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Carrying the Gond art tradition forward, Durga Bai is an example of how passion can break barriers and overcome challenges.
Sultana’s Dream is a highly original novel by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain that neatly turns the concept of purdah on its head. Much ahead of its time (it was written a hundred years ago), recently, Durga Bai created an illustrated version of Sultana’s Dream, published by Tara Books.
Her work is deeply rooted in her birthplace, Burbaspur, a small village in the Dindori district in Madhya Pradesh (place name corrected).
At the young age of five, when most children play with toys, Durga Bai used to dip her fingers in the beauty of coloured liquid clay. Her journey of carrying the Gond art tradition across the globe is one of the most inspiring stories of rural women that I have come across.
Tell me a little about yourself, and your work – how did you begin working as an artist?
Durga Bai: Every child hears stories. In fact, stories and folktales form the strong basis of one’s living. My grandmother was a central figure in my life – I always enjoyed listening to the numerous stories she would recite describing events, lives, situations and moral lessons. I never went to school and so I was always grateful to her for sharing the stories of the Gond Pardhan community.
I was six years old when I used to sit beside my mother and learn the art of digna, the traditional designs painted on the floors and walls of houses during weddings and other festivities. The whole process of plastering the wall with cow dung and, forming colours using haldi (turmeric) and other natural ingredients mixed with clay was very exciting for me.
The village folk loved my skills and I was always in great demand. I often used to forget the sorrows of life through the floral patterns and creatures I drew.
I got married to Subhash Vyamat the age of 15. He was a clay and wood sculptor and had already established himself as an artist. We lived in a small village and my husband used to encourage me to paint. My subjects mostly revolved around the goddesses of protection, food, prosperity etc.
Soon we shifted to Bhopal where I was pushed by a few people to take my art forward. With three children (two daughters and a son), living in Bhopal was a big decision we took.
The Lok Kala Parishad appreciated my work and I was invited to display my work at the Bharat Bhawan Camp where one of my paintings was acquired by a collector. From there, my journey as an artist began as I moved and participated in almost every adivasi art exhibition from Delhi to Indore to Dehradun and even Mumbai.
From caste issues to children books, from women’s stories to my own life, I have illustrated whatever has affected me.
Since then, I have worked with many publishers and received awards from many countries. From the Handicraft Development Council in India to the Bologna Rahazzi award in Italy, from the Rani Durgavati National award to IGNCA Scholarship, I am happy that our adivasi painting skills have been acknowledged.
From caste issues to children books, from women’s stories to my own life, I have illustrated whatever has affected me. Today, the count of books we have illustrated is 11. It has not only helped me to earn money and a life, but I am glad we have carried the Gond tradition ahead.
How did you come to work on Sultana’s Dream?
Durga Bai: At the Pragati Maidan in Delhi, Tara Books invited me to a workshop in Chennai and soon I was there saying, “Mujhe kahaani do, mai chitra banaungi” (Give me a story and I will illustrate it for you).
When I was asked by Tara Books, if I wanted to illustrate a story for them, I was both excited and a little scared. One my biggest challenges has been illiteracy. Since I can’t read and write, my illustrations are based on what I have in my head and from the stories I hear. But my husband was very supportive and helped me with the process. He would sit beside me and recite the story sentence by sentence as I illustrated it.
What did the experience leave with you?
Durga Bai: The story of Sultana was beautiful to illustrate – Sultana’s Dream is a woman’s story; a story about a dream that shaped the lives of many women around. The pressure and dependence on men that women face around the world is huge. It stops them from standing up for themselves. I realized during the process that literacy has been a major challenge for me. Had I been more educated, my life would have been much simpler.
I realized during the process that literacy has been a major challenge for me. Had I been more educated, my life would have been much simpler.
And so, it was during the process that my determination to educate my daughters along with my son strengthened. I have been pushing my daughters ever since to study hard. We have trained our children in our art forms along with their studies. I realized during the process, that though it was important to develop wings to fly, it was also important to keep ourselves in touch with our roots. Our roots lie in our traditional art forms.
The process of illustrating every page in Sultana’s Dream was a liberating experience. Today, I tell my daughters that they should build a career first and start earning to stand on their feet. Only then, should they think of getting married.
Do you think Sultana’s Dream is still relevant to women’s lives and situation today?
Durga Bai: I have been always fascinated with women’s stories. From goddesses and power to women and their daily challenges and roles, I heard all of it from my grandmother’s tales.
Over the years, I have realized that the women in the old folk tales are different yet quite similar to women in present times. The common theme is how women do every task themselves everywhere and still remain unacknowledged for it. That was what Sultana’s Dream talks about, some hundred years ago. Even today, the situation has not changed in that respect.
Over the years, I have realized that the women in the old folk tales are different yet quite similar to women in present times. The common theme is how women do every task themselves everywhere and still remain unacknowledged for it.
But what has changed is that more and more women are going out and exploring the world. They are becoming independent and have started demanding their rights. The roles of men and women are moving beyond what we heard in the traditional tales.
Sultana’s Dream was a story written years ago but still remains a dream. When women decide, they take everyone and everything into account. They think of helping the environment and preserving nature as much as they think of work life balance. They take everyone along, preserving the culture and carrying traditions along. I see myself too in this role and that is why I feel happy teaching my daughters both the art of Digna and art of work-life beyond our culture.
It needs a lot of hard work on the part of women themselves first, to change. Until women stand up for themselves and have supportive men around, with the help of education and literacy, things won’t change.
The future needs more women to overcome challenges and step forward beyond their own capacities to champion causes for women. They are the symbol of power along with responsibility.
I am hopeful that my daughters will be able to do it for themselves, re-working and re-scripting the stories of women and pushing the boundaries of Gond art to paint a different story with their distinctive energy.
A Development Communication & Social Work professional working in the field of gender, health and
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