That epithet was given to the then 25-year-old Manisha Jha by the towering Indian cultural historian, Kapila Vatsayan for that Madhubani painter… and how prophetic she was!
Madhubani Railway Station, Mithila, Bihar… at one time arguably among the shabbiest, dirtiest railway stations in India… with walls used as spittoons by the paan chewers, and that is to say the least.
But then, a few years ago, local artists gathered and started first white washing and then painting the walls – all of 14,000 square feet, with the rich – often startling – Mithila art style, termed as Madhubani art.
Today, that once ugly railway platform has transformed itself into not just as one of the tidiest and neatest, but also aesthetically the richest public places in the country.
Let us get a few mundane facts clear at first: it was an initiative of the Indian Railways, seized and sponsored by the state government of Bihar, in keeping with the much touted ‘Swachh Bharat’ campaign.
More than 225 artists, 80 per cent of them women, volunteered to paint the station free of cost, and set a world record: 14,000 sqft of wall with classical Indian painting.
That is all very fine, as one would say, but what triggered that transition? Why was Madhubani station not just cleaned up and whitewashed to merely clean it up?
Why is Madhubani painting adorning the walls of a once shabby, dirty railway station of Bihar?
The answer is one name: Manisha Jha.
It was perhaps one spectacular and concrete way to make the young aware of the tradition the state is known for, adored more abroad but forgotten at home!
Because the GenNext in Bihar may not know, but the only Mithila Museum in the world is not in India, but in Japan!
Madhubani is today an international craze. But why?
And who is responsible for that? Who inspired this bringing on to the world platter an art form from a small part of Bihar?
The answer is one name: Manisha Jha.
But who is she?
In her very first attempt at displaying her works at the India International Centre in New Delhi, more than 25 years ago, Manisha won accolades many artists could die for.
None other than the leading scholar of Indian classical dance, art, architecture, and art history, Kapila Vatsayan complimented the then 25-year-old Manisha Jha with her “She is the future of art,” comment.
Manisha also attracted the rather saddening parochial approach of the national media as “the first English speaking Madhubani painter”.
And since then, the architect-cum-artist Manisha Jha has never looked back.
Indian youth would be delighted to know that many of the foreign brands’ logos across the world sport a Madhubani design by Manisha Jha.
She also works on fabric, furniture and jewellery for numerous brands and advertising agencies from around the world.
The inherent contradiction is that despite such eulogies, accolades and pecuniary rewards from art aficionados from foreign climes, our very own artists, who could transform a spittoon of railway station into an art heritage, remain unrewarded at home
And it is not a small matter that she not only tours Europe and the US giving lectures and demonstrations, but her designs and logos are sought after by huge global brand like Peter England and GE.
But the inherent contradiction is that despite such eulogies, accolades and pecuniary rewards from art aficionados from foreign climes, our very own artists, who could transform a spittoon of railway station into an art heritage, remain unrewarded at home.
This injustice meted out toher art form and to her fellow artists triggered a sense of unease in Manisha.
She then decided to take up the cudgels ‑along with some like-minded supporters that included the artistic community ‑to promote Madhubani art in a concerted effort.
Art’s Umbilical Cord
Born in Satlakha in Madhubani district, Manisha grew up observing her grandmother and mother perform puja (prayers) every month, when they would offer the Arpan, a local art form.
Manisha and her two sisters would often put sindoor(vermilion) and other colours into those art works to help their mothers and aunts.
After completing her schooling, Manisha earned a Diploma in Interior Designing and Display from the New Delhi Polytechnic for Women.
Manisha later graduated in architecture from the Institute of Environmental Design in Vallabh Vidyanagar, Gujarat, a western Indian state.
She finds no dichotomy between architecture and art.
“Architecture is the mother of all arts,” she says with pride.
But then, Manisha has not just revived Mithila’s traditional art form.
She has been tirelessly working to document the sacred text that encompasses the origin, history, growth and development of a folk art.
She doesn’t take the credit for its revival, though.
“It was British art historian William George Archer who first photographed Madhubani in the early 1930s.
“It’s true that foreign buyers played a significant role in taking Madhubani art to the West, but our growth in contemporary days would not be possible without the Indian government’s patronage,” she admits.
Manisha especially thanks the then Indian premier late Indira Gandhi, who gave Pupul Jaykar, admittedly India’s ‘art Czarina’, a free hand to organise the Festival of India in many European countries.
The festivals of India series put Indian folk art firmly in the fancy of a global audience.
About six months ago, when she, along with other artists, exhibited her works at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in the Capital, almost every visitor did a double take and exclaimed: “We never knew that Madhubani is so varied and is also contemporised”.
Madhubani paintings have been traditionally done using fingers, twigs, brushes, nib-pens and even matchsticks.
It also is done with natural dyes and is characterised by its eye-catching geometrical patterns that depict ritualistic customs and traditions meant for particular occasions.
“We call it Likhya (written painting) and so, it can use various different ways of expression,” Manisha told East India Story.
And while women do these paintings on all religious occasions, monsoon is their favourite season that inspires them most.
For it is in monsoon that the newlywed bride in Bihar shows herself in a flourish, wearing the best attire.
Manisha’s current project is“ Madhushravani” – a coffee table book – in which she is documenting the oral narratives of Bihar, including the Madhushravani festival, Ramayan and Mahabharat as narrated in the villages across Mithila.
Coming from a male, feudalistic cultural and historical background, it is of pertinence that this is the first time a woman artist is penning such a book.
“All the other books on art have been written by researchers, scholars and academicians, that too, all men,” smiles Jha.
As the founder of Madubani Art Centre, which she established in 2003, Manishais on yet another mission to support many young women from small hamlets such as Ranti, Chakdah, Simri, Satalakha, Bhojpandaul and Purnia.
The target is for them to become economically independent.
And she can show the way, for she is globally the first Madhubani artist to represent India at the International Folk Art Market from 2015 through 2018.
And she created the logo of the International Folk Art Festival held in Santa Fe, USA – 2016.
She has also exhibited in countries like USA, Russia, Canada, Mauritius, France and Austria.
And what keeps her going relentlessly ‑despite a constant battle with authorities‑is an unending quest for experimenting with Madhubani.
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Arnab has been a journalist and a keen film enthusiast, and has worked with some of the leading national dailies like Times of India, Hindustan Times and Mail Today. He has been a business journalist and later focussed on features specialising in stories on music, films, music & film personalities; art, culture, books, and social issues.