Imagining traditions

Imagining traditions

Women’s everyday art travels from floors to books.
Kohbar, re-imagined from 'Hope is a Girl Selling Fruit' by Amrita Das,<br />Photo by Tara Books
Kohbar, re-imagined from 'Hope is a Girl Selling Fruit' by Amrita Das,
Photo by Tara Books

Tara Books, a feminist publishing house located in Chennai, has been collaborating with 'folk' and 'tribal' artists for the last few years to produce illustrated books for both children and adults. Many of the art forms they have worked with are believed to have evolved from women's creative expressions within the household, created for the purposes of ritual and decoration. On the occasion of International Women's Day on 8 March this year, Tara Books inaugurated a photo exhibition titled 'From Floor to Book: Women's Everyday Art Traditions' at their office, the Book Building. The exhibition, which ran until the end of July, traced the journey of select art traditions across the country, from their original contexts to newer canvases and spaces.

A few years ago, Zubaan, another feminist publishing house located in Delhi, showcased artworks by rural women in a travelling exhibition titled 'Painting Our World: Women's Messages through Art' in several cities across the country. As part of Zubaan's larger project of mapping the women's movement through visual material, the exhibition aimed to document rural women's voices on issues ranging from violence, health, communalism and domestic work to marriage, livelihood and the environment, expressed through 'folk' and 'tribal' art and embroidery practices. While Zubaan's exhibition captured the overtly political discursive articulations stemming from the women's movement, Tara Books' concern seems to lie in understanding meaning-making processes of women – the ways in which they comprehend gender and other social relations through the interplay of quotidian and critical consciousness.

How do we conceptualise art practiced by ordinary women in everyday spaces? Can we conceive of the household as a space for the performance and display of artistic practice, or is a gallery the only legitimate space?

Everyday art
The first of the three sections of Tara Books's exhibition is titled 'Everyday Art'. It showcases aspects of an art form difficult to categorise, lying perhaps somewhere at the interstices of craft, art, household labour, tradition and practice. The exhibition shows viewers that women's everyday art is 'created' and 'displayed' in the context of the household, and is by nature ephemeral. Some of the forms are rooted in the religio-ritual universe of women, while others emanate from the gendered labour of household chores. While women from the Gond community of Madhya Pradesh draw basic, geometric digna to decorate their courtyards after cleaning and swabbing, Meena women of Rajasthan paint mandanas on floors, and images of nurture – particularly baby animals with their mothers – on the freshly-painted mud walls of their homes and communities. Kolam is rendered in the threshold areas of Tamil Nadu homes, while women in the cultural region of Mithila (lying both in the state of Bihar, India and Nepal) paint aripana (ritual floor drawing) and kohbar (wedding chamber murals) to mark auspicious occasions and life-cycle rituals.

The exhibition dwells on various facets of this practice. For instance, the kinesthetics (bodily movements) involved in creating the art: from brisk, swift movements, particularly of fingers, as in kolam, to slow, measured, meditative etchings, in the case of aripanas, as if to animate (give prana to) the motif. The other interesting facet of this art underlined in the exhibition is its ephemerality. Kolam is the most ephemeral, the most repeated practice of them all, performed daily, while digna, mandana and aripana are applied to surfaces occasionally. The impermanence of this art reflects the transitory nature of life and human mortality. Time is central to how we experience and organise life, its passage measured by rhythms of domesticity, labour processes and seasonal celebration of festivals, which although repetitive and mundane at one level, also offer opportunities for creative expression. This brings us to another significant aspect of the art underscored by the exhibition: everyday art as creative labour.

Meena woman painting<br />Photo by Madan Meena
Meena woman painting
Photo by Madan Meena

The household has traditionally been women's space. Women nurture not only the family but the physical space around them. The routine tasks associated with nurturing and caring is valuable social labour. This exhibition argues for an extension of that category to include women's creative labour. In this context, therefore, the exhibition can be seen not only as an exercise in aesthetics, but as a deeply political project. Moreover, it is not just an attempt at making visible ordinary women's aesthetic practices, but an interrogation into the category of art itself.

How do we conceptualise art practiced by ordinary women in everyday spaces? Can we conceive of the household as a space for the performance and display of artistic practice, or is a gallery the only legitimate space? If the category of everyday art is used as a means of entering into debates around categorisation and nomenclature in the art world, it will challenge the categories unselfconsciously employed to compartmentalise and hierarchise objects of aesthetic expression. Where do we locate everyday art on the spectrum of supposedly binary categories – art and craft, marga and desi, sacred and profane, fine and folk, classical and decorative? What sense do we make of the institutions and ideologies of the state and its categories, whereby 'art' comes under the purview of the Ministry of Culture, while 'handicrafts' are located within that of Commerce, Industries and Textiles? 'Art', under this framework, is associated with the art-school trained artist, whose work is showcased in gallery spaces, while 'handicrafts' – believed to be produced by anonymous, unselfconscious and timeless artisanal communities – is a blanket term used to denote various standardised articles of everyday use, as well as wall and floor paintings.

The exhibition apprises the viewer of the fact that most of the women whose art is documented/exhibited are not formally literate. In the Maithili language (spoken in parts of India as well as Nepal), the word likhiya, to write, is also used to express drawing. So, aripana and kohbar are 'written' rather than 'drawn'. Historical sources of the region suggest that Maithil Brahmin women developed an alternative semiotic system in the form of complex ritual drawings, distinct from the shastric traditions of their male counterparts. Since these women were denied access to shastras, they developed a distinct parallel semiotic system. Even today, in some contexts, life-cycle rituals such as marriage and festivals are considered incomplete without these drawings. Women's art, therefore, has to be seen as a knowledge system in its own right, rooted in the philosophical traditions of the Lokayata – a loose amalgamation of ancient Indian materialist philosophical practices grounded in the beliefs and practices of communities – women, Shudras and Ati-Shudras – excluded by the dominant shastric/high Hindu/Brahminical traditions. The Lokayata tradition has existed as distinct from, and also opposed to, the tradition based on the core Brahminical texts of shrutis (heard texts) and smritis (remembered texts). As women's traditional role was limited to the continuity of patrilineages, many of the motifs represent fertility symbols and images depicting care and nurture, while others seem to have strong links with non-shastric traditions, such as Tantricism – which has its roots in subaltern knowledge systems, close to the materialist philosophy of the Lokayata. For instance, the figure of Naina Jogin (the protective, one-eyed veiled woman) in the kohbar motif is speculated to have travelled to Mithila from the Tantric seat of the Kamakhya in Assam.

Art from ‘Drawing from the City’ by Tejubehan<br />Photo by Tara Books
Art from ‘Drawing from the City’ by Tejubehan
Photo by Tara Books

On the other hand, non-Brahmin women draw images from nature, underscoring the relationship between humans and the natural world, mediated through conditions of labour and sustenance. They also depict legendary figures and deities from their own cultural universe, many of whom are more than just ‘different’ from those of the high Hindu pantheon – sometimes benevolent and playful, and sometimes ridiculing, defying and contending dominant strictures and injunctions.

The question of knowledge is closely connected to that of power and identity. Are women able to draw power by exercising their agency through the practice of art in their everyday contexts? Can we consider this practice as resistance to the structure of caste-patriarchy of which they are a part? Does it provide them with the opportunity to create an identity of their own within the confines of their homes and communities? The answer is both yes and no.

This section of the exhibition leaves us with such questions, and envisages everyday art in myriad ways – as meditative exercise, aesthetic expression, leisure, functionality, labour, escape from mundaneness, opportunity for assertion of identity, as re-affirmation of life.

The second section, ‘Transitions’, highlights the multiple transformations in some of these art practices: from floors and walls to paper, from ritual and decoration to market, and from domestic and community space to bazaar, gallery and museum. The transition from walls and floors to paper also means a change in material: twig and cloth rag giving way to brush and rice flour paste; colours obtained from plants and other organic sources replaced by synthetic paint. The sale of paintings meant for these women, economic and social empowerment, as well as a growing self-consciousness about their identity as ‘artists’. Ganga Devi, a renowned Mithila artist, had once remarked that the handmade paper introduced in the 1960s brought the freedom to experiment and innovate. It played an instrumental role in spreading the art from across the world, as paintings could be transported anywhere. This, in turn, provided the much-needed financial stability as well as professional worth and acknowledgement.

Notwithstanding the monumental transformation, the art form has retained some features of its original context. For instance, not all art objects have similar ‘careers’. Commoditised art, which acquires exchange-value within the market economy, do not always remain commodities. In some cases, they return to non-commoditised contexts, such as ritual. For instance, due to lack of time and other factors, many families make use of readymade kohbar from the market for ritual purposes during wedding ceremonies, which they later turn into an art object by framing and hanging on the wall. The practice of painting on floor and wall, in any case, has continued alongside that of painting for the market.

Cover Art for ‘Gobble You Up’ by Sunita.<br />Photo by Tara Books
Cover Art for ‘Gobble You Up’ by Sunita.
Photo by Tara Books

The book
The third and final section of the exhibition, ‘The Book’, tells us about the newest abode of these art forms. The book is an interesting space in which to house the art works of women artists, as it legitimises them as the articulators of their art forms. Unlike market spaces, where men appear as the face of the art form, even though most artists are women, the book establishes them as commentators and interpreters of their cultures, as reservoirs of knowledge.

In a decade-long engagement with these artists, Tara Books has produced a variety of books – from ethnographies of art forms to stories ranging from adaptations of classics to folklore recounted by the artists themselves. So, if Gobble You Up and Churki Burki re-tell traditional tales, Following My Paint BrushDrawing From The City and Hope is a Girl Selling Fruit stand testimony to intense reflection on the self and the world, resulting in poignant visual tales that brilliantly capture that liminal space occupied by women, between fetters and freedom, domesticity and outside, labour and leisure. Rokeya Sakhwat Hussain’s feminist utopia Sultana’s Dream, and a re-rendering of the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view are examples of Tara Books’ classics. The concerns underlined in these texts seem to resonate so much with the artists that they have not merely ‘illustrated’ the texts but have narrated them, employing stunning pictorial vocabulary, using their own brush.

Further, the book-artefacts have pushed the boundaries of traditional art by defamiliarising conventional motifs. In response to accusations by the keepers of tradition of altering the grammar of traditional art, a young artist once responded: “tradition will continue only through innovation; through young artists like me; I am the tradition”. A glimpse of this kind of innovation can be had in the radical re-working of the kohbar motif in Hope…, in which Mithila artist Amrita Das depicts lotus leaves (traditionally symbolising fertility) as a frame to capture the myriad gender-based roles played by women in everyday life.

The space of this gallery seamlessly flows into sections displaying Tara Books’ publications, and the walls on which the work of ‘folk’ and ‘tribal’ artists are etched. It is interesting to see how the arrangement of space challenges the binaries of word and image, text and illustration, literate and non-literate, and how the space tells the stories of intersecting journeys – of select art traditions performed and displayed in the space of the household, to the market, and finally to their new habitat, the book; of women artists, for whom the experience of illustrating/writing has been both an exercise in re-imagining traditions and an exploration of their own consciousness; and finally, of Tara Books’ own experimentation with a genre offering not just aesthetic pleasure but a huge political promise.

~Sandali is pursuing her doctorate from the University of Pune on the topic ‘Mithila Paintings and Painters: Exploring Relations of Caste, Class, Gender’.

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