11 September 2015

Kohbar Ghar: Memories of a past that once belonged to us

In 1968, the Vietnam War was beginning to slide into a quagmire for the US. Most campaigns were labelled as successes, however, their real value was uncertain. In one such campaign, after US bombing destroyed the town of Ben Tre, a US Army spokesperson statement remarked to AP war correspondent, Peter Arnett: "It became necessary to destroy the town to save it". 
Some 47 years later, a similar thought has been echoed by Indian government apparatchiks in a different context: Murals of Madhubani painting crafted by the iconic Ganga Devi have been whitewashed at New Delhi's National Crafts Museum in an attempt to resurrect and beautify the museum!
The murals were made by Ganga Devi in her last years while she was on cancer chemotherapy. This was a distraction for her from the pain she was undergoing. However, painting for Ganga Devi, as for millions of women of Mithila, was a sacred ritual - something that you do everyday that connects you to the higher being. The theme of the paintings were religious but in a very personal way. It was not for instant gratification or supplication but a celebration of the everyday life as a gift of god. One of the themes of Madhubani paintings is, Kohbar or the bridal chamber. This elaborate painting is done in the bridal chamber as an auspicious sign for the young couple. While the "Kohbar Ghar" murals by Ganga Devi attracted immense attention due to their high quality,  such paintings have been made on the walls of almost every home of Mithila region at the time of weddings. 
I remember a carefully preserved sketch of Kohbar made by my grandmother for one of my aunt's wedding. It was initially rendered on the mud walls of the home and later copied diligently on paper for the benefit of people like us who had moved away and visited home few and far in between. She insisted on drawing with the tools she was most comfortable with - thin sticks dipped in home made colours. I, as a kid, was not even allowed near it lest I might damage it. That painting incidentally is the only recollection I have of my grandmother. My other source of knowledge about my own cultural heritage was a book by a French journalist, Yves Vequaud. Again, this book was carefully preserved perhaps as a premonition that soon all that would be left of this art would be photographs of the paintings. 
While today Madhubani paintings are ubiquitous at airports, art fairs and even on T shirts and bed spreads, the context of the paintings have gradually been lost. Few, if at all, paint it on the walls of their homes as an everyday activity. Madhubani, as a living folk art has vanished and has been replaced by commercialised art industry. So, while the social media derides the bureaucrats who whitewashed the Kohbar Ghar of National Crafts Museum, the real culprits are us, who have traded anti seepage paints over Madhubani on the walls of our homes.
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