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.

I’ve always hated hospitals and airports. I find them vast and cold, very very cold. I guess it is to do with all the swanky steel and the blinding white light. It is not a cozy place to be in. And I would attribute this inherent dislike to my absolutely Indian sense of aesthetics. Before I am banished off of as someone who loves the hideously carved and highly varnished ‘Indian’ furniture, hear me out. I love the straight lines of FabIndia’s furniture. But give me the same thing in steel and leather and I would run a mile the other way. I’ve always wondered why our architects and interior designers borrowed so much from the West. We have some wonderful materials, a million sources of inspiration and some gifted artisans, yet our recently built public and corporate spaces mirror those in the West.

So when I saw pictures of the T2 terminal in Mumbai, I was elated. Designed by Rajeev Sethi, this is the reminder that we have arrived on the global scene. The way we flaunt our culture in one of the most visible points of the country is our way of telling the world, “Hey, look you are now in one of the most gorgeous countries of the world”. One of the largest art & craft galleries in the world with 7,000 artifacts and works by 1,500 artists, the 3 Km long art walk is a definite incentive to reach the airport much before time.

For someone who works with crafts everyday, this is welcome news. ‘Contemporary’ architects and designers, please take note. We’d gladly help you install some of our country’s most beautiful hand-crafted products and solutions in your projects. Take a pick from 22 different craft clusters, experiment with modern ideas and shed those inhibitions once and for all. We have enough artisans waiting to take up this challenge. Let’s bring our crafts back home. Sharing some pictures of the T2 terminal.

Mumbai airport, CraftCanvas, handicrafts

T2 terminal, Mumbai airport

Inspired by the peacock feather, the entryway is an ode to our National bird

T2 terminal, Mumbai International airport, CraftCanvas, handicraft flooring

Floral pattern on the floor, T2 terminal, Mumbai airport

Marble Inlay, very very Indian

T2 terminal, Mumbai International airport, CraftCanvas, handicraft flooring

Jaali installation

With inspiration from the carvers and carvings in key monuments of various states, a jaali (lattice) installation

T2 terminal, Mumbai International airport, CraftCanvas, Madhubani wall

Madhubani wall installation by Pratik Prabhakar

This is a special one, designed by a friend. As you can see, Madhubani is not all about Ram-Sita or Radha-Krishna. It is contemporary, celebrates our roots and cherishes a collective memory.

Do watch this video on the process. Narrated by Amitabh Bachhan, this one is sure to touch that proud patriotic nerve somewhere.

Video on art and crafts at the T2 terminal, Mumbai International Airport

Rajeev Sethi and GVK, take a bow!


Title: Space surface craft workshop (Madhubani painting)

Date: July 2012

Venue: DICRC, Cept University

Working with interior designers, Madhubani got a new life. A usually 2D format got a 3D makeover, thereby creating another dimension to the already gorgeous art.  The students worked with the artisans for over a week. The end result was a 3D structure that was jointly made by both the artisans and the designers.

For more photographs, click here.

On a cold December afternoon in Bihar, Padmini and I were doing our best to keep ourselves warm. Our back-packs did not allow for elaborate winter clothing and we hoped to get by wearing multiple tee shirts under a thin sweater. It was about 4 pm when we reached the Sikki Sangh, a women’s co-operative in Ratwa. Working with incredible speed and weaving multi-coloured baskets, these women seemed oblivious to the biting chill. Their fingers flew in a kind of rhythm that seemed to warm them while the constant banter distracted their minds away from the cold.

Over a sip of piping hot tea, I addressed :)  the bunch of ‘didis’ (elder sister as we call them here). I gave them drawings of what I expect, the colour combinations that will work and the little details that could go in for the ‘wow’ effect. Using a battery operated emergency lamp, we pored over the designs. Working late on winter afternoon is not a great idea as the sun sets quite early in these parts. So coupled with the erratic power supply, the women prefer starting their day early to weave as many baskets as possible during the sunlit hours. Sometimes during the festival season, the orders are big and they weave at night in their homes. Since the weaving process is intricate, it causes a huge strain on their eyes.

Sikki basket weaving was previously a domestic activity. The women weave baskets from the locally availbale Sikki (golden grass) grass. Though most of the baskets are used to store knick-knacks at home, special ones are woven by the mother to be used as dowry boxes for the daughter.

Little toys are also made for children. The grass is available in abundance during the summer and winter months. Copious rains turn huge areas into swaps where this grass thrives.

Once the rainy season comes to a close, the slowly drying swamps yield piles of grass. This is then dyed with colours and then dried in the sun. Once dry, the grass is cleaned and cut into thin strips that are then woven into baskets, toys, trays, etc.

Some complex designs have been tried. This lamp here was designed by designers from the Jiyo project.

We left Rathwa just when the sun was about to set. It was the end of a long cold day and we were hoping the cheerful faces we left behind and some frantic texting would bring some warmth to our cold fingers.

When folklore and reality are blurred, there is a sense of fantasy that pervades the air. As the local folk point out the forest where Lord Ram met his love Sita for the first time, the smell of fresh flowers, the blushing young girl and the budding romance is clearly audible in their voice. Every corner you turn, there is a relic from an era that for us urban dwellers exists only in mythology. It is explained in a manner of reminiscence, as if the event happened before their eyes. One cannot blame them for it, cause it does happen in front of their their eyes almost everyday. They paint these wonderful scenes on their walls, on paper, on fabric almost everyday. Sometimes Sita’s floral motif skirt is a blue and sometimes a bright green. The change in color depicts the season when the artist painted- the blue flowers that lend their violet-blue shade bloom in the winter.

Madhubani paintings are believed to have originated as a wall adornment during Lord Ram and Sita’s wedding. Sita’s father, King Janak commissioned women from all over the kingdom to paint. The women painted to impress the ‘baraat’ (wedding procession). The area locally referred to as ‘Mithanlanchal’ comprises of the area north of the Ganges and south of the Himalayas. In present day, part of the area falls in Nepal. Janakpur in Nepal is a major centre for this art form.

Madhubani paintings are an essential part of women’s lives in the region. The women use colours from their own garden. They squeeze out the red from berries, grind leaves for green and burn rice in an earthen pot for the deep black. They make brushes using bamboo sticks and paint walls with beautiful motifs of Gods and nature.

The form starts with a border. Once the intricate border has been worked upon, the main motif takes centre stage. Featured above is the  ‘Kohabar’, a ritualistic painting drawn in the marital room. This is where the bride and the groom meet each other for the first time.  Symbols of happiness, fertility, good healthy and prosperity complete the painting. The auspicious symbols like fishes, ‘Kalash’ (a jar of holy water), betel leaves, coconuts and a bride in her wedding finery add finishing touches.

Life in these villages dispels most myths. Even the idea of a mandatory 24 hour power and water seem somewhat excessive. If you can attain happiness with a few hours of electricity, warm your hands on the freshly made oven fueled with cow dung, eat smoking hot ‘bajjiyas’ made from shrubs in the kitchen garden and watch the women paint their breathtaking designs, everything else seems irrelevant. The women here begin their day early. It isn’t easy to fire the stove on cold misty mornings. When all the housework is over and done, the neighborhood women gather together to paint. The colours come from each other’s garden. With advice aplenty from older ‘didis’ and ‘maajis’, the younger ones slowly venture out.

Vimla Devi has been painting as long as she can remember. Her little box contains colours and brushes laid out to suit her style. She labours over her painting for long hours, taking breaks only to offer advice when asked for. She lives in her own world where she witnesses Ram and Sita’s life everyday.

When all these women would paint individually, there weren’t many takers. As they happily receive me, they aren’t sure if I would have come into contact with them if they had still been on their own. Being in a group empowers them to face a world that they have rarely encountered. Married off young, they have never stepped out of the confines of their home. Even their dire circumstances failed to get them out all by themselves. In a group, they are all together. Happily weaving stories and participating in administrative tasks in the office, they have been able to break free from bonds that always relegated to take a place at the end of the system.

As I prepare to leave, the women take down my number. They make sure to call me and check if I reached my hotel safely. So I am a part of that group now. I am happy.

I realised that all my ranting about Madhubani fell on deaf ears. It is not like I have a million readers everyday. But even the ones who diligently read the blog complained. I did not write what Madhubani was all about. I was so busy de-stressing after that hectic week that all I could think of what the baby-sitting, exhibition organizing and paint filling that I did. So please accept my apologies and do read on.

Madhubani is the form of Mithila painting that is done on paper. Mithila paintings originated from the Mithila region,  the ancient cultural region that lies between the lower range of the Himalayas and the Ganges river. Half of this region is in present day Nepal and Janakpur in Nepal is the major hub for the painting.  Madhubani district is the Indian counterpart of Janakpur.

Mythologically speaking, Sita (Lord Ram’s queen) was a Mithila girl. Her father Janak commissioned these artists to paint for the wedding celebrations. Hence these paintings are done for rituals, wedding being the most prominent. Kohabar is the chamber where the bride (usually a child) meets her groom for the first time after marriage. These paintings are part ritual and part suggestive. Their major theme revolves around love and fertility which references taken from Ramayana, Mahabharata and the local folklore.

Since the region is predominantly agricultural and flooding in the monsoons brings in a lot of snakes, snakes are worshipped for protection. This theme is also widely present in their paintings.

The caste system in Mithila determines your form of art. Originally done only by Maithil brahmin women, this art remained within the confines of the home. The women married early, lived in the ancestral home of their in-laws and did not step outside the courtyard. So this painting form done on the walls of their home is a form of expression for the women. They paint mostly religious characters, but add in them their own little identities. Painting was only done on the walls using colours that were extracted from local materials. Gandhiji’s khadi weaving set the trend for the painting on paper. His movement enabled women to work from home. This sort of empowerment was necessary in monetary terms as well. Repeated droughts and floods caused low agricultural yields. So money from selling paintings came to the rescue. The women from the Kayastha community followed suit and the Harijan women took it up only in the 60s.

The form of painting varies depending on the caste. The Brahmin women paint bright colored figures, the Kayastha used only outlines while the Harijan women specialize in tattoo(Godna) paintings.

For the interested ones, here are couple of other interesting links.


Madhubani on the Nepal side- 

It has been a rather hectic month. I spent the first part trying to figure out train tickets, accommodation and making boxes. Making boxes is not an easy task. All those tutorials on ehow and wikihow never expose you to the reality of explaining the same to the local carpenter. I had a tough time getting a hundred boxes done and ready with a nice smooth finish on the top.

The Madhubani artists(Naveen and Pooja) were going to be here and I had to ensure that everything went off smoothly. I am a stickler for detail and I constantly stress myself about little things. Add to it the proscrastinator in me, you have the perfect recipe for last minute rush, mouth ulcers (6 of them!!) and sleepless nights. Blogging was almost at the end of the list of things-to-do. Well almost, cause after that came a list of house-work. So after a debacle of train tickets, I  managed to get them to Ahmedabad 3 days late!  I heaved a big sigh of relief as I got that 6 am call that they have reached Ahmedabad.

We started off with the workshop at CEPT. DICRC is the Design Innovation and Craft Resource Centre at the university and they do some kick-ass work. A perfect platform that facilitates the marriage between traditional crafts and new ideas. And what better than Interior Architecture to use these splendid craft forms! :) So the first 4 days zipped past with coverage in 3 newspapers :), loads of new and interesting design work and of course a lot of fun. It is amazing how a designer can influence a different thought process to an already existing idea. The designers worked on using the artisans knowledge of the 2D form into a 3D form. The results were stunning.

After the workshop, we got down to the rest of the task. Painting boxes! Since I am always looking at introducing crafts in everyday life, I decided to tackle that ugly looking pack of tissues lying in every home. So I decided to make tissue box holders that will cover that ugly of a home and bring it centre stage. And I used it for a party at home. I sold a few right there! :)

So while I was babysitting the artisans’ 4 year old daughter, cooking up games every half hour, boiling the milk to the right temperature for her, putting her to sleep and keeping an hawk eye on things in my home, the couple painted away. They talk in hushed tones to each other (not necessary considering I don’t understand their language anyways!), sing little songs and have a great time together. It is interesting to see that camaderie, one that comes only out of knowing each other well and doing something that they so love together. It is like their work cements their love even better, as she blushes at a compliment from him about the fish she painted.

Together (I pitched in after day 2 as I realised that it is not an easy task), we filled every box with something interesting. A box where the couple hold hands was Pooja’s favourite as she relates every character to her life! Phew! :) I had to fight to keep some monotones as Naveen disapprovingly looks at the lack of colour.

So as 41 boxes were painted, we decided to call it a day. The couple took their 4 year old out to have ice-cream and finally boarded the train with a whole lot of memories. I switched on the AC, cleared the paint mess all over my floor and collapsed on the bed happy and content. I know selling it is another story. But for now I am happy to see so much color in my life. One thing at a time.

For ones who want to order, please check this link.


This one is atleast 6 months pending. I’ve always wanted a Japanese style sit down table. Memoirs of Geisha and Nabinkumar’s vist to Ahmedabad rekindled that desire and I set out to make one. I picked up wood from a saw mill, gave it to my carpenter (who by then was used to my quirky demands) and he made the table top in a few hours. The primer was done and after a night of drying, I got Nabin to paint. Nabin comes from a family of Madhubani painters. Both his mother and sister are national award winning artistes. He is also very good and it makes me wonder how good the ladies must be!

A big fan of the peacock motif, I knew all the while what I wanted. I was surprised at myself at the choice of base colors. I am not known for subtlety in colors at all :) It took Nabin 4 days to slowly finish the entire painting. He insisted on doing up the centre, but I wanted to use a runner. So there wasn’t any point.

My carpenter finished up with the base. The table height was decided after much deliberation. And the impatient one that I am, I missed the varnishing step and started using it.


Some floor cushions, bolsters and pretty pretty Dabu printed fabric, my dining area is the coolest spot in my home. This is where I work (at times), read, eat and entertain. A hanging light is pending here, just waiting for that right inspiration to strike me! :)