“Why have you come to me?”
“Who are you?”
“Why have you come at such an hour?”
She fires a plethora of questions without waiting for answers. Baua Devi is a skilled Madhubani painting artist. She is illiterate, yet a master storyteller. Her stories are realistic and driven from real life consciousness. She has acquired this skill from her ancestors — a family living in the village since before she was born. A family of wordsmiths and painters. She runs a decent painting school to teach teenagers the art of Madhubani painting.
“I am from a small province in Darbhanga,” Shivesh states. “I am an artist — a Madhubani painting artist and so is my father. It is his wish to acquire a scroll from your illustrious school.”
“I will be glad to give him one, but I fear today is the last day of school.” Baua Devi motions for Shivesh to sit on the floor mat right next to her. “Whose painting do you seek?”
“Your’s, honorable madam.”
Baua Devi’s Madhubani paintings’ power is immediately apparent to Shivesh. All four walls are adorned with simple yet elegant paintings. Traditional folk art drawn mostly with natural colors obtained from plants, leaves, fruits, and flowers, displays the beauty of nature. Natural objects like the sun, the moon, Indian deities, birds and animals, forests with trees, and brightly colored flowers are on a few picture posters, neatly hanging on the walls. Each poster tells a story. Rumor has it that her story telling skills are rooted in her painting. In order to understand the stories of Baua Devi, Shivesh would have to first study her paintings.
“Which character do you seek?” Baua Devi asks him without lifting her chin.
“My guest is fond of ‘Shiv and Parvati.’”
“It is my father’s wish and my belief that ‘Ardh-Narishawar’ is not two people longing to meet, it is two dimensions of life longing to meet – outside as well as inside. If you achieve it inside, the outside will happen one hundred percent by choice. If you do not achieve it inside, the outside will be a terrible compulsion. This is the way of life. This is the reality which is being expressed in a beautiful painting form – Shiva included Shakti as a part of himself, and became half-woman, half-man.”
Baua Devi changes the frame on her easel. She picks up her color palette and paintbrush. “What dimension of scroll do you want?”
“A scroll of that size will require a lot of red ink,” Baua Devi says. “Get the red ink from the cabinet. The whole container.” Baua Devi’s penchant for the color red is well known. In fact, she only uses red of different shades in her paintings. No other color expresses her inner fire as much as red.
Shivesh does just what she says. Baua Devi is a woman of few words.
I wish I could just get a glimpse of her eyes.
Baua Devi is draped in a red silk gown. Free flowing and wrapped around her waist is a red belt tied into a beautiful bow. Her head is covered with a long, translucent, red veil. A beautiful woman in her fifties, still full of life. She rises above and beyond because of her skill in painting and storytelling. There is no stopping for her even after the tragedy of her life. From far away, people come to learn painting from her. Baua Devi trains several artists alongside her only daughter, who is equally talented.
Baua Devi picks a bigger easel to fit an eight foot scroll, and lays it down horizontally. She picks a comparatively bigger paint brush. The first dip of the paintbrush into the bottle is mesmerizing. The elegance with which she holds the brush and maneuvers the first stroke is breathtaking. She holds it and lets the excess red ink drip into the container. She lifts the brush soaked in red ink and starts painting. The strokes are gentle and smooth, and move effortlessly, creating magical imprints on the scroll.
It is as if the first word of a story has been put down. There is no pencil sketch or graphite drawing. There is no rough draft before writing the final story. Baua Devi’s imagination is well scripted in her head already.
Shivesh stands there watching Baua Devi draw without taking his eyes off her for even a second.
“Why this fascination for ‘Ardh-Narishwar’?” asks Baua Devi.
“I have heard that there are normally fifteen ways of painting it.” Shivesh’s voice quivers. “What I request from you is the sixteenth variation, just in red.”
Shivesh knows that Baua Devi’s paintings and writing both rely on merging the power of her wrist with the spirit in her heart. This sixteenth variation will reveal the essence of her painting. To think that two characters infused in one can be painted in fifteen ways is already mind blowing to Shivesh.
“I have a feeling that you have not come for the scroll. You have just come up with this story of your father’s wish in disguise of something else,” Baua Devi says pointedly. “Who are you?”
“You are wrong.” Shivesh flashed her an adorable smile. “Your paintings are beautiful.”
“Your story is beautiful.” Baua Devi grinned.
Born in 1950, she was eighteen when it happened. When the disaster hit her in her village. Baua Devi was left devastated. She always felt she was on the edge of danger. A beautiful Dalit woman and an artist with the extraordinary skill of knife fighting, she carried a pocket knife at all times and was ready to use it — but he fled. Her knife-fighting skills didn’t save her from evil.
Being the daughter of an artist was the only way a young woman could hope to learn the complex skills it took to paint professionally in her community. It seemed that her father had ambition for his daughter — after all, he had given her a striking name and a classical personality. And as Baua’s skill developed, her father requested an upcoming artist, Animesh, a young man from the upper caste Bhramin family, to give her lessons. Animesh was an artist and also the village’s youngest Sarpanch. He was a charismatic man and a talented artist with handsome looks. He wanted to do a lot for the village at the grassroots level. What more could a young woman want? Animesh and Baua Devi soon fell in love. Little did Baua know that inside his heart, Animesh looked down upon her because of her caste. He looked at Baua as a sexual object to play with. Baua’s striking looks and talent intensified Animesh’s sexual desires and he started making advances. Innocent Baua was mystified by the glorious personality Animesh showed superficially.
That fateful night, Animesh tricked his way into Baua’s room and started making unwanted offers of sex.
Baua testified. “He then threw me on to the edge of the bed, pushing me with a hand on my breast. Lifting my clothes, he placed a hand with a towel on my mouth, to keep me from screaming.”
She fought back. “I scratched his face,” she told the court, “and pulled his hair, before he raped me. I grasped his skin so tight that I even removed a piece of flesh.”
But she couldn’t stop him. Then she got the knife out of her pocket. “I’d like to kill you with this knife because you have dishonored me,” she shouted. He opened his coat and said, “Here I am.” Baua threw the knife, but Animesh shielded himself. “Otherwise,” she said, “I might have killed him.”
The village Panchayat trial featured months of meandering witness examinations. Friends, villagers, and relatives of Animesh built up a picture of Baua’s household as a lower caste family with no dignity. Baua was portrayed as a teenager who spent all her time painting, rarely going out. Her rapist, Animesh, meanwhile emerged as a divine character who wanted to uplift the village from poverty and crisis. Several witnesses claimed that Baua was a perverted character who was in several tangled up relationships with rich and influential people, and she could offer no good defense. No one was willing to hear the melancholy of a Dalit woman.
Again and again, she repeated that her testimony about the rape was reliable: “It is true, it is true, it is true, it is true. This is the ring Animesh gave me and these were his promises!” yelled Baua, as she was tortured in the Panchayat room in 1968. Ropes were wrapped around her fingers and pulled tight, while everyone accused her of attempting to kill Animesh with her knife. The Panch had advised moderate use of torture, for she was after all eighteen. Across the court sat the man who had raped her.
No one thought of torturing him.
Yet Baua was tortured and Animesh was set free. Why? He was protected by the village Mukhiya, because his art was rated at the time. Everyone knew he was a villain, but fortunate to belong to an upper caste Bhramin family. “Animesh is the only youth Sarpanch who has never disappointed me,” said the Mukhiya. “Other youth Sarpanch pretend to be men of honor,” he explained. “But they let me down.” With that injustice, Baua knew where she stood.
Her father died because of the shock and shame the society gave him. Baua was left alone. Nine months later Baua gave birth to a girl — the result of rape. She embraced her as her child.
I will make my daughter a strong woman, who will learn to take revenge if so needed.
The thought worked wonders for Baua. It added a savage realism that even Baua had never thought of. But it reflected a revolutionary implication.
If women could get together, we could fight back against a world ruled by men.
Baua, still a teenager when the trial ended, was shamed in a culture where honor was everything and upper caste people were revered. Yet it also provided her a kind of monstrous publicity.
By the 1990s, she was a successful artist working as far from Darbhanga as she could get. She put everything behind her, except that she would take revenge one day with the only weapon she had — a paintbrush. She could not write her story because, as she had revealed during the trial, she was more or less illiterate. She could paint it, though, and change its ending.
Three days later, Shivesh comes to pick up the scroll with an invitation for Baua Devi to attend his wedding ceremony in six days.
Looking at the scroll, he is mesmerized. He spends several minutes contemplating it, hoping to discover the secret behind Baua Devi’s fabulous painting using just one color—red. His head can not conjure up something this beautiful.
“People say that your painting contains the mystery of the knife fighting you are so skillful at,” Shivesh says with genuine curiosity. “Is it true?”
“The brush and the knife are fundamentally connected,” Baua Devi says with a sigh, looking at the painting. “This mystery is only revealed to those who can perceive connection. Can you?”
“Not entirely. Will you grace my wedding ceremony with your presence, with this painting as a gift?” Shivesh requests.
“It will be my pleasure,” Baua Devi readily accepts. “An art connoisseur knows when she sees one.”
Six days later, Baua Devi arrives with her daughter at the wedding venue as promised. Shivesh runs to welcome her. It is one of the happy moments of his life. Baua Devi is dressed up in all red, as if she is cocooned in her red world. Her garb, from head to toe, is red, soft, and silky. With a graceful bow of her lithe neck, she glides over and sits on a chair. Her head is still covered in a red translucent veil.
At once she feels a disturbing effect, strangely reminiscent of her own persecution. Her daughter has never seen Baua Devi this perturbed before. Baua Devi is otherwise the epitome of serenity.
Suddenly, the trauma of Animesh’s wrongdoing and the trial that gave her no justice haunts her art and her whole existence. Yet she is not crushed by her suffering. On the contrary, the visceral power of her paintings makes her feel peaceful and content. She keeps sitting quietly just like any spectator, not hiding her Dalit status among other Bhramins.
“Madam, my father would like to meet you in the art room, if you don’t mind,” Shivesh humbly requests. “He is curiously waiting for your explanation about the scroll you painted before he displays it in front of the guests.”
Shivesh guides Baua Devi and her daughter to his father’s art room. They snake through the crowd of guests. The venue is bustling with people. The soothing instrumental music of the shehnai is playing in the background. Guests are dressed up in pretty attire for the wedding ceremony. The aroma of party food is wafting all around. A deck is decorated with red rose flower petals. The arena is adorned with embellishments and bright, colorful, twinkle lights. If someone stands far away and looks at it, all their eyes would see would be a red hue of the rising sun on the black backdrop. The whole environment looks ceremonious.
“Welcome! Welcome, Baua,” Shivesh’s father approaches with his arms stretched out. “How nice to see you again.”
Baua Devi is startled.
Why is this voice so familiar? It’s splitting my ears!
Her knee-jerk reaction is to guard her daughter from this monster.
This is Animesh! Did Shivesh trick me?
“I know what you are thinking,” Shivesh says, moving forward. “I want to give your reputation, your status, and your dignity back to you. I know that your daughter is my sister. I want to end the animosity between these two families.”
“Don’t even try Shivesh,” Baua says, covering her ears. “I won’t hear a word. My red silk gown and my red veil is the evidence of my disgraceful exit from my community. That day I wore red, I took a vow that I would never wear anything other than red until I took my revenge. I live in my red world — like wind, flaming a fire. My penchant for red is the representative of the power of love which I once had for your father, and he crushed it by raping me. My red attire also signifies my burning determination of taking revenge.”
“Please, for my sake, give it a try. Forgive my father,” Shivesh almost begs. “I know I can never give you your youth or your family back, but vengeance for the rest of our life will bring us no good.”
Shivesh leaves the room, giving the three of them a moment of silence to reconcile.
Baua Devi moves forward. She takes her red veil out and spreads it on the floor, nice and taut.
What she couldn’t do years back, she does today. Today she is the Shakti —the ferocious mother nature that encompasses death and destruction and manifests to destroy the demon. Both women hold the old man down on the red veil. One presses her fist against his head, so he can’t raise it from the veil, while the daughter pins his torso in place. They are well-built with powerful arms, but even so, it takes their combined strength to keep their victim immobilized as Baua Devi cuts his throat with a gleaming knife. Blood spurts like deep red geysers. She won’t stop until his head is fully severed. Her victim’s eyes are wide open. He knows exactly what is happening to him.
Baua Devi has effectively painted a big blood drenched portrait of the seventh form of Durga, ‘Kalratri’, the final act to a tragedy endlessly replaying in her head.
I took my revenge today.
With the image of ‘Kalratri’, she has fought back against the male violence that dominated her world.
Today she kept aside the existence of ‘Ardh-Narishwar’ because the fusion of Shiva and Shakthi representing the male and female halves transcends the distinction between the limitation of male and female, caste and creed, and takes the Lord to the level of beyond-gender manifest Brahman, realization of which means liberation. Animesh was a demon.
He didn’t deserve respect or kindness from a woman.
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