Research Scholar, JNU, New Delhi
Dalit art evolved as a mode of resistance and protest. It tries to historically trace the origin and the seriousness of caste discrimination. Dalit artists across India have picked up themes, which invoke a deep sense of contemplation and is a representation of critical issues of domination, discrimination, and oppression encompassing the triple oppression faced by a Dalit woman. In the region of Mithila women from two sub-castes among the Dalit community had mastered the art of Mithila painting, which was different from paintings by upper castes women. These women belonging to Dusadh and Chamar community had developed their own distinct style of paintings and various new themes were included.
The credit for Dalit inclusion in Mithila Paintings goes to a German anthropologist, Erika Moser having inspired and guided Dusadh women back in 1978 to embrace the art and start writing a new chapter of their social recognition and economic independence. The German anthropologist filmmaker and social activist Erika Moser persuaded the impoverished Dusadh community to paint. The result was the Dusadh captured their oral history (such as the adventures of Raja Salhesh, and depictions of their primary deity, Rahu) — typified by bold compositions and figures based on traditional tattoo patterns called Godna locally. This added another distinctive new style to the region’s flourishing art scene.
With the financial support of Moser and Raymond Lee Owens along with land in Jitwarpur donated by Anthropologist Erika Moser, the likes of Dr. Gauri Mishra spearheaded the setting up of the Master Craftsmen Association of Mithila in 1977. This association was very active during the lifetime of Owens and worked in tandem with the Ethnic Arts Foundation of USA. Empowered by the words of an educated European woman and her other operational help, Dusadh women started to embark on their own journey of Mithila paintings and their rewarding experience. In the coming days this art and its practice would give a lot of confidence to hitherto downtrodden members of the Dusadh community raising their self-esteem to participate in more empowering political movements and discourses.
This style of Painting was started by Jamuna Devi, by basically giving the paper a light Gobar (Cow dung slurry) wash to give it a beautiful sullying look and feel on which bright colors often come out very beautifully. From the caste perspective, it’s important to note that unlike other scheduled castes of Jitwarpur village like the Malis, the Pasis, Doms, and Dhobi who all stuck to their traditional professions, the Chamars and the Dusadhs have forayed into the full-time profession of Mithila Painting.
Jamuna Devi thus started a new and distinctive style of painting, which in coming times attained huge recognition and demand in commercial markets besides being emulated by painters from the upper caste as well. Holi colors on cow-dung paper imparted an unusual brightness to her paintings making Jamuna Devi shot into prominence with her mud frescos and paintings reserving a place in big exhibitions of Japan, New Delhi, Patna and Varanasi. Roudi Paswan, Jitwarpur, husband of artist Chano Devi played a significant role in the evolution of Godana paintings. Introduction of natural colors, stories of local deities such as Rahu, Govinda, and Salhes, Gobar style, tattoo motifs, and contemporary themes by the Dusadhs gave a huge distinctive appeal and beauty too.
Men from the region were also instrumental in helping women folks to produce masterpieces. Ramvilas Paswan from village Laheriagunj and Roudi Paswan of village Jitwarpur were the forces behind these innovations in Dalit paintings. Their occupation as the local priests of the Dusadhs helped Dalit women get a hang of their own cultural history and know the gods like Salhesa and Rahu better.
The evolution of Tattoo Paintings can be traced back by studying the ritual and habits of the Nat Community. Natins, the women folks of this community have been master tattooers for a long time. Dalit women from Bihar have used Godna as an idiom to make an elevated sense of Dalit emancipation, which they explain in terms of the annihilation of caste and the restoration of manuski [dignity to themselves], Dalit women in the Madhubani district of Bihar express their pain through the idiom of Godna to Dalit emancipation, which they explain in ‘annihilation of caste and restoration of mansuki (Dignity to themselves).
Godna originally meaning the art of tattooing was adopted particularly in the provinces of Bihar and Bengal, to imprint the prisoners as well as demonstrate an upper caste distinction. Historian Claire Anderson, researched and claimed that most of these tattoos were made by lower-caste illiterate women who use to draw creative patterns and numbers on upper caste bodies, ordered by the imperial authorities. However, the history of Godna lies in the discrimination suffered by the Dalit women, when they were forced to wear ornaments of iron and inferior materials as prescribed by the Manu code. Tattooing was thus seen as an inversion of that prescription that marked distinction from the lower caste in the public. Godna, was not only seen as the inversion of markers of identification for the Dalit women but was also viewed as an attractive alternative to forms of subaltern expression for these women.
The early designs of tattoo paintings were simple black & white figure like the way on human bodies and they mostly revolved around the auspicious images and onuses thought to be lucky in Nat Community. This is where the contribution of Chano Devi, the early star of Godan (Tattoo) Paintings is remarkable. Under her husband’s guidance, she started depicting the life histories of Salhesa to add meanings to the tattooShanti and Chano Devi also started to experiment with natural colors in order to create more distinctive style. These colors later became the main identifier of Dalit Godana paintings.
Falling in line other painters started to abandon the use of Holi colors in favor of natural colors and thus a new full-fledged style of Colorful Godana (tattoo) paintings came into the limelight. These natural colors mostly came from cow-dung bases and leaves, flowers, vegetables, barks, and roots. The journey of Dalit Paintings from Gobar Paintings to the Godana Paintings finally established Dusadhs and Chamar Caste women in the field of folk art. Thus, the evolution of Dalit art came as a mode of resistance as it is evident and marked the creation of social space for themselves in the cultural hierarchy of the society.