TWO of the most famous exponents of Madhubani paintings, Dulari Devi and Krishnakant Jha, were present in Kolkata for the exhibition "Mithila Paintings".
The 36-year-old Dulari Devi is famous for her Kachni style of painting. She was born into an impoverished family of fisherpersons in Ranti in the Mithila region. As a child she worked as a help in the house of the famous painters Mahasundari Devi and Karpori Devi. "I used to see them at work and wanted to paint like them. I was about 10 years old when they took me under their wings and taught me," she told Frontline.
Initially, her paintings had the traditional themes of mythology and deities, but of late she has begun to deal with themes relating to her own community and the life around her. "Earlier I was only a maidservant, now I am treated as an artist and am no longer at the receiving end of caste prejudice and gender oppression," she said.
In spite of her growing fame, Dulari has no intention of leaving her native Ranti. Like those before her, she wishes to hand down her art to the next generation through her pupils, who include her nieces and other younger women in the family. For a woman who is illiterate and who was abandoned by her husband when she was 16, Dulari's art has been her path to emancipation. Most of her paintings today are bought by collectors from the United States and Japan. The price of her paintings range from Rs.5,000 to Rs.25,000 a piece, depending on the time and effort she has put into each.
Krishnakant Jha, 40, is one of the very few male exponents of the art form. His mother Bhagvati Devi, a painter in the Geru style, trained him in his formative years, and later he studied under the great Sita Devi.
Hailing from Jitwarpur, Jha belongs to the Mahapatra Brahmin community. But his paintings are in the traditional style of the Kayasthas. In the regional caste hierarchy, Mahapatras are placed below other Brahmins because they traditionally perform the rites after a death. "We were very poor. Even though my mother initially taught me to paint in the Geru style, I realised that there was no market for that as none of her paintings was sold (this also led Bhagvati Devi to quit painting). So I adopted the Bharni style," Jha told Frontline.
Jha's paintings, like Dulari's, are in great demand abroad, especially in Japan. "It is not that there is no market for our art form in India, but the price is much better abroad," he said. Unlike most Madhubani artists, he is responsive to the changing times and market demands. He is willing to incorporate various styles into his paintings.
Krishnakant Jha feels that the government should encourage and support Madhubani artists if it wishes to preserve the art form. He said: "We are not invited to exhibitions in Delhi; we are not given any national awards. If this situation continues, our art will die with us, as the younger painters will quit out of frustration as my mother did."