As one browses through the online exhibition, My Life as an Artist, on the website of The Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), the eye comes to rest on one particular painting. It is an untitled work, made with poster colour on paper. A part of its appeal lies in the sheer simplicity with which the artist has brought a story from her childhood to life. The imagery is extremely arresting with the use of primary colours and human forms embellished with tightly placed dots.
Bhuri Bai, the first woman from the Bhil community to paint on paper and canvas, describes her 1980-work as: “This is a family going to attend the festival of Bhagoria that begins around eight days before Holi. The parents have five children, and all the children are crying, adamant to see the festival. The parents are confused, they wonder how they can take all the children. So they take a large wood log, place one end on the father’s shoulder and the other end on the mother’s, and the children all sit on the log and go to see Bhagoria.” It is in recognition of her unique visual vocabulary and for breaking through patriarchal constructs that she was awarded the Padma Shri earlier this week.
However, Bhuri Bai wears her laurels lightly. “She states these things in a very matter-of-fact way, and not as if these are great achievements,” says Nathaniel Gaskell, who has curated My Life as an Artist with Shrey Maurya and Mustafa Khanbhai. “She doesn’t choose to promote these facts of her life or push this side of her story. It is we, who seek to highlight them, and find it amazing.” For her, more than being the first girl from the Bhil community taking to the painting ritual, it is her family’s hardships during her childhood and the fight against a life-threatening disease which has proven to be pivotal.
This exhibition is unique in being led by Bhuri Bai’s voice rather than that of the curators. In earlier conversations with the team, she had remarked how she had collected catalogues, books and articles about herself over the years, without really knowing what was being said on her behalf. It is to correct this to a certain extent that My Life as an Artist has been put together in collaboration with her, with the narrative of the show based on extensive audio interviews and conversations with her in Bhopal, where she now stays. “It is inevitable that a certain ‘curatedness’ would seep in, but we have tried to focus on her voice. In fact, the section about her life’s journey is told in her words, and embellished with her works,” says Gaskell. “There are two reasons why we kept our voice out: One, we didn’t want art jargon to alienate a wide section of the audience. And secondly, we wanted to focus on things that seemed important to her.”
Bhuri Bai was born in the village of Pithol in Madhya Pradesh. She was deeply influenced by the sights and sounds around her, and later incorporated these in her work. As a child, she would watch the painting ritual, and despite young girls in the Bhil community not being permitted to do so, she began painting the mud walls of her own family home. Many years later, she had a chance encounter at the age of 17 with artist Jagdish Swaminathan while working as a construction worker at Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal. He supplied her with poster paints, brushes and brown packing paper, mediums and materials she had never seen before. Haltingly and hesitantly, she started experimenting with these, becoming the first woman in her community to do so. And thus, she transformed from a local indigenous artist, who painted mud walls in the village, to a contemporary folk artist.
Her work contains deeply autobiographical elements, with tattoos that embellish her face spilling onto her paintings as well. Added to these are her observations of her immediate environment, encounters and experiences. “These are the tattoos I have on my face. The patterns on the side of the eyes are called nakhiyas. We didn’t know what kajal was or what powders were. These tattoos were our permanent kajal. They are on the cheeks as well. The dots on the chin are called daadi, a beard tattoo. I didn’t get them all made at once.... It is a belief in my community that if your face isn’t tattooed, no one will marry you, and once you die, even God will not be able to identify you in heaven,” she writes.
The show consists of three segments—the autobiographical section followed by a timeline that traces her work as an artist in the beginning of the 1980s after her meeting with Swaminathan. This includes anecdotes by Bhuri Bai, along with a selection of paintings and documentary photographs from her private collection. The final segment is a presentation of her works from the MAP collection, including early paintings from the 1980s and 1990s as well as the recent large-scale commissioned works.
My Life as an Artist raises some pertinent points as well about the compartmentalisation of folk and tribal art, away from what people call “mainstream” art practice. “Bhuri Bai’s trajectory coincides with that of many other adivasi artists from rural Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh in the 1980s, including Mitthi Bai, Pema Fatya and Jangarh Singh Shyam. This period witnessed the legitimisation and inclusion of “folk and tribal” art within mainstream academic and commercial contexts,” states the exhibition note. It goes on to talk about how like Bhuri Bai, these artists started painting in their homes using traditional techniques and styles. Bharat Bhavan, and later other galleries, scouted these artists, introducing them to modern techniques and materials and championing them as “discovered” artists. “The continuing rise in commercial and institutional interest in these works raises many ethical and creative questions, surrounding their individual artistic agency as opposed to communal identity,” it adds.
In a way, Bhuri Bai harbours some regret about having produced work led by what the market wanted. But now she is returning to her earlier vocabulary, with a reduced colour palette, consisting of colours of the earth such as black, red, green and yellow. Today her style encapsulates Bhil iconography with motifs and “spatial idiosyncrasies” of her own invention.
'My Life as an Artist' can be viewed on map-india.org/exhibitions/ till February 2021