Earlier this year Mithila art expert and enthusiast Peter Zirnis visited India’s Madhubani region. There he met with a range of artists working in what can broadly be defined as the Mithila style of folk art. He was guided by the artist Rambharos Jha, the talented author behind our latest handmade title Waterlife
Since Peter discussed the book with Rambharos last month, it has been at the receiving end of international acclaim – being singled out for special mention by the jury of the BolognaRagazzi Award in the New Horizons category.
Here, Peter finds Rambharos in a reflective frame of mind, as he muses upon the nature of tradition, the story behind Waterlife, and his own artistic journey.
Tell me about Waterlife. How did that come about?
That was an exciting time in my life. Tara Books sent a researcher up to Madhubani to speak to a number of artists. He came to my house and we spent quite some time together talking about art, looking at my work. Afterwards some of us were invited down to Chennai to discuss possible projects. Because of my interest in painting water, and painting water animals, the concept of Waterlife was born. Tara showed me various aquatic animals on the computer, animals I had never seen in nature such as whales and lobsters. They asked me how I would draw them. I said I would draw them as I draw everything else: by making it part of my imagination. They were satisfied with my answer and I returned to Madhubani. Two weeks later I had finished all the paintings for the book and afterwards traveled down to Chennai to personally present them to Tara.
How did you find working on the book?
It was a bit intimidating at first. The Tara staff were mostly young and very enthusiastic. I had never been around so many people who cared so passionately about art, about the details of line and colour. I was not sure how I would perform in that atmosphere. Also I had never done a book before. In fact such a project had never occurred to me. There was the size first of all and I also kept thinking of the audience. How would they receive the work? Until now, the audience for my work had been small, a number of group exhibitions arranged by the Ethnic Arts Foundation, a few paintings sold. Here I would be seen by large numbers of people around the whole world. What would they think of my non-traditional Mithila style? Nevertheless I just kept on working.
What was the first painting you did for the book?
The one with the fish and their babies. It gave me great pleasure to imagine the fish as this, as human, perhaps because I had just become a parent myself with the birth of my son. I began using blue, green and orange colours in my work to express this deeply felt joy.
The crocodile was the second painting. I was trying to remember everything from my childhood for these paintings and I remembered a conversation I had overheard on a train when I was eight years old. It was someone talking about a crocodile and the great commotion it caused. How children would throw stones at it and it would submerge but then surface again making great ripples in the water. The story stayed with me all these years perhaps because it was so descriptive. That crocodile is now in my book.
How was it that you became an artist?
I became an artist because I failed my Matric level English exam in high school.
You failed your English exam and became an artist?
Yes, I got a zero on the exam. Not just a low grade but a zero. I was very upset. This is an important set of exams here in India and pretty much decides your future. I came home crying. My father looked at me and told me to stop crying. What did you expect, he asked. You spent all your time running around with your friends, going to the movies, never did any studying. But instead of crying you should learn from this and take charge of your life. And I did. I became serious and eventually an artist. Later on I realized that I needed English as part of my art. I wanted to talk to foreigners about my art, about art in general and didn’t want to be hampered by a translator. So I bought a book and began learning English.
Your father was important to you becoming an artist in another way also, wasn’t he?
Yes. He was a quality control officer of paintings with the SEWA organization here in the Madhubani area. This was a government women’s self-help organization that gave art training to women so that they could support themselves. These were often widows and wives abandoned by their husbands or families. When I was young, I would come to my father’s office every day after school asking for money for a snack. This was how I met the artists, saw their work and how I began to paint. My father would encourage me. He would tell me to go visit the artists, learn from them. I imitated the color work of Sita Devi and after Jyotindra Jain’s book on Ganga Devi came out I began making black and white paintings like hers with a fine black line. When we moved to Madhubani I became friendly with Dulari Devi. I learned a lot from her. She was always mixing colors on the palm of her hand and then checking the result on a piece of newspaper. So now I never use a color straight out of the bottle, I always mix it with other colors – either to lighten it, change a shade, or just to see what it will do.
Do you consider yourself a Mithila artist? I ask this because if one looks at a painting from Waterlife it does not look at all like a traditional Mithila painting?
Of course I’m a Mithila artist. Tradition is like flowing water. It must flow to stay clean. If it stops flowing it gets dirty, becomes stagnant.
What is traditional Mithila painting? It comes from a time when things were so different, from an agricultural society, a society where time moved slowly and according to rituals that were carefully kept. The art was a ritual art painted on the walls and on the floor to celebrate and commemorate important life occasions. If you were marrying off a daughter, you might ask a neighbor in your village who was skilled at painting to do a ritual khobar painting on the marriage room wall, a tradition in upper caste families. But she was a friend or neighbour first, not an artist as such. This was part of village life. You would feed her, give her some sweets, perhaps a shawl or a cap, and that would be that. The community coming together.
When painting moved from wall and floor to paper everything changed. With paper professional artists emerged. Sita Devi and Ganga Devi, for example, but even they worked very differently. Their work is not similar at all. Ganga worked with a fine line and mainly in black and white whereas Sita Devi was a great colourist and used colours to great effect in her work. Which one represents the true Mithila tradition? They both do and so do I.
We’re pleased to share the news that Waterlife was mentioned in the BolognaRagazzi Award this year, in the New Horizons category. Our congratulations go to out to Rambahros, and the official award ceremony in Italy will be later this month.
More information about Mithila art can be found in Peter Zirnis’s own Mithila Painting blog.