Madhubani in Bihar, a busy town close to the Narhi Park of Study and Reflection featured on Pressenza recently [1] is renown across India for its special Madhubani art form that has remained the prerogative of certain kinds of narratives revolving around the Hindu epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. However, a young Dalit woman has risen above the traditional by introducing Buddha’s life stories into the visual imagery.

Tracing events over Buddha’s life, even from before his birth to his Mahaparinirvana, Malvika Raj from Samastipur in Bihar is building a folklore from Buddha’s epoch in the Madhubani painting genre.

Usually, seekers find stories of Krishna, Sita or other figures from Hindu mythology in Madhubani paintings, besides depictions of nature. Representation of Dalit symbols including Buddha is new.

While the motifs, technique and style in Malvika’s paintings is within the tradition of Madhubani style, the content shows a remarkable shift from the Hindu narratives of Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Also, while art has that inherent quality to combine innovation with advancement, not everybody looks on what she is accomplishing with delight. Her paintings were welcomed for display at Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai, it was reported in The Hindu newspaper, but locally in Bihar questions had to be faced.

The newspaper tells readers that she says, “I remember a day in Patna Art College where I was exhibiting my paintings; a guy in saffron robe walked in and without even viewing all my paintings, he started irritating me with his nasty comments as how can I divert Madhubani from its original forms of Hindu gods and goddesses to Buddha and offered several other prejudiced

Malvika played these negative comments down saying that she painted Buddha stories in Madhubani because first of all Buddha stays in her heart. Though, the initial reason might well be her father who is a Buddhist. As a child she often heard stories about Buddha and his teaching. Later she studied literature related to Buddhist teaching.

Malvika’s father, Bahujan Samaj Party General Secretary from the area, encourages her and when there is an exhibition, sits nearby all day with the security guards to keep both treasures safe, his daughter and her paintings.

She values his support and knows full well that if she did not have such a dad she might not have been able to paint and exhibit at all – had she been a regular Dalit woman without that valuable extra!

Another reason she gives for adopting Buddha’s life, his teachings and his perspective in the paintings is simply because otherwise no one would find Buddha stories in Madhubani paintings. After all, Bihar is adjacent to Nepal where Buddha originated as Sakyamuni Gautama.

She intends completing an entire series on Buddha and that is her priority but not forgetting her particularity, she is also training young Dalit girls of Bihar in the art. There is not a big market for the art but Malvika thinks it is a worthwhile endeavour.

She also told The Hindu newspaper, “I am a feminist and I strongly support women’s empowerment but Dalit women are considerably lagging behind in this movement and unable to move shoulder to shoulder along with other women in every walk of life as they are facing three-fold inequality and suppression – first, they are Dalits; next, they are women and lastly, the majority are uneducated and poor.”

She is a graduate from the National Institute of Technology (NIFT) Mohali. Malvika’s
interest in painting was brought on by her sister from childhood, though her elder sister left off art and ended up as an engineer. A politician, an engineer and an artist – pretty good!