Zirnis, a computer programmer, says he cannot explain his attraction to Mithila art, and puts it down to its vibrant colours and a strong narrative. “In 2007, I heard there were direct flights from Newark to India. I simply hopped on one and came to Bihar.”
This year, too, Zirnis spent his time meeting Jha and other women artists who have created feminist Mithila paintings. Zirnis says Jha’s whimsical, childlike simplicity when it comes to his art is refreshing. “His work is joyous, traditional, yet so contemporary.”
No matter how many creatures he invents in the course of his art, Jha says he’ll always remain partial to fish. “I love the rhythm in their form — the lines of their body, the fins…paani mein machhli, machhli mein paani…”
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