Narmada Chachi

For one of our recent projects, we invited a three Madhubani artisans from Bihar. Their train was late and since the ladies had never been to Ahmedabad, I went to fetch them from the railway station. I was surprised to find that the leader of the group was a wizened old lady. While I dropped her at the hotel, she refused to give her thumb impression insisting that can sign the register. And she wrote Narmada Devi in English, a lilting handwriting that is typical of someone who has been a painter all her life.

Narmada chachi (aunt) as everyone fondly calls her is the president of the self help group. Her grown up sons are married and live in cities while she lives in the village with her husband. While we often hear stories of male dominance and abuse towards women, this lady tells a different story. Her husband encouraged her to paint. He manages the household when she is away chaperoning the young apprentices in her charge.

As the grand old lady manages the group, orders materials from all over the country, deals with clients and allocates work to the team, she leads by example.

Take a bow, chachi!

Shanti Devi, Madhubani

Shanti Devi is a single mother of three children. Her husband was bed ridden since the time their kids were barely in school. She educated her children and got them (and now her grand-daughter whose father is a good for nothing fellow) married and settled in, built her family home and is the matriarch in the real sense. And all this in a tiny village in Bihar where in 2012, I had to walk the last couple of kilometres as there were no paved roads.

A Madhubani artisan by profession, she paints to support her family. And at 60 (approximately, as she cannot recall her age), she continues to do so. For someone this spunky and full of vigour, her paintings reflect the same. She unapologetically paints Draupadi‘s de-robing in the Mahabaratha while cracking the most sexually laced jokes. Her wicked sense of humour and forthrightness is her signature.

When she talks about the tough phase of her life, she recounts the patriarchy in her village. Every home has Madhubani painters and the ones with husbands willing to chaperone them get the best opportunities. She had to struggle against such odds to set herself up in her profession. When she was painting a pandal in West Bengal, she heard of her husband’s demise. She got her son to take her place immediately. She did not allow him time to grieve. A practical woman, she says that she always knew that this day would come. But the living need to survive.

I have the education and the exposure to be the person that I am. I wonder if I would have stood up to such a thing if circumstances were different. So here’s to the real feminist, the one who doesn’t claim to be one.