In an election where caste determines most allegiances, a little deviation comes from a Brahmin household that is widely considered the first family of Bihar’s acclaimed Madhubani painters. Every member of the family is a fan of Nitish Kumar.
“Hum kalakar hain. As artists, we have no connection to politics,” said Mithilesh Jha, grandson of legendary Madhubani painter Sita Devi. “But we appreciate politicians who show respect for art.”
The reason for such a sentiment is spread across the landscape around this village, which lies off the road that connects Madhubani town with Raj Nagar. Along a narrow paved road that winds through small villages, tiny shops in woodsheds spread out their goods like decorative items. A left turn at Lehriaganj and half a kilometre farther take one to Jitwarpur, where artists live in several tiny lanes that branch out of the road.
Mithilesh Jha stood outside his two-storey brick-and-concrete house that opens on the street. “Nitishji is the first chief minister who came looking for us. He visited in January 2012, walked around the village, and asked us how we were,’’ he said. “The concrete lane you see used to be full of dirt. It was laid only after Nitishji’s visit.”
His elder brother Lalan said, “Nitishji also got a house worth Rs 1 crore made.” He was talking about a museum. “The Bihar government built a vishvavidyalaya for Madhubani paintings,” Mithilesh added.
Inside the house is a room where Sita Devi’s achievements — Padma Shri, Bihar Ratna, national and other awards — are on display. Next to a bed stands a blue desk, on which Mithilesh paints. A space carved in a wall is for the gods, which in itself is a colourful Madhumati painting.
And from a picture on the wall, Nitish Kumar looks at Sita Devi’s awards.
“This picture was taken in this room,” Mithilesh said. “There are around 300 artists in this village. Nitish went to the Dalit basti too and met the family of Jamna Devi, who is another national-award winner.”
Jitwarpur is part of Bisfi constituency, where the grand alliance has fielded Dr Fayaz Ahmad of the RJD. Mithilesh described Fayaz as a good leader who has contributed to the education sector. “He runs the best school in Madhubani and is starting a medical college now. He will win,” Mithilesh said. His younger brother Bimlesh is not as confident. “There is a contest,” he said. “Fayaz is a good candidate but Bachool Thakur, who was with the JD(U), would have been a certain winner. I feel he should have got the party ticket.”
Mithilesh and Bimlesh are among five brothers and a sister. “Three of us are artists,” Mithilesh said. “And it is all because of our Dadi. She didn’t teach just us, she taught most of the women in the village, and many became well-known artists.”
Mithilesh described how the family tradition started. “Our grandmother was born in a village in Saharsa. She was the daughter of a landlord,” he said. “When she was a child, potters would come to her home to make idols of Lord Krishna and Radhaji and would then paint them. They would leave some paint behind and our grandmother would use that to paint on the walls,” he added. “Such paintings were done on the walls of our homes for ages. It was a ritual and had religious significance.”
Sita Devi arrived in Jitwarpur after getting married. “My grandfather was very poor. He was a pandit and had very little land. My grandmother continued doing paintings on the walls here.”
He described how the artform expanded from walls to paper. Following a major earthquake in the 1950s, a central government official, Bhaskar Kulkarni, arrived with relief for the village and find ways to help artists here, Mithilesh said. “He had heard about my grandmother.
he had gone to a relative’s home to paint a wall with other women of the village, and Kulkarni went there. Those days, the concept of untouchability was still prevalent. So when the people saw a bearded man looking intently at my grandmother’s painting on the wall, they started beating him up,” he said. “This is when my father, who was a schoolteacher, arrived. Kulkarni explained the reason for his visit, and my father took him home. Kulkarni convinced my grandmother and other women in the village to start painting on paper.”
Sita Devi died in 2005 at the age of 92. She had introduced what is called the Bharni style of Madhubani paintings. “Before her death, she had become an ambassador of Madhubani paintings,” Mithilesh said.
“The art was initially restricted to Brahmin households, but my grandmother taught every villager who came to her. The artists who make Madhubani paintings today are from every jati. If you walk around this village, you will find artists everywhere,’’ he said. “Sita Devi was called mother by everyone in the village”.
In the family, Mithilesh said his wife Neera Devi and his brothers’ wives Mamata Devi and Chanda Devi do Madhubani paintings. “My uncle’s wife Amla Devi too paints,” he said.
“Madhubani paintings gave Bihar a name across the world but it is brokers and not the artists who are running the show now,” Bimlesh said. “If you look at the stalls in Pragati Maidan or Dilli Haat that display Madhubani paintings, you will find that it is the broker who is in control and reaping the benefits. The artists get very little. Besides, these brokers sell fakes, which affects us.”
The family rebuilt the house recently. “It wasn’t done with the earnings from our work. Our father retired as a teacher and he paid from his gratuity,’’ Mithilesh said. “We sell these paintings at Rs 300 to Rs 600. But if you go to a stall in Delhi, you will find them very expensive.”
He made it clear that they have put their faith in Nitish, not the grand alliance he is the face of. “We have no wish to see Lalu’s time again. Those were very bad days,” Mithilesh said. “But nobody can question Nitish Kumar’s work. He did a lot as chief minister; he did a lot for this village too…
“We wish the new government helps this art. Kalakar ki madad ho toh achcha hoga.”