Bahut accha lag raha hai. Par aur khushi iss baat ki hai ki mere parivar ko khushi mili hai (I am feeling good, but it is even nicer to see my family so happy),” says Jodhaiya Bai Baiga, revelling in the Nari Shakti Puraskar bestowed on her by the Union government last month.
The story of this feisty artist from the Baiga tribe, based in a little village in Madhya Pradesh’s Umaria district, is an inspiring one. Around 2007-08, when she was in her late 60s, Jodhaiya Bai used to make ends meet by selling wood and cow dung. Until then, she had no inclination towards the arts. Her husband, a labourer, had died a few years earlier.
At 67, a serendipitous meeting with the late artist Ashish Swami, an alumnus of Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan, turned her life around. Swami used to run the Jangan Tasveer Khana, which started off as a studio space for him, in the nearby village of Lorha. She started learning how to paint—and never looked back. Today, at the age of 82, she is winning laurels for her art. Her work is currently on display in the Capital as part of Bhumijan, a group show on Indian folk, tribal, traditional and tantric art curated by Minhazz Majumdar and drawn from the Crites Collection. It’s her first big group show.
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The quality of her work is being compared to that of the legendary Gond artist Jangarh Singh Shyam. Jodhaiya Bai’s work, which features incredible use of colour, is rooted in the forests that surround her village. The tiger—Bageswar, or the tiger god, that protects them and their lands from wild boars and wolves—makes a frequent appearance in her paintings. But it is the mahua tree that she holds closest to her heart, and she loves manifesting this affection in her work.
Over the years, she has learnt to work across mediums: canvas, paper, papier-mâché, carved wood. She is not intimidated by scale—her canvas ranges from small-scale to 7x7ft works.
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“After Jangarh Singh Shyam (who died in 2001), I find Jodhaiya Bai the most exciting new talent,” says Mitch Crites, author, collector and folk revivalist, who has lived and worked in India since the late 1960s. He has engaged with legendary masters such as Shyam, Bhuri Bai and Lado Bai, while also commissioning works by artists such as Jodhaiya Bai. “Critics have long dismissed the arts of rural India, particularly those of India’s indigenous peoples, as primitive or purely decorative. Bhumijan defies such categorisations. This exhibition features 150 masterpieces (such as the one by Jodhaiya Bai), each of which startles the viewer with its fresh, vibrant, expressive use of colour, composition and form,” he writes in the exhibition note.
He first heard of Jodhaiya Bai’s work in 2019. “I was delighted to realise that she was being mentored by my old friend Ashish Swami, who used to visit me in Delhi in the early days of Jangarh’s career. He had also guided Jangarh along the way so many years ago,” writes Crites.
While the Gond tribe, dominant in Madhya Pradesh, has a strong visual tradition, the Baiga community has a vibrant performing arts repertoire. So Jodhaiya Bai didn’t grow up with childhood memories of visual arts. However, Swami noticed something in her that sparked his interest. “My uncle, whom we lost to covid-19 last year, had a very successful artistic career and would work out of Delhi and Mumbai. But after a decade of working out of the two cities, he felt like doing something for his birthplace in Umaria,” says Swami’s nephew, Nimish. He first met members of the Baiga tribe when he set up his studio in the village in 2007-08. He would request them to sell him wood for the chulha (stove) and cow dung for lipai of the floor. And that is how he came in contact with Jodhaiya Bai.
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“She came in one day with cow dung, and he expressed shock that she was doing hard labour at her age. That’s when she told him about her struggles,” reminisces Nimish, who now manages the Jangan Tasveer Khana, which has become a community space where members of the Baiga community can seek any kind of help.
At the time, Jodhaiya Bai would wake up at 5am, head to the forest, cut down branches, and sell the wood to the local dhabas, earning just about ₹60 a day. “He told her, ‘You take money from me and learn to do something different, like art.’ She laughed and shook her head.” But he convinced her, asking her to design a rangoli on the floor. She unfurled traditional motifs like trees and local flora, using natural white, yellow and geru colours.
“Woh kahe pehle farsh pe banao. Phir hum lauki torai pe banaaye, phir hal, tulsi ka chaura aur lakdi pe (He asked me to draw on the floor first. Then I painted on dried gourds, the plough, a tulsi pot and wood),” says Jodhaiya Bai. She was hesitant when Swami asked her to paint on paper. What if the painting wasn’t up to the mark and the paper went waste? “Woh kahe toh kya hua, doosra le lenge (he said so what, we will get another one),” she says. She then graduated to handmade paper and canvas. Her family—two sons and a daughter—was supportive.
The talkative artist, just 4ft in height but statuesque in talent, explains her fondness for the mahua tree. “Say, you don’t have jaggery at home and want to make kheer for your family. Just add mahua juice to it. If you roast it with sugar, it becomes a laddoo. Mahua humaare andar mazbooti paida karta hai (It gives us strength). Purana ho gaya, toh mitti ke ghade mein daalo, thoda Burha Dev ko chadhao aur jo bache khud pee lo (If it becomes old, put it in an earthen pot. Offer some of that drink to the deity and then drink whatever is left),” she chuckles. “Mahua is like a boon for us.”
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Crites marvels at her openness to every technique and material—be it canvas, wood, metal or clay—and refusal to be intimidated by scale. “She can paint a 7x7ft mahua tree. She is happiest when she is painting,” he says. “This tiny lady is truly the embodiment of nari shakti (women power).”
Over the years, Jodhaiya Bai has inspired many within the Baiga community to pursue art. Her two daughters-in-law have started painting too. Her grandson carves masks that Jodhaiya Bai paints on. Her closest friend, Jhulan Bai, too has turned to painting at 77, as has her other “sakhi”, or friend, Ram Bai. “Don’t turn to labour, learn art instead. Paints can help change your life,” says Jodhaiya Bai.
Bhumijan can be viewed at the Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, till 7 May, 11am-6pm.