BHOPAL: When more than 40 years back, Bhuri Bai, then in her teens, set off for Bhopal from her village in Jhabua district in search of work, she could not have imagined even in her wildest dreams that some day she would become a renowned artist. As luck would have it, she got work at the construction site of Bharat Bhavan as a labourer, where she came in contact with painter J. Swaminathan, who spotted her talent. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The 52-year-old Bhil artist was declared a winner of the Padma Shri this Republic Day. She is also a recipient of the Madhya Pradesh Government's Shikhar Samman, among others.
In a tete-a-tete with Free Press at her home in Bhopal, Bhuri Bai talked about her life's journey and the Pithora Tribal Art.
Here are a few excerpts from the conversation:
What was your reaction when you were informed that Padma Shri has been conferred on you?
I did not know what Padma Shri is. I have been told that it is a big award. On January 25, at around 4 pm, I received a call, probably from Delhi, informing me that I have won an award. Then, from the evening onwards, people started congratulating me on the phone. Local politicians, neighbours, media persons – all came to my home. TV crews and journalists have been crowding my place. I didn't even have a place to seat them.
Tell us something about artistic journey.
I am a Bhil Adivasi and come from a small village in the Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh. More than 40 years back, I had come to Bhopal, along with my husband, relatives and villagers, in search of work. We all started working at a construction site as labourers. At that time, I did not know that the building that was coming up was the Bharat Bhavan. One day, a bearded man came to us and began talking to us about what we used to draw on the walls at our homes in our village. Then, he gave all of us papers and colour and asked us to draw. No one except me did it. He saw what I had drawn and then asked me to stop working on the site and only make paintings for five days. I did and he paid me Rs 50. At that time, I was getting Rs 6 per day as wages. Rs 50 was a big amount for me. Later, I came to know that he was a great artist, Swaminathan ji. He returned after about a year and this time paid me Rs 1,500 for making paintings for ten days. It was a bonanza for me. He was like god for me. I was a labourer. He turned me into an artist.
You are working as an artist at the MP Tribal Museum. How did this come about?
A couple of years later, I fell seriously ill. I was bed-ridden for almost four years. Someone took me to a minister. I told him that I don't have money for my treatment and I would soon die. He acted promptly and I was given a job in MP Adivasi Lok Kala Academy. Later, I was appointed to the Tribal Museum.
What exactly is Pithora art?
It is our traditional art. In Bhil Adivasi villages, when someone has a wish, he promises to Pithora Dev that he would decorate his house with paintings on the Dev if his wish is fulfilled. The paintings are made on walls, which are first covered with layers of cow dung and chalk. We only use two natural colours – geru and chalk. Men and women both draw Pithora paintings but women are not allowed to draw the figure of the Dev. Only men can do it.
So, you too started painting as a child?
Yes. I did not learn it from anyone. It just came to me. I used to paint peacocks, trees, anything that caught my fancy on the walls of my home. I never considered myself an artist. Everyone in the village knew the art.
You didn't go to school?
No one in my village did, at that time. In our village, there was no electricity, no vehicle and no school. The nearest schools were at Jhabua or Dahod (Gujarat). No one went there. People left the village only in search of work. They went to different places, worked as labourers and returned after a few months. That went on year after year.
How has Pithora art changed since then?
Earlier, it was confined to the villages. The outside world knew little about it. But now everyone recognizes it. Now we use acrylic and poster colours to make paintings. They last longer.
Now, are your paintings in demand?
Yes, they are. I have been to Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and many other places where I made my paintings and sold them. But when I travelled to the USA I realised that foreigners appreciate art more than the Indians. They are ready to spend money on buying artworks.
Do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the arts and the artistes?
It has. People don't have money to fulfil their basic needs. Who will buy art in these times? Artistes are starving; no one is purchasing their works. Earlier, foreigners used to come to India and buy artworks. Now, they are also not coming. The government should do something to keep art and the artistes alive.
What are your future plans?
I want that when I am gone, my art should continue to live. So, I have trained my youngest son and all my three daughters-in-law and some of my relatives also in the art. What more can I do? I would continue to paint till I die. Painting is my life.