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This reaction was not surprising at all – a powerless woman who had never been out of her veil, and who had always lived under the shadow of her husband could not be expected to have any self-esteem.
Shanti put down her brush and hurried towards the wash basin with her messy hands covered in shades of golden yellow and brown. She returned to give a quick look to the piece of art she had just completed – a painting of wheat fields in oil paint. This was one of the most beautiful landscapes she had painted. It reminded her of her childhood when she played and ran in these fields with her friends – the memories brought a smile to her face.
As she went back in time for a moment, the doorbell rang. “Oh my! Sakshi is already back from school, I am so late!” she thought.
She ran out of her room as the housekeeper opened the door and let Sakshi in. As Shanti ran hastily to greet her daughter, she forgot all about putting on her veil – her ‘ghoonghat’. Messy, colored hands, a bare head, and a look of confusion on her face! Her parents-in-law who were having their afternoon tea in the porch were shocked to see her in that state.
“Bahu (daughter-in-law) where are your manners? How could you come out bare-headed when your father-in-law is right here! Have you lost your mind?” yelled her mother-in-law with a look of shock and anger.
Hurriedly, Shanti covered up her head under the veil with her yellow hands. She could barely apologize with fear. She stammered a few words of apology as she fumbled with the veil and ran back in. Sakshi followed her into her room.
“Ma! Why are you afraid of dada-dadi? So you forget your veil, you say sorry and smile. What have you been painting today? Can I see?” said Sakshi as she moved closer to the wheat fields.
She stared at the golden wheat for a few seconds.
“They are beautiful. Can I go there sometime?”
“Yes you could, someday,” smiled her mum with her yellow, brown hands.
“Oh look! My hands look terrible!”
“No they look beautiful. Ma, you always say, God painted the earth green and blue; I wonder how messy His hands would have been after painting the world! Your hands look a bit like that!” responded Sakshi with a smile.
She was right – her mother did have a divine skill – she had her way with colours.
Shanti was born in a family of farmers. Her father and uncles were proud owners of one of the largest tracts of wheat cultivation in the district. The wheat fields were always special to Shanti – she grew up playing in these fields with her siblings.
Shanti was born with a gift – she had the fingers of an artist. She would spend hours in her balcony painting the wheat fields and would not be budged when her mother called her. Shanti went to school, but had to stop after eighth grade. All women in Shanti’s family wore the veil to cover their heads. This was to display respect to the men and elders in the family.
As Shanti herself transitioned from girlhood to womanhood after she was married into the rich family of cultivators in Ajmer, she had to accept the veil herself. She was eighteen years old when she married her thirty eight year old husband – one of the richest farmers in Ajmer.
Just before the marriage as Shanti was about to enter her veiled world, she had to go through ‘Haq Tyaag’ – a ritual that compels a young woman to give up her right to inheritance. So here began the journey of the hardly educated, disinherited, veiled Shanti who moved to Ajmer with her stranger husband and her parents-in-law into their large, beautiful house.
As she left her father’s house, her mother gave her a little present wrapped in silk and her final words of advice. “Be a good wife and a good daughter-in-law. You now belong to your husband and your in-laws.”
Shanti sat down in the car decorated with roses and lilies next to her husband, her head and her tears all hidden behind the veil. She unwrapped the gift and stared at it – it was a picture of Indian Goddesses – Lakshmi: Goddess of Wealth, Saraswati: Goddess of Knowledge, Durga: Goddess of Strength and Kali: Goddess of time & survival.
None of them was wearing a veil. Why then was she obliged to stay behind the veil? Why was she deprived of her right to wealth, knowledge and strength? – Questions to which she had no answers. All she could do was to secretly complain about her plight and express her anger and resentment to these Goddesses – they had all been so unfair to her.
Fourteen years had since passed and the vulnerable Shanti had remained behind her veil. She had two sources of pleasure: her paintbrush and her thirteen year old Sakshi – her head always remained uncovered when she was with either of them!
Every day when the men in the house left for work, Shanti would find some time for herself with her paintbrushes. Her work was all saved in a trunk under her bed – she was the only one who had seen that work, until one day Sakshi asked if she could peep into the secret trunk. She admired her mother’s work most utterly, and as time passed she began to realize that life had been unfair to her mother.
Years passed and Sakshi turned eighteen. She wanted to pursue her studies in architecture, however, the family wanted to get her married. Two years later Sakshi was forced to get married to a young engineer in Delhi.
In a few years, Sakshi’s husband was offered an opportunity to travel to Paris for a long term IT consulting assignment. Sakshi had only seen pictures of the great buildings in Paris; visiting this city in person, and living there would be a dream!
After the first few days of settling down in Paris, Sakshi started visiting the museums in the city. Each time she visited a museum she thought of her mother and her secret trunk. That trunk, she thought, had treasures that were beautiful, and worthy of display.
One day, at an Indian Association she met a woman of Indian origin who was studying art in Paris. She told her about the different possibilities that emerging artists could have in this city – opportunities to exhibit their work, to enhance their skills and to meet other fellow artists to exchange experiences.
After some research, she found an upcoming exhibition where emerging artists from different countries were to display their art work, showcasing their own lands and cultures. She registered Shanti as an emerging artist from India. She positioned Shanti as a village artist, who paints the villages of Rajasthan – the world knows Rajasthan as a tourist destination for its palaces and forts, but not everyone appreciates the beauty of this land through the lens of its villages.
Sakshi booked a flight to go back home – all she needed now was the trunk. Mother Shanti just had to sign the paintings; she hesitated at first, but eventually agreed to paint her name at the bottom right in Rajasthani.
The trunk came to Paris with Sakshi and some of its contents were shown to the organizers of the exhibition. A handful of paintings were selected for display. A small section in the exhibition was dedicated to Indian exhibits, four of which were paintings from the Rajasthani village painter Shanti.
There was something unique about Shanti’s work – her paintings were full of life, but at the same time they brought out the melancholy that dictated her mind. It was as if one was looking at beauty captured inside a cage, beauty that had no freedom – one could say, it was Shanti herself.
Shanti’s work stood out among all the displayed paintings. People observed and appreciated her skill. Some connoisseurs also asked if the paintings were for sale. People were willing to pay hundreds of Euros for Shanti’s paintings. The exhibition was visited by a few well-known artists – one of whom was driven towards Shanti’s work. He proposed to include her work in a bigger gallery exhibition.
She was one of the three Indian painters whose work had the opportunity to be displayed in the gallery. A number of important personalities including the ambassador of India in France visited the gallery. The name Shanti was not known, however her paintings brought to life the India that lives in its villages.
It was more than clear now, that Shanti’s work had huge potential. Sakshi was determined to bring her mother to Paris, and to display more of her work for the world to see.
That was not going to be easy – a woman who had never stepped out of her house without her husband, would never agree to sit on an airplane and fly to a foreign land to display her paintings! The only reason she would do something so outrageous would be if Sakshi was in desperate need to have her mother with her.
The next few months gave Sakshi just the right opportunity – she realized that she was pregnant.
“Ma, I need you to come to Paris.” she said to her mother.
Shanti was overwhelmed, but there was little choice – Sakshi needed her, and there was no way she’d let her down. So after all the painful paperwork, Shanti was on a flight to Paris.
She was surprised to find herself in Sakshi’s bedroom in front of a brand new canvas with paints and brushes.
Sakshi told her all that she had done. She informed her that 10 of her paintings would be soon displayed at the art exhibition in the Branley Museum in Paris.
Shanti was thoroughly confused – not in a happy way. “I came here to help you with the baby! Not to paint! And certainly not to show off my paintings – they are no good!”
For the first few days Shanti kept herself to the kitchen and house work – cooking, cleaning, washing, sweeping. However, painting was her passion, and she could not keep herself away from the canvas for very long.
“Maybe I could paint just a little bit – no harm in that” she thought. And in the next few weeks she created pieces of art that were outstanding.
The paintings were all exhibited at the gallery. This time, like the other paintings Shanti’s work was also put on sale. Four of the paintings were marked “sold” to the embassy of India. Three out of the rest were bought for large sums of money by other admirers.
It was for the first time in her life that Shanti had earned praise for her work – her skill was being valued by the world. Not only had she earned praise and respect, but had earned financial rewards for her work!
As the veiled artist walked along the gallery corridors with her daughter, she was approached by an art and culture columnist.
Sakshi explained to her mother that he was hoping to interview her, and publish her story in news journals. She accepted, and with Sakshi’s help for translations, the story called ‘Art behind the Veil’ was ready to be published.
As the two ladies stepped into the taxi to get back home that evening, Shanti sat next to her girl, bare-headed. She took out the picture from her bag and gave it a deep look, with a smile on her lips. Today there was no feeling of resentment or anger. The Goddesses all smiled back at her – she had been granted her rights again – her right to wealth, her right to knowledge, her right to strength and her right to freedom. Now there was no looking back – the passionate artist had stepped out of the veil and was ready to embrace the world, and to paint it.
Editor’s note: This story had been shortlisted for the August 2019 Muse of the Month contest, even if it wasn’t one of the winners.
Image source: shutterstock
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Smruti Shanbhag was born and brought up in India.
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