Thursday, March 4, 2021

Padma Shri Ramchandra Manjhi and Dulari Devi: Tale of two artists, and of artwork, caste and grit in Bihar

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Among the Padma Shri awardees chosen this yr are two Dalit artists from Bihar, Ramchandra Manjhi, a ‘naach’ performer, and Dulari Devi, a Mithila painter.

To reach Manjhi and Dulari, the nationwide honour has travelled a great distance, down grime roads and dust tracks, to their homes in caste-divided, poverty-stricken Bihar villages. And each the brand new Padma Shris say it’s their life circumstances that give their artwork the vitality that makes it shine vibrant, profitable alike the hearts of their villagers and nationwide awards.

Ramchandra Manji –– ‘Refinement at the cost of popular connect is stupid’

For 84 years now, Ramchandra Manjhi has been a ‘launda naach’ artiste, dressing up as a girl to carry out the songs and performs of Bhikhari Thakur (December 8, 1887- July 10, 1971), the ‘Shakespeare of Bihar’. Born in village Tujarpur in Saran district –– the place he nonetheless lives –– Manjhi was 10 when he began performing, and shortly got here in contact with Thakur, whose troupe would go to a close-by village for follow. He hasn’t left the stage since.

“Bhojpuri never saw a writer like Bhikhari Thakur again, and through our performances, we are keeping him alive. The central theme of his works was what migration for work does to a society. Often, when we are written about, the focus is more on us dressing up as women than on our work, but it is our content that has kept us relevant and popular all these decades,” Manjhi tells The Indian Express over the telephone.

In his 80 years on stage, Manjhi says he has toured numerous cities of India, carried out in government-sponsored cultural areas to levels paid for by higher caste landlords, attracted cheers and jeers, however made certain his artwork stayed democratic.

“I was always clear that my first duty was to the village audience that can’t access or enjoy the more effete forms of entertainment. Our ticket prices have not gone up beyond a point, if a show is scheduled at a village and a richer man offers more money on the same day, I refuse. We travel hundreds of kilometres, going village to village, but we often choose to walk than make our poorer patrons pay for travel costs,” says the 94-year-old artiste.

ramchandra 759 Dost (left) and Manjhi on stage. (Photo courtesy: Naresh Gautam/Bhikhari Thakur Repertory Training & Research Centre)

Helping Manjhi with the convention name is Dr Jainendra Dost, a JNU scholar who now runs the Bhikhari Thakur Repertory Training & Research Centre in Chhapra. Dost says Manjhi’s life on stage has concerned battling financial odds, caste discrimination, taunts for dressing up as a girl, however he has stored at it, powered by the necessity for public self-expression of a group traditionally denied that privilege.

“Thakur belonged to the low nai (barber) caste. He wrote about the subaltern among the subaltern –– the able-bodied lower caste man left to cities for work, leaving behind broken, vulnerable families, something very much happening in today’s Bihar too. He was the first to bring their stories to stage. That Bhojpuri never produced another Bhikhari Thakur shows the hold upper castes continue to have on art, and that’s one reason why Manjhi and his troupe, all elderly men now, hold on to the stage –– if they leave, who tells their stories?” Dost says.

Even right this moment, says Dost, the best way naach is consumed by higher and decrease castes in villages is completely different –– the higher castes are watching employed artistes, the decrease castes are watching their very own individuals deliver their tales alive. “When Thakur started writing, his audience could not afford the baijis (courtesans) the upper castes patronised. So men performed women’s parts too. But upper castes called it launda naach, a derogatory term that has stuck, forming a negative perception about the art form,” he provides. “Till a few years ago, when Ramchandra ji would perform at stages paid for by upper castes, men would poke their stomachs with bhalas (long, pointed weapon), currency notes stuck on the tip. They are often taunted with vulgar slurs over dressing up as women.”

Manjhi is extra peaceful about it. “Well, I do wear saaris and make-up, so why should I mind if I am called effeminate? Over the years, we have learnt how to deal with these things –– we know when to diffuse a situation with a smile, or when to turn stern.”

The quest to maintain his artwork accessible has meant Manjhi continues to be removed from a wealthy man –– together with his Padma Shri winnings, he hopes to construct a bathroom at his home. Does he assume the award will get his artwork extra recognition?

Manjhi 759 Now 94, Manjhi has been on stage since he was 10 years previous. (Photo courtesy: Naresh Gautam/Bhikhari Thakur Repertory Training & Research Centre)

“The Padma Shri will hopefully mean more people outside Bihar hear of us, but we have never lacked recognition. Recognition is not 50-100 “sophisticated” individuals figuring out your title, it’s the love you get on stage,” Manjhi is agency. “I have learnt Kathak, I can sing several classical ragas. But that is not what my audience connects with. I intend to give my audience quality content they can enjoy. So-called refinement and respectability, at the cost of mass connect, is just stupid.”

Dulari Devi –– ‘Painting brought me the colours my life lacked’   

Dulari Devi, 53, lives in village Ranti, in Madhubani district. She first picked up the paintbrush when working as a home assist on the home of a Mithila painter. In the almost three many years since, she has used it to deliver new colors to her and her household’s life, add magnificence to the world, and likewise make extra outstanding the ‘Dalit school’ in an artwork nonetheless related strongly with Maithil Brahmins.

“I grew up in immense poverty, never went to school. We belong to the Mallah (fishermen) caste, so my father would catch fish and my mother worked as a field labourer. I was married off at 13, but after my six-month-old daughter died, I came back home, and started working as a house help for Mahasundari Devi, who made Mithila paintings. She noticed my interest in the art, and a few years later, when the government offered a small training course on Madhubani paintings, helped me pursue it. At Mahasundari Devi’s place, I came in contact with the great Mithila painter Karpoori Devi, who became my mentor, my second mother,” says Dulari.

painting 759 Dulari Devi says she loves filling her work with vibrant colors, ‘as my life lacked colours for a long time’. (Photo: Express)

Did she all the time have an curiosity in artwork? “Growing up, I was so busy battling poverty and just surviving that I didn’t even think of art,” Dulari Devi smiles. “But things would catch my attention, you know, I would get lost staring at a tree, I could watch children playing for hours, I specially loved watching people dressed in pretty clothes, because I never had any. Now, people tell me I have great observation skills and I pay attention to detail. But I never thought of it like that, I just draw what I see or what I can imagine,” she says.

Dulari Devi has travelled to numerous cities in India on authorities portray contracts, teaches Madhubani portray to youngsters, has had books written on her. How does it really feel to have achieved a lot? “I honestly don’t get a lot of this. Teaching makes me happy. I live with my brother and recently, during the lockdown, his paan shop didn’t have much business. That time, it was my earnings from painting a nearby school wall that kept us going. That felt nice,” she says.

This reality, that artwork for Dulari Devi is as a lot livelihood as labour of affection, brings her work pulsatingly alive, says Sunil Kumar, a former journalist from Bihar who has lengthy been related along with her, and runs Folkartopedia, a digital archive of India’s conventional artwork kinds.

“For Dulari Devi, art is not an abstract pursuit. She paints to earn a living, and she paints what she sees around her. Despite no conscious attempt to be political, her paintings have caste and political commentary running through them. To give just one example, she once painted a flood rescue operation scene, in which the richer, upper caste people are being rowed away to safety first, and a lower caste woman is watching, waiting for her turn to be saved, even though boatmen are traditionally people from her own community,” says Kumar.

Dulari Devi is proficient in each the ‘Kachnhi ‘and ‘Bharni’ types of Mithila artwork –– the previous being primarily sketches, and the latter involving filling the sketches with colors –– however enjoys Bharni extra. “I love colours,” she says. “My early life was so dark and desolate that I love filling up my drawings with colours.”

tree 759 A wall of Dulari Devi’s home painted by her nephew Rajesh Mukhiya, whom she is instructing her artwork to. (Express picture: Ashish Kumar Jha)

Within Madhubani portray, there are completely different strains –– artwork as practised by higher castes and decrease castes. “Kachni, for example, is practised more by upper castes,” Kumar explains. “The choice of motifs is different, upper castes have more cosmic subjects, drawing Ganesha, raas leela, scenes from the Ramayana. Lower castes draw the life they see around them. Dulari Devi is brilliant in whatever she draws, and her immense skill has brought such recognition to her art that the limelight is falling on her ‘slice of lower caste life’ pieces too,” Kumar provides.

What does the Padma Shri imply to her? “To be honest, I realised what a massive deal it was only when I saw how excited and overjoyed my students were,” Dulari Devi says.

“She is the pride of the village,” pipes up her nephew Rajesh Mukhiya, one among her college students. “Who would have ever thought a mallah’s illiterate daughter would bring such honour and recognition to the village?”

“I don’t know about all that,” says Dulari Devi. “All I can say is after the bad cards dealt me early in life, art has redeemed me, the way Lord Ram redeemed Ahilya.”


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