Artists: Notes on Art Making

In the traditional Indian art, drawing played a significant role. To examine this role, writer has focused on drawings of Ganga Devi, who was traditional, as well as ‘contemporary’ or ‘modern’. The study, thus provides a fascinating view to look at the continuity of the medium in changing times.

In the traditional Indian painting whether it was miniature or a book illustration, a story tellers’ scroll cosmographic panel, a mural or a wall painting, the drawing and painting were considered two separate acts. For the most part, in Rajasthan, a very rough demarcation of spaces was done by using light yellow pigment. Once it was ascertained that requisite space was allotted to all the elements of the concerned painting, i.e., the characters, architecture, landscape, etc. then a rough but fairly definite sketch was done in a slightly darker tone than the very light yellow used for demarcation of spaces. The colour used for such a sketch was usually light vermillion. After this, different colours were filled in different areas wherein one colour was used at a time. After finishing all the areas required in a particular colour the second colour was applied, and then the third, the fourth and so on. The sequence and progression was usually from lighter shades to darker ones.

In Mithila, two prominent traditions of art comprising wall paintings and floor diagrams existed. The aripan or floor diagrams were a kind of ‘action drawings’ done speedily with fingers dipped in rice-paste, resulting in magicogeometric patterns characterized by strong and confident linework.

In the wall paintings too, the element of drawing is separately discernible from that of painting and therefore actually the whole tradition of painting in Mithila can be aptly described as ‘coloured drawings’.

When paper was introduced in Mithila, on large scale, in the 1960s, a number of women painters resorted to fine drawing in red and black inks rather than painting that was primarily rooted in drawing. Ganga Devi was no exception to this.

The nature of beginning, growth, composition and completion of a drawing was largely determined by the ritual requirement of starting with a sacred dot and I the centre of the pictorial space.

The construction of the motifs of Kohbar (lotus paint), Kamaldah (lotus-pond), bans (Bamboo grove) and aripan (floor paintings which are basically variation of the lotus motif) is essentially centrifugal. Before the drawing of any of these is begun, the centre is identified as where a dot is placed. From this dot ‘grows’ outwards, the entire motif to spread up to the periphery of the space. As explained by Ganga Devi, the central dot (tip) is like the kernel from which the (lotus) plant sprouts, gradually proliferates and finally takes over the entire pond. It is perhaps this image of germination and growth of the lotus pond from the central kern that governs the pictorial formalisation of the motif leading to the dense growth of buds, a range of half-open to fully bloomed flowers, intertwined stems, leaves fruits, weeds combined with ripples, underwater life, bees and birds filling up the entire space of the paper, to its fullest capacity, because emptiness would tantamount in infecundity.

With this background in mind, I shall describe below, the successive growth of Ganga Devi’s capability to transform experience into pictorial images -- ritualistic, symbolic, iconographic or narrative - made her a painter who, so to say, appears ‘traditional’ in her ‘modern’ work. In other words her painterly qualities are such that irrespective of the subject matter -- traditional Khobar of Madhubani or her recent impressions of America - the level of image formation and pictorial transformation remains steady. Her concern is characterized by an effort to create a series of refined and conceptualized images, all filtered through her creative vision and sensibility. Her paintings possess a stylistic certitude which is undeterred by the varied nature of themes she chooses to draw. As we shall see, this purity of perception, conceptualization and depiction makes her a great individual artist stemming from the collective tradition of Madhubani painting.

As a few years after her marriage, and in the face of poverty and childlessness, her husband married another woman and virtually threw her out on the street. In order to earn her livelihood and to divert her attention from the painful event, she began to draw paintings, only to be exploited by a fellow painter and childhood friend who marketed her paintings under her own name and paid Ganga Devi nearly nothing for the large profit she herself earned from them. By the strength of sheer quality of her work, she carved niche for herself right at the top of the art world of India. In the course of time she earned much fame and some money, but before she could relish any of these she became a victim of cancer.

Each one of these peculiar situations sharpened Ganga Devi’s perception, and provided her with profound understanding of the human world and its manifestations, and above all, taught her to retreat, from time to time, to the world of her pictorial imagination concretized by her well controlled line a fine sense of spatial organization. Her chaotic life and the neat and clean world of her drawing and painting are intrinsically related. In her personal life there was an all-round invasion and encroachment, but, as if to ward this off, in her work each character, each image, is provided, with its own breathing space. Her inner turmoil led her to create, at least on canvas, a world full of peace and order.

Ganga Devi was born around 1928 in Chatra Village of Madhubani district in the state of Bihar. Her father was a well-to-do petty landlord. Her mother was a deeply religious woman endowed with great talent for painting.

Ganga Devi’s life centred around panchanga, the traditional lunar calendar of Mithila, comprising 12 months each of 30 days. The month, divided into two halves of 15 days each beginning with the full moon and the new moon respectively, was the basic unit of the annual ritual cycle. Two months formed a season. The year had six seasons. The ritual significance of each day, on account of the position of the moon, the movement of the sun and the planets, the cycle of the seasons and the religious festivals, was described in minutest details in the panchanga calendar.

The women of Mithila kept vratas or vows and observed fasts on some of these ritually important days. Every month had at least one sacred day on which airpana, women’s ritual floor paintings, were done by using rice-paste for pigment and a twig for brush. Specific floor paintings were also done on the occasion of important events of human life such as puberty, conception, birth, sixty day rites after birth, tonsure ceremony, initiation into learning, betrothal, marriage, etc., and to mark important daysoftheannualcalendar.

The beginning of Ganga Devi’s paintings and rooted in these floor paintings. Her concern for ritual purity in everyday life was responsible for the iconographic perfection of her earlier work, and the symbolic overtones of her imagery highly characteristic of her later paintings.

Another important mode of pictorial expression that occupied Ganga Devi in her formative years was that of painting the cowdung plastered wall of the kohbar ghar, the bride’s wedding chamber, where marriage is solemnized and under the auspicious influence of the painted symbols of plenty and fertility. From her explanation of each motif and symbol of the collective kohbar painting, it becomes understood that she understood kohbar not as mere ‘festive decoration’, but as pictorial reconstruction and synthesization of the magico-religious world comprising painted images of deities, sacred trees, primordial creatures, ritual accessories, heavenly bodies, the male and the female, etc. With forms ranging from the representational-narrative to purely abstract-symbolic to geometric-diagrammatic. The entire kohbar painting is understood by her as a magical edifice in which each image, each image is to be conceptualized with utmost purity of essence and form. As she once said ‘impure expressionism is tantamount to self-destruction due to magical ill-effect as much as the violation of her artistic self. In this context the ‘magical’ content cannot be separated from the ‘artistic’.

These perceptions, which crystallized in the early stage of her career and in the context of ritual wall and floor paintings, continued to pervade through her later works even in the context of the purely secular themes, as in her ‘American series’. The concern for magical purity eventually got transformed into the purity of expression -- the former not separable form the latter.

The second important phase of Ganga Devi’s work began when, discarded by her husband on the eve of his second marriage, painting appeared to be the only means of earning a livelihood. Around this time was a drought in Bihar and the Government had been tackling the problem of providing occupation to the drought-strikers people of Mithila by encouraging them to paint on paper supplied to them for the purpose. The personal need for survival and the change of medium from wall to paper offered her a great challenge. Being a fine artist, she immediately realised the advantage of the smoother surface of paper over the rough plaster of the wall, for it allowed her to discover the potentiality of fine line especially for rendering narrative themes from the sacred legends of Rama and Krishna, the epic heroes. She could now investigate the unlimited possibility of drawing in fine line. One outcome of the innovation was the series of drawings based on mythological subjects so far unconventional in her work. As a devotee, she, had known the story of Rama, and as a woman banished by her husband for no fault of her own, she had experienced the agony of Sita. But for the first time in her life, she attempted pictorial conceptualisation of the story of Rama and Sita. In this new situation, which marks the second phase of her painting career, Ganga Devi was faced with handling the problems of perspective or depicting the three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional surface, converting the temporal sequence of the narrative into a spatial situation and translating the mythical images into pictorial ones. She solved the problems of perspective by eliminating the depth-dimension totally. Realising the true nature of painting to be two-dimensional she did not attempt fake the third dimension by means of shading, or by overlapping images to indicate depth. Each character, each object, each leaf, flower or blade of grass, was provided with its own free space. These perspectival pictorial depictions make her work appear `unfamiliar' and therefore her own. The vertical and horizontal sprawling of images fathomless white spaces adds a sense of drama and surprise to her painting.

The problem of converting the temporal sequence of the legend into the capital one, has been tackled by her in a rather simplistic manner. She divided the space into various square or rectangular compartments by means of cross-bands, in the manner of comic strip, in which each compartment contained a complete painting reflecting tremendous pictorial narrative qualities. Space between the characters was filled up with flowers, branches and creepers, growing from nowhere. Ganga Devi eliminates all indication of sky or earth, time and space, instantaneously imparting a mythological quality to the painting. Each picture with its ornate frame, the characters focused in action and dialogue, minimal indication of mountains, rivers or forests, looked more like a scene from Ramleela, the traditional folk theatre of Northern India which happened to be the main source of pictorial inspiration behind these paintings. Flimsy looking crowns, halos, bows and arrows, and 'cardboard' chariots with lotus-shaped wheels, further testify that this phase of her work derived much from the Ramleela theatre. Ganga Devi's third significant phase of painting began in 1982 with her epic work entitled, "The Cycle of Life". With this she truly crossed the threshold of convention to excavate fresh grounds hitherto untouched by any painter from Madhubani tradition or by herself. The theme she chose to paint, The Cycle of Life, comprised a series of Samskaras or ritual events of initiation as practiced in Madhubani. For the first time she painted a theme related to everyday life and the immediate human surrounding. This offered a departure and a challenge. This being unprecedented both in her work and in Madhubani tradition, she had to dive deep into the ocean of her imagination to find a new pictorial vocabulary. The results were startlingly fresh and original. In the case of The Cycle of Life she was faced with problem of depicting the entire story of human life as a continuous narrative in which each image, each scene and each sequence was conceived afresh without any reference to a pre-existing model in her own tradition. The drawing was conceived on an epic scale replete with rich cultural details pertaining to social manners and customs, and religious beliefs and practices peculiar to epic style. Here she eliminated the compartmentalisation of scenes as in her earlier Ramayana series. The resultant effect was that of a universe teeming with millions of people, trees, birds. animals - all a part of a great celebration of life - from one birth to the next. The entire cycle of life has been rendered by 24 scenes, each marking a significant event in the process of being born and growing up in Mithila. The single-most striking feature of this painting is the highly individualistic conceptualisation of images and strict adherence to the ritual-symbolic conventionsofthecollectiveculture of Madhubani. These images owe very little to 'other pictures', but stem from a mind searching for a new vocabulary for self-expression to suit the challenging new subject matter. The human images here are much more real spontaneous than in her earlier mythological paintings of the Ramayana, reflecting on their faces and their postures earthy sentiments. The temporal dimension of The Cycle of Life unscrolls horizontally to encompass a multitude of images in a double interaction of time and space. Ganga Devi's poetic imagery blends beautifully with a plethora of symbolic, magical and natural details rendered in the interstices between the figures and scenes. A young woman, with flaming hairlocks and an ocean-like aura of fine streams of water, stands on a painted magical diagram representing the female organ smeared with menstrual blood, and being given a ritual bath on attainment of puberty, a pregnant mother lies on the ground holding a bunch of mangoes to safeguard her fertility and the child inside her womb anxious to be born, and prays with folded hands, "0 God, release me from this hell"; two women help to deliver and cut the umbilical cord, while the newly-born child lies on freshly-harvested paddy stocks and a pair of parrots make love in the air, indicating genesis. These are immortal images that could have stemmed only from Ganga Devi's great individual perceptions of her collective cultural tradition and her personal artistic capability, unique in the entire Madhubani tradition. In 1985 Ganga Devi visited the United States of America to participate in an exhibition of Indian folk art and culture in Washington. She did not remain aloof to this doosara hi duniya (completely different world) but confronted it with a series of paintings based on her American experience which I shall call, her 'American Series'. She did these in the two years after her return from the USA. She recalled images from her memory of the visual experience of America. The images here were not as exuberant as those of The Cycle of Life, but were more in the nature of minimal graphic symbols. In her Washington Monument, for the first time using a narrative situation, she approached the canvas as a free pictorial space not dividing it up into linear compartments or rows in which sequences are chronologically organised. In the centre of the painting is the Washington Monument surrounded by American flags. The tower and the crossways leading to it automatically divide the painting into four rectangles. The scenes depicted are derived from her memory of the 'Festival of American Folk Life' celebrated annually at the Mall around the fourth of July. The imagery comprising multistoreyed motor cars with lotus wheels (the latter resembling the wheels of chariots in her Ramayana series), a hand coming out of a window handing over a ticket to climb up the Monument; pedestrians carrying flowers and prominent shopping bags; people wearing half-American, half-Indian costumes - all rendered in Madhubani style-gives the painting a realistic quality, as if an American dream painted on a celluloid sheet had been super-imposed upon a distant Madhubani landscape. Another painting of this series is based on her recollection of a ride in a roller-coaster in America. The gravity rail-road, having a train with open cars that moves along a high, sharply winding trestle built with steep inclines producing sudden speedy plunges for thrill, must have been a unique experience to result into such a graphic pictorial expression. The neat drawing of the trestle, the way the heads of passengers rise above the open cars, the way two passengers try to balance while getting on to the train and the eyes of all passengers in the train standing below and the contrast to the passengers in the train speedily climbing a steep slope above results from her great faculty of observation of detail and its pictorialization to minimum graphic images. Ganga Devi had learnt to eliminate formal context in her mythological paintings based on Ramayana. She achieved this by avoiding any definite pictorial reference to worldly settings or a known landscape. Paintings of this series were twice removed from reality (suitable for mythological themes) - the first time because of her own interpretation and conceptualisation of the themes and images, and the second time due to inspiration from the visual aspects of the traditional theatrical performance of Ramleela which by themselves were visual conceptualisations of the narrative. Thus, in the Ramayana painting, in a way, she 'mythologised' the mythology. But in her 'American Series' what she did was something even more brilliant - She mythologised the 'reality'. She attempted to transform the day-to-day images of motor cars, flags, ticket booths, roller-coasters, people carrying shopping bags, into completely imaginary and 'fantastic' objects. She removed them again from any recognisable formal context and stripped them of all their 'familiarity as common object of everyday life. What better course can the work of an Indian artist of Ganga Devi's calibre, truly rooted in the rich tradition of magic, rituals and mythology, take after a sudden exposure to a completely new world, if not come a full circle at another plane of artistic awareness.

Published in the catalogue ‘Drawing ‘94’ by Gallery Espace, 1994
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