What most strongly permeates the online exhibition of Bhil folk artist, illustrator, and muralist, Bhuri Bai " currently on view at Bangalore's Museum of Art and Photography (MAP)'s website " is her artistic voice, both in the form of her memories and her art. Born in the 1960s, Padma Shri awardee Bai is the first woman from her Bhil community to paint on paper and canvas, shifting away from the traditional mud walls of village homes; she now lives and works independently in Bhopal, being an official resident artist employed by the Madhya Pradesh State Tribal Museum. This four-part exhibition presents her remarkable personal and artistic journey from being a daily wage worker and a local indigenous artist, to an internationally recognised practitioner of Bhil art.
The first part is purely autobiographical and composed of select paintings from a series that MAP had commissioned in 2018; the second segment features a timeline that traces her work as a painter beginning in the 1980s after her meeting with artist and writer Jagdish Swaminathan, combining commentary by Bai with a selection of paintings and documentary photographs. The third segment presents a commissioned film which shows her making a painting while reminiscing about her life and reflecting on the evolution of her style. The exhibition then ends with a presentation of select works from the MAP collection.
BHURI BAI, Untitled, c 2018 Poster color on paper
"Since so much of her work is autobiographical, her paintings inspired by her life, it becomes a redundant exercise if we do not involve her in telling her story," says Nathaniel Gaskell, one of the three curators who have put together this exhibition, adding that her work has previously not been approached in such a manner. The exhibition makes the approach clear from the outset, noting that while Bai mentions that there have been many exhibition catalogues, books and articles about her over the years in Hindi and English, due to being unable to read, she has only accumulated them without ever knowing what has been said on her behalf; curators often not reaching out to her for various reasons. Another fact that emerges from the timeline section is how Bai got to know her work was exhibited at Maison Guerlain, Paris, in November 2014 only when the MAP research team mentioned it to her, reflecting how, like many other artists from marginalised groups, her work is often exhibited without her knowledge. "Part of this is laziness on part of institutions abroad, they don't do their research properly and also, there are not as many repercussions of not speaking to her," Gaskell points out, Bhuri Bai being part of marginalised and non-mainstream art communities not considered to be having a particularly active voice.
BHURI BAI, Untitled, c 1980 Poster colour on paper
This exhibition, however, focuses on Bai narrating her own story, rather than someone else doing it for her. Born in Pithol village at the border of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, the first section of the exhibition is a revealing glimpse into her childhood, which she describes as being "tough as it was peaceful" and the intimate connections she forged with the surrounding forest and its natural resources for "food, water, and play." Getting married at the age of sixteen and moving to Bhopal afterward would radically change the course of her life. Working as a daily wage worker for six rupees a day at Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal, Bai's encounter with Swaminathan would later set her off on a journey which would make art her livelihood, and help her develop a unique style.
Gaskell says that it was very much a collaborative effort on part of him and his colleagues, Shrey Maurya and Mustafa Khanbai, in putting the exhibition together, intent on the curatorial voice being in the background. "We also wanted the exhibition to be educational and the timeline reveals an extra layer of research and facts about her life," he says, adding that there is suggested reading material at the end for the viewers to provide them additional academic and art historical knowledge, and care has been taken to make it the secondary as opposed to primary focus of the exhibition. "We hope that viewers will take away an enjoyment of her art, which we feel is quite accessible and radiates joy," Gaskell says of the exhibition viewing experience, adding that they also hope that the incredible life that Bhuri has led and her compelling story will empower other as well. Finally, he mentions that the exhibition will also ideally inspire debate about how institutes present works of artists from marginalised communities, promoting newer ways of curating which are more collaborative.
This careful mapping of Bai's life and art is a result of hours and hours of audio interviews conducted with her over the course of a few days in October last year. What emerges vividly from these conversations are both the changing contours of her journey as well as the evolution of her painting style itself. "While her inspiration remains traditional Bhil art forms, what is also evident that she is also very much a contemporary independent artist," Gaskell points out. Keeping up with the altering landscape of her world, Bai incorporates markers of contemporary markers into her art, whether it be cars or airplanes. It takes her a while to move away from the earthy pigments of her childhood towards modern day synthetic colours, the latter animating her works with a radically different palette. "Bhuri's style has also evolved according to the market demands, noticeable in details such as the spacing of dots becoming denser, for example," Gaskell says. In the film made by Faraway Originals, which depicts Bai painting a work from start to finish, one of the team-members, Pankaj Singh mentions how she became wistful at the idea of moving away from her earlier style and wanted to return to it; the film will in fact show her making the work in her original style.
Bai's own voice conveying the essence of her exhibition further adds to the understanding of her works. Speaking over the phone from Bhopal, she tells me that it is crucial to speak to the artist about the works they have created. "After all, who else but the artist can answer the questions about the significance of individual paintings?" she emphasises. From being initially hesitant and intimidated when encountering brush and poster paints, Bai says that with "the ashirward [blessing] of Swaminathanji, I have been able to create and advance my art, leaving behind my daily wage worker days". Given that she was the first woman to have reached the stature that she has, what has been the response of the men in her community? Bai mentions that only male head priests in her community are permitted to paint murals featuring their chief deity, Pithora Baba, and associated horse imagery. "I neither paint the deities nor the horses that are worshipped," she specifically emphasises, adding that she instead paints horses which are not object of puja, trees, peacocks or bullock carts, for example. Her words indicate that by not painting religious imagery and instead focusing on other specific subjects, she is neither offending the community's male artists nor the gods. "Everyone is very proud and happy of the way I have advanced the art," she says, referring to her community, village folks, and her in laws; her late husband was greatly supportive and later became an artist himself. A mother of six, she has taught her art to her children as well; her two daughters, younger son, and daughter-in-law practising the art. "I greatly wish that my life journey will inspire others in my community to practice and continue with their art, their hard work will surely bear fruit," she says.
Her art also conjures up the forest that she inhabited and from which she says she derived her palette and artistic inspiration. What with the destruction of the jungle and the eco-system gradually being erased away, she laments the cutting down of trees, likening it to that of humans being cut down. "Where will either humans or animals seek shade or refuge if the trees are not there?" she wonders. Her works therefore not only become a record of her extraordinary life and journey but also offer a unique glimpse into the natural universe she emerged from. That world may be vanishing but through Bhuri's words and art, we find ourselves vicariously inhabiting it in all its hues and textures.
All images courtesy of the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), Bengaluru.