When we talk about folk art and culture of Bihar, none other names than Maharathi Ji comes in mind. There is no need to complete the name since such respectful whispers can be only directed at Upendra Maharathi, a self-effacing genius who died in 1981 after decades of prolific creative output.
Despite having become a part of Bihar’s folklore and being a Padma Shree recipient, Maharathi has been the most underrated and much less highlighted artist than many of his contemporaries, including Nandalal Bose. But, this lack of comparable visibility can perhaps be attributed to his approach to creativity.
Having joined the Calcutta School of Art in 1925 and studied there till 1931, he was deeply influenced by the artistic idiom of the Bengal School and later with several others during his artistic journey; Orissa’s folk art and culture, Madhubani paintings, the tribal art of Chhotanagpur and some others. Then there was Nandlal Bose himself, who had a significant presence in the area of handicrafts. This played a major role in shaping Maharathi’s vision while he worked for the promotion and preservation of folk arts.
Maharathi’s creative vision is mesmerizing. While doing a pencil sketch of Birsa Munda, the tribal leader, in 1938, he imparted to the eyes an expression that makes the effect unforgettable. Apparently inspired by the Santi Niketan school, his memorable painting of Lord Buddha in 1954 is based on the well-known saying of the prophet: “Oh Ananda, if you see the prosperity of Vaishali you can imagine the prosperity of Heaven.” This painting is remarkable for the subtle interplay of tones, and Vaishali’s affluence is represented by the meticulous exposition of surroundings. Then, there are his paintings of Shiva’s “Tandava”, a celestial dance and a metaphor for creation through destruction; his vision of Buddha preaching the “sangha” of “bhikshus”; the journey of Ganges through Lord Shiva’s locks; his portrait of Mahatma Gandhi which brought to the creation an expressive simplicity matched by few.
He wasn’t a romantic who lived in the cocoon of his own creations while delinked from the cadence of the world outside. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, he involved himself with the textile industry, creating elegant artistic designs in the process. He worked with wood, bamboo and other similar materials, using them with his aesthetic sense to develop creations with heightened levels of beauty and charm. His sojourns at places like Bodhgaya and Rajgir contributed to his creative perspective; and so did his visit to Japan in 1954 where local art enhanced the expanse of his improvisation and enabled to acquire expertise in the areas of ceramics and lacquer works. In 1955, he founded the Institute of Industrial Research to encourage folk crafts.
Maharathi was an artist whose contribution none can condone, and especially at a time when the average artist seems to have transformed into a creative chamber of commerce, minting paintings and money at the same time.
NOTE: Unfortunately, we do not find much detailed research material, audio-visual documentation or documentaries on various profiles of the Upendra Maharathi’s journey of art, creativity and contribution in the art history of Bihar, especially, folk art. We must take care of this attention.
(As published on NGMA website.)