This post is a collaborative effort between Rani Jha, Cheyenne Bsaies, and myself. As I’m in Jersey City and Rani Jha is in Madhubani, it soon became clear that our e-mail exchanges for this post were not going smoothly. We turned for help to Cheyenne Bsaies, a graduate student in Museum Studies at Syracuse University who was spending the summer teaching photography and computer skills at the Mithila Art Institute in Madhubani. I would e-mail the questions, Rani Jha would discuss them with Cheyenne, and Cheyenne would send back a summary of the conversation. As I hope you will agree, it worked beautifully. My comments are in normal type while Rani Jha’s answers are in italics.
Together Tearing the Veil 22”x 30” 2011 Click here to enlarge.
The painting above, the struggle against centuries of purdah, the social system that essentially confines a woman to her home, encapsulates the painter Rani Jha’s concerns both in her life and in her art. Born into a conservative Brahmin family where girls traditionally received little eduction, she fought against tradition, went to school, received an education and a few years ago earned her PhD at Darbhanga University with her thesis Women and Art in Mithila History. She is also the first women in her family to work outside the home, earlier with an NGO and now as a Master Painter/Teacher at the Mithila Art Institute.
As a painter, her work and passionate commitment come from what she saw and experienced while with the NGO at a government Short Stay Home. These homes offer shelter to women abandoned by families or escaping abuse from intolerable family situations. Rani Jha’s job was to record their stories, and the many horrific tales of lost lives and dreams that came to nothing compelled her to also record these situations in paint. She not only wants to tell their stories but also hopes that her paintings may have some small effect in changing the social conditions for all Indian women.
Gazing at the Moon still represents the reality for most women in India says Rani Jha. Gazing a the Moon 22”x30” 2011 Click here to enlarge.
Though Indian society has begun the slow shift towards women’s rights and inclusion, most women still face a very restricted lifestyle. The woman in Gazing at the Moon has all the riches any person could want: fine clothes, a beautiful home and jewellery. However, this wealth mean little to her in the absence of freedom. From inside her gilded cage, she sees the moon, shining in a limitless sky, and desires the same.
Husband Leaving 22”x30” 2010 Click here to enlarge.
Work migration is not a new problem, nor is it limited to the poorer states in India, such as Bihar. Whatever the cause, high unemployment leads to work migration. Although this used to be exclusively a lower caste issue, upper castes are now experiencing the same pressures created by under or unemployment. The wives of migrant workers in India face certain social constraints that add further complications to a difficult situation. While working with an NGO called ACTED, Rani Jha witnessed the fallout of work migration on the wives and families left behind. In this piece, the wife bids goodbye to her departing husband with the requisite pot of water in her hand. She prays that flowers will be at his feet, that no troubles will befall him while he is away. But there is no guarantee of his return. She may grow old waiting, and she will never be allowed to remarry.
One of the dangers faced by women in India comes even before they are born. The abortion of female fetuses is all too common. In Abortion Clinic (below) Rani Jha notes that the doctor is “more dangerous than a cobra”. Here an abortion can be had for 5000 rupees (about $100) and young wives are often forced to abort female babies by their in-laws.
Abortion Clinic 22”x30” 2010. Click here to enlarge.
Female Infanticide 22”x30” 2010. Click here to enlarge.
This painting is a follow up to the painting titled Abortion Clinic, and depicts the ripple effect of female infanticide in India. In 2006, an article appeared in a Delhi paper which told of the discovery of a half dozen female foetuses found in a dry well. After reading this article, Rani Jha responded by creating this tableau. In it, she describes the opportunities given to boys (shown on a ladder) and the oppression and obstacles faced by girls (represented by the cobra coiled beneath her). She goes on to demonstrate the long-term effects of gender imbalance on a society such as aggressive behaviour, human trafficking and rape. The implication of the lack of potential mates for so many men cannot be understated. It is a natural impulse for most people to desire sex, companionship and family. Subversion of these desires leads to abnormal behaviour.
In Changing Women Rani Jha uses women’s dress to illustrate the change in societal norms over the last half century resulting in greater freedom for women.
Changing Women 22”x30” 2011 Click here to enlarge.
Marking the generational changes from 1940-2010, the piece Changing Women shows the easing of restrictions traditionally placed on Indian women. Moving from right to left, the traditional Indian woman is shown with her face veiled, surrounded by eight children, and wearing lots of jewellery. The next generation of women did not shroud their faces, though her hair is still mostly covered; she is also still heavily adorned, but only bore four children. In the next panel, the woman wears her sari over her shoulder and her hair in a bun; again, this generation produced fewer children. In the last panel, the contemporary Indian woman is not wearing sleeves, and her hair and face are uncovered. She carries a mobile, and can be seen out in the world. Also, she wears a wristwatch in the place of many bangles. This woman has only one child and, significantly, it is a girl. Gender selectivity is often a prominent social issue in Rani Jha’s work, and this piece is no exception.
With change however also come problems. As young married couples seek their own space, both physically and emotionally, elder parents are forced from the home.
Parents Forced from the Home 22”x30” 2012 Click here to enlarge.
This piece depicts the burgeoning plight of senior citizens in modern day India, who face the collapse of the traditional joint family model. Young couples, seeking what they believe is more freedom and space, are increasingly forcing out their elders from their homes. Due to a lack of retirement homes, many such seniors end up homeless. In the joint family model, the grandparents fulfil several roles, including providing care and companionship for their grandchildren. They teach them life lessons, and develop their creativity and morality through storytelling. Children raised this way are more apt to become well-adjusted and productive citizens. However, the lack of multi-generational influence erodes the values of the next generation. In her piece Parents Forced From Home, Rani Jha depicts an elderly couple being ejected from their son and daughter-in-law’s house. The retirement home is full, so they wind up on the streets. In the absence of the grandparents, the children develop bad habits like smoking and go unsupervised in their play.
We complete this post on the paintings of Rani Jha with Two Women which depicts a quiet and necessary moment away from the stress of daily life.
Two Women 22”x30” 2011. Click here to enlarge.
Companionship is an essential part of a healthy life; the trust and intimacy found between two female friends is different between a man and wife. Sometimes, a confidante is needed: someone to listen and care without judgement or fear of gossip. Without this type of respite, humans may manifest all kinds of physical or psychological maladies. In Two Women, the friends sit within a closed and quiet space, surrounded by vegetation, far from all other society. It is their space alone.
Rani Jha, Cheyenne Bsaies, and Peter Zirnis Madhubani, India and Jersey City, NJ