The Madhya Pradesh government establishes Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal as a multidisciplinary arts centre. Artist and writer Jagdish Swaminathan is appointed the first Director of Roopankar, its visual arts wing. The construction of the building, designed by Charles Correa, begins in the same year. As an institution, Bharat Bhavan would go on to make a positive impact, highlighting the performing arts as well as non-mainstream artforms, especially folk and tribal art in central India.
At around the age of seventeen, Bhuri Bai, newly wed, travels to live in Bhopal with her husband. She finds employment as a wage worker at the Bharat Bhavan construction site alongside approximately one hundred other tribal and rural migrants — men, women and young girls such as herself — many of whom she is acquainted with. She earns 6 rupees a day — a large sum compared to the 1 or 2 rupees she earned in Jhabua previously.
“I had been to Bhopal before with my father in search of work. We used to leave home for a month or so at a time. We would even go to cities in Gujarat.”
At Bharat Bhavan, she encounters Swaminathan for the first time when he approaches the workers and enquires about their lives, communities, rituals and customs. He asks if anyone amongst them knows how to draw. Encouraged by her sister and brother-in-law, who acts as a translator, Bhuri Bai tells Swaminathan that she had made drawings on the walls of her home when she was a child, and he insists that she make a few paintings for him.
“We didn't understand a single word of what he was saying. We didn’t understand Hindi back then. He had big hair, he was very scary looking to me. He always had a cigarette or a beedi in his hand. I didn’t know who he was!”
Being afraid, Bhuri Bai refuses to sit inside a room to paint, and instead asks to paint in the open. For five days, she sits at the stairs of a temple near the construction site and makes her first paintings on a roll of brown packing paper with poster paints and paintbrushes supplied by Swaminathan — materials she has never used before. It takes her a long time to teach herself how to mix the paint and work with a brush.
“I was so nervous. What if something went wrong with the drawing! I used to draw on the walls of my house, so on what surface would I draw for him? At home we made colours using turmeric, soot, leaves and red soil and used chewed twigs or a piece of cloth to make dots.”
The first paintings she made used simple colours and depicted traditional tattoo motifs as well as scenes from village life. Swaminathan later bought these paintings from her.
“It struck me that for each day of labour I earned 6 rupees and yet, just for sitting and painting, I earned 10 rupees a day! All this was a bit strange for me initially, but I felt good that they were paying me so much. I promised myself that the next time he [Swaminathan] came I would paint more beautifully, whatever came into my mind. I would put more effort into painting. It was a great venture for me.”
On February 13, 1982 the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, inaugurates Bharat Bhavan. Swaminathan instructs Bhuri Bai to give Indira Gandhi a letter on meeting her at the inauguration. However, she forgets to do so when they meet, as she gets lost in conversation with Gandhi. Being unable to read, she never finds out what was in the letter. To this day, Bhuri Bai wonders about the contents of the letter.
She briefly works collaboratively on paintings with Lado Bai, another Bhil artist who used to work alongside her as a wage worker at Bharat Bhavan. These paintings were photographed by Jyoti Bhatt in 1983 and later published in the book The Perceiving Fingers.
Bhuri Bai continues to work at construction sites, first at the Van Vihar sanctuary and later the Rajiv Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya. She lives in a makeshift hut made of polythene sheets by the road near the construction sites. She paints intermittently, whenever Swaminathan visits her, such as once in c. 1983 at her home, and again c. 1985. On his second visit, she paints for ten days, earning 1,500 rupees. This is her first large commission.
“I developed a positive mental space for this sort of work, I did everything I could to make those paintings beautiful. As I painted, I used to tell him — look, I have made a bullock cart, a horse, a peacock. He admired my paintings. He came back to Bhopal and urged the Government that Bhuri Bai should be awarded the Shikhar Samman. I don’t even remember what year I received the award.”
Bhuri Bai (second from right) and Pema Fatya (first from left), another Bhil artist, are awarded the Shikhar Samman, Madhya Pradesh’s highest civilian award.
“I found out that I would receive the award when it appeared in the newspaper. People said I was to be given a samman, an award. I thought they meant samaan, things, and I wondered what samaan I would get since I already had samaan at home. Then I asked around me and found out that I was to be awarded with a prize and some cash along with it. Since getting that award people started acknowledging me, I became known.”
Bhuri Bai’s paintings, as well as her collaborations with Lado Bai, photographed by Jyoti Bhatt, appear in The Perceiving Fingers, published by Bharat Bhavan.
Through the late 1980s, Bhuri Bai continues to work at various construction sites. She is occasionally invited to work at the Manav Sangrahalaya, where she paints alongside Lado Bai. She is also involved in the construction of the Veethi Sankul gallery, where her own paintings would be displayed later.
In 1992, she becomes a permanent employee of the Bhopal Public Works Department (PWD), where she works as part of the city's road maintenance team, tarring roads, planting shrubs and doing odd jobs.
She falls very ill with a skin condition after coming in contact with a plant in the wooded area around Bhopal’s Upper Lake while foraging for firewood. Her health slowly deteriorates. She tries various remedies and doctors. Her condition does not improve, she loses her strength and is unable to move or stand up and eventually, paint. The already poor family slowly loses financial stability. She remains ill for the next ten years, until 2002.
“I was so terribly ill. How god has saved me! For almost four years, I couldn’t get up from the bed. I would take medicine, it would become fine, and again it would come back after a week. Then I would take a different medicine, it would bring some relief, and soon after it would flare up. This kept happening, and I lost hope. Everyone helped me, my siblings, my parents, my in-laws, but they thought I was beyond help. I thought I would die.”
As a result of the increasing popularisation of “folk and tribal art” due to the efforts of institutions such as the Bharat Bhavan, the Adivasi Lok Kala Parishad and the Manav Sangrahalaya, Bhuri Bai begins travelling to different parts of the country. In September 1994, her works are displayed in an exhibition held by the Cultural Ministry. In December 1994, she travels to Aurangabad to hold a painting workshop.
She is invited to the National Crafts Museum in Delhi as a visiting artist to exhibit her works. It is her first time leaving Bhopal for a larger city.
“Until then I had never worn slippers on my feet, I travelled that way, and I sat and painted that way. People would come to watch me paint or buy my work. There was a security guard there who said to me — you are such a big artist, why don’t you wear slippers? I told him that I didn’t know how to wear slippers or walk in them! They bought me a pair, and for the first time, I wore something on my feet.”
Bhuri Bai holds a Tribal Art Workshop in September 1995, sponsored by the Indira Gandhi Manav Sangrahalaya.
As she travels and garners more attention as an artist, and meets people who buyher works, the subject matter of her work begins to change. In these paintings of the city and her travels, we see her greeting these new events with a similar fascination to her depictions of life in Pithol earlier.
“When I would sit and paint, people asked me to make things for them. In Delhi, for the first time, a customer asked me to make a car. In the village, adivasis do not make cars, the paintings are just of trees, plants, and birds. I told him that I had never made a car before, I didn’t know how to make a car. So the same customer gave me a little sketch of a car, and I drew five-six cars for him in every colour. Since then I started drawing these cars. These cars of mine are selling a lot, people like them.”
In the midst of her illness, Bhuri Bai is awarded the Devi Ahilya Samman by the Madhya Pradesh Government — a national award instituted to honour the creativity of women artists in the tribal, folk and traditional arts.
She participates in an art workshop organised by the Australia-India Council at the National Crafts Museum and Hastkala Academy in New Delhi, India. Here, along with Jangarh Singh Shyam, she meets Australian artists Kathy Marawili and Djambawa Marawili, and they collaborate on a number of paintings.
“They said to me that the paintings from Australia and our paintings looked similar. They told me, you use dots and they use dots too, and asked me to make a painting without dots, because otherwise it would look too similar. I made something different for them, I made a painting of Galbapji, which has lots of lines and not too many dots, and I showed people dancing.”
Bhuri Bai loses her job at the Bhopal PWD along with 2,300 other employees, as a result of an economic rollback. She loses her monthly salary of 1,823 rupees.
“I wondered how I would support my family, my six children were so young. Then one day, I went to the office of the Adivasi Lok Kala Academy after covering my face and wounds. Kapil Tiwari Ji was its director. The Tribal Museum building didn’t exist, it was all jungle. I asked him to help me, there was nobody else left to ask. He was a kind man. He agreed to buy my medicines and help me as best as he could. They sent me a letter around Holi and I had someone read it to me. I found out that I had been offered a job as an artist.”
On April 19, 2002, Bhuri Bai officially begins working as an artist with the Adivasi Lok Kala Academy. The Academy was later subsumed into the Madhya Pradesh State Tribal Museum, where she continues to work today. On her first day of work, she remembers worrying that nobody would sit next to her or talk to her because of the way she looked as a result of her illness.
“They gave me colours, brushes and assigned me a room and told me, sit and paint whatever you want. Over time, slowly, eventually, I actually became better, all my illness went away. Who knows, maybe I loved my art so much that it cured me. Maybe that is what saved me, my paints and my brushes. Ever since then, things have been going so well.”
The same year, her illustrations appear in the November-February issue of Chaumasa, the Academy’s quarterly publication on tribal arts, literature and culture. Over the years, she would illustrate many issues of the magazine.
This is the year she learns how to sign her paintings. Until now, all her paintings have been unsigned. Since Bhuri Bai doesn’t date her work, her signature, together with the difference in style, serves as a way to mark the period in which she has made a particular painting.
All her unsigned works belong to the 1980s and 90s. She shifts towards a brighter colour palette by the late 2000s and begins using finer patterns with uniformly sized dots in the late 2010s.
Her illustrations appear in more publications by the Adivasi Lok Kala Academy — two anthologies of Bhil stories titled Bhili Kathayein, by Govind Gehlot (2005) and Dr. HS Gugalia (2006); and Bhil Janjateeya Geet, a book of Bhil traditional songs by Govind Gehlot and Mahesh Chandra Shandilya (2006).
Bhuri Bai’s painting Story of the Jungle sells for $5,040 at an auction by Sotheby’s, New York, to raise funds for establishing the Museum of Modern Art in Kolkata. The auction contained eighty-four works by major modern Indian artists, most of which were sold for well above the price of Story of the Jungle. The works by other indigenous artists in the auction lot — Mayank Shyam, Narmada Tekam, Ram Singh Urveti and Swarna Chitrakar — fetched similar or lower prices as Story of the Jungle, highlighting the frequently deflated prices and lack of interest in work by indigenous artists.
In 2008, Bhuri Bai’s illustrations appear in Lok Akhyan, a book on indigenous peoples’ lives, customs and traditions by Kapil Tiwari and in another book on Bhil songs and sayings, titled Bhili Geet Evam Kahavatein by Badrilal Malaviya.
Bhuri Bai illustrates Puran Sehgal’s book Bhil Lokmataein, in Hindi, on goddess worship among the Bhils, published by the Adivasi Lok Kala Academy, Bhopal. She also illustrates Bhili Geet Evam Lokottiyan by Mangala Garwal.
Her illustrations appear in the July-October issue of Chaumasa magazine. This is her final contribution to the magazine.
Her paintings are displayed in the first part of the exhibition Now That the Trees Have Spoken at the Pundole Gallery in Mumbai, alongside the works of Lado Bai, Narmada Prasad Tekam and Ram Singh Urveti.
Her works are also shown at the show Freedom at the CIMA Gallery, Kolkata.
She travels to Delhi to participate in the Surajkund International Crafts Mela, where she presents a painting of Pithora horses to then President of India Pratibha Patil.
Bhuri Bai and Durgabai Vyam are awarded the Rani Durgavati Award by the Government of Madhya Pradesh. The national award is presented to tribal women for their long-term practice and unique achievement and contribution to tribal and traditional creative arts, crafts, social service and administration.
Her works are exhibited at the pivotal Other Masters of India exhibition at Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, curated by Dr. Jyotindra Jain and Jean-Pierre Mohen. Her work is also exhibited in part two — Working Consciously — of the show Vernacular, in the Contemporary, curated by Jackfruit Research and Design, led by Annapurna Garimella. The exhibition positions her paintings alongside those of other contemporary adivasi artists whose work extends beyond traditional art forms to include a subjective view of the larger contemporary world.
Bhuri Bai has a solo show, Taking Root, at Pundole Gallery from August to September. This is her first solo show in a commercial art gallery.
Bhuri Bai paints a large-scale autobiographical mural at the Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum, where it is on permanent display. It is unveiled at the inauguration of the museum on June 6, 2013, by the then President of India Pranab Mukherjee.
She travels to America to participate in the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe. This is the first time she has been outside India. Experiences such as this continue to influence the change in subject matter of her paintings.
Bhuri Bai’s painting of Pithora horses is exhibited at Kaleidoscopic India at Maison Guerlain, Paris, during FIAC Paris in November 2014, along with the works of Atul Dodiya, Jitish Kallat, Shilpa Gupta, Sudarshan Shetty, Rina Banerjee, Shine Shivan, Mithu Sen, Bharti Kher, Nalini Malani, Jangarh Singh Shyam, Jivya Soma Mashe, Pushpa Kumari, Frédéric Delangle, Asim Waqif and Ram Singh Urveti.
She was never informed of the show nor was she aware of her works being displayed in Paris until our research team mentioned it to her. As with many artists from marginalised groups, her work is often used, distributed and exhibited without her knowledge — even when the context appears to promote diverse narratives in contemporary art.
A show exhibiting Bhuri Bai’s works takes place at the Roopankar Gallery in Bharat Bhavan in February, on the occasion of Bharat Bhavan’s 34th anniversary, and includes many of her works from the 1980s and 90s that are part of the Roopankar collection. In anticipation of the show, Harchandan Singh Bhatty, the Director of Roopankar, asks Bhuri Bai to make paintings based on her life story. This is her first autobiographical series, titled Aadi Anaadi, and consists of fifty-five paintings. This series is now part of Bharat Bhavan’s permanent collection.
“He asked, what happened in your life, how did you spend your life? Make some paintings about that, he said. So I made paintings like that for Bhatty ji, and then again for Abhishek Poddar. These paintings are how I remember life, I remember things and I paint them. Otherwise, who else will remember what happens in my life? How will they remember? They won’t remember. Only I know what happened, and so I remember my life this way. It is a good thing that the paintings I have made about my life are shown in museums, and that people hear this story through my own voice. My life moves ahead but I am happy that people recognise me. Through museums, whether they print it or hang it, people who haven’t seen my story will get to see it.”
Bhuri Bai participates in a workshop at the National Crafts Museum & Hastkala Academy, New Delhi, organised by Setu India and the Textile Department.
A collaborative painting made in 1999 by Bhuri Bai, Jangarh Singh Shyam and Djambawa Marawili from the Craft Museum’s collection is exhibited at the RMIT Gallery, Melbourne, in December as part of the exhibition water + wisdom. The exhibition label misidentifies the artist, citing Lado Bai as the third painter. However, Bhuri Bai recounts making the painting and confirms that it is her work. For several years, she had wondered where the painting had disappeared. Once again, this is another show of which she was not aware.
A painting by Bhuri Bai, made in the 1980s, is shown alongside the works of fifteen other Indian artists as part of the exhibition Inde, held in May 2018 at Manoir de la Ville de Martigny, France, curated by Hervé Perdriolle.
Bhuri Bai travels to Bengaluru with her daughter and creates her autobiographical series of paintings for the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), Bengaluru. These paintings appear in the first segment of this exhibition.
Bhuri Bai collaborates with the author Klara Kottner-Benigni and illustrates a children’s book titled A Tree, published by Katha.
She illustrates and co-authors a children’s book on her life, titled Dotted Lines, in collaboration with author Debjani Mukherjee. The book has been shortlisted in the Picture Book category of the Neev Book Awards 2020.
The Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), Bengaluru, organises this exhibition on Bhuri Bai’s life and works as part of its digital inauguration and commissions a film by Faraway films.
“I remember my childhood, I remember the trees, the animals, the forest, the friends I played with, and once again I am bringing those memories to life through my paintings. People will see me and they will know, this is how she did labour work, this is how she sold wood and by doing all of this, she came to this point. If I hadn’t reconnected with art, I would have remained there, doing daily wage work. My art is good to me.”
Bhuri Bai continues to work as an artist in the Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum in Bhopal.