Rikhiyaasan Rath: Capturing History and Identity

By Blaise JosephonFeb. 22, 2017in Society, Culture and Peace

The Bus Gallery, “Rikhiyaasan Rath” is an attempt to bring the ancestral past of the Rikhiyaasan (Musahar) community into the forefront by visualising and presenting some of the important mythical figures to the public by a bunch of girls belonging to the same community. Blaise Joseph presents an account of this novel initiative.

The origin of the Rikhiyaasan (Musahar) as a community is traced to the Tribals and probably because of a bloody conquest, they moved to the mainland of Bihar and some to Orissa. Those who settled in Bihar became landless agricultural labourers. The Musahar myths of the powerful, generous, and nature-oriented ancestors and their history reflect the soul of a culturally rich tradition. Eventually the power structures absorbed them as subordinates to sustain its structural needs. Consequently the erosion of a rich tradition and the identity has left the community internally weak and inferior. They have assimilated the new identity of a subjugated and powerless people as their own for generations.

On the one hand some of these efforts by various agencies have brought a new perspective to the community through education and welfare programmes; on the other hand they also have adversely alienated themselves further from their own history and identity. The upward mobility in the present social structure has contributed a denial of their own past and an urge to embrace the culture of the Other. The annihilation of any culture reflects the degradation in the diversity of the larger social fabric.

The ‘Rikhiyaasan Rath’ is an effort to do a collective soul searching; travelling through the ancestral past and in this process the girls in the Prerana Hostel, run by an NGO, Nari Gunjan headed by Padmashree Sudha Varghese, were facilitated and guided by Blaise Joseph, a visual artist who has been engaged in various explorations with them in their creative expressions for a period of two years. The concept of the ‘Rikhiyaasan Rath’ evolved out of this engagement and interaction.

These mythical stories are the assenting voices and the visual representations of them which will have the potentiality to recapture the hidden spirit of the ancestors and the soul of the Rikhiyaasan (Musahar) community. Rikhi Muni, Ma Shabari, Tulsi Bir, Deena-Bhadri, Kamma Mamma, Laddu Bir and Basiaya Bir, and Fuulan Daak are some of the most important mythical figures depicted on the Bus Gallery. They are role models for a toiling community that could be the foundation of a society. Unfortunately these personalities had been appropriated by the dominant caste ideologies and reduced them to servitude. The explorations in the creative expressions with these girls have been attempts to liberate these persons from the clutches of servitude and give an independent identity of their own; an attempt by people from the community itself.

The girls have visualised the mythical characters from their own imaginations claiming it as the first visualisation of the Rikhiyaasan (Musahar) myths, with the aspirations of unveiling them to the larger society in order to reclaim their identity and a place in history.

The significance of this work is the richness of visual expressions of these girls who otherwise have been looked down upon as less potential and the children of darkness. The Bus as a work of art is the testimony that those from the most economic poverty and social subjugation are not only capable of conceiving vivid and vivacious imaginations but also express them with great visual clarity and richness. Centuries of abject poverty, social exclusion and cultural dehumanisation have probably not silenced (mutilated/stifled) the richness and vigour of their inner expressions. When opportunities and a conducive atmosphere of freedom, acceptance and non-judgement are created, dreams and aspirations, joys and celebrations, agonies and pains are translated into rich expressions. Therefore, all the indigenous creative expressions are fundamentally translations of the inner world of communities and celebrations of their life.

It is a fact that draws our attention and wonder that the entire work is done by a bunch of Rikhiyaasan (Musahar) girls who have come to hostel for the first time out of the limited spaces of their villages just a couple of months back and in a span of one month achieved a standard of imagination, skill and precision by rigorous practice and perseverance under the un-interrupting and non-judgemental guidance of Blaise Joseph. They have held painting brushes and used paints for the first time in their life; moreover, they have not seen their own people engaged in such activities.

The process:

The idea evolved as a result of my engagements with the girls during my theological studies in Patna. I used to visit the hostel on Sundays and motivate the girls to paint on the hostel walls. That was a process of discovering the hidden potentials in these girls who are mostly in the age group of 8 to 14. Further the desire to create a larger platform for these girls grew stronger with the conviction that it would give the community a facelift. With the support of the Rotary International we designed the Multi-Utility Van and for the next two months, November and December I have stayed in the hostel and facilitated an intense programme of enhancing the creative potentials in the girls. I began with 25 girls selected from the 110 girls in the hostel and walked with them in the process through various sessions of pencil drawings, painting on the wall, on carton boxes, on canvases for a period of one month. Further I narrated the mythical stories to the girls and made them visualize the mythical figures in groups on papers. Later those images were transferred on to the body of the bus. For the next 30 days the bus became the canvas of an amazing play of colours and interesting imageries. We no more remained confined to the group of 25 but over 60 girls were able to paint on the Bus.

While some girls would go to the school the rest of the girls in the hostel will paint and the school going ones would come and join us later. The paintings were done with enamel paints. My anxiety was that whether the girls would be able to handle the medium with confidence. Contrary to my fears they were so skilled to handle it with such confidence and in the process some of the girls became skilled in decorative designs while some others mastered figuration and composition. My role as an artist in the entire project as I designed it was to remain as a facilitator who would shape each girl into a creator and thus a creation too. Maintaining a distance from their works I remained as an observer who would give them only guidelines, never over-ruling the potentialities in them. I believed in the creative strength in them as creators rather than looking at them as children. The Bus gallery is the result of that process and mechanism of handling human beings as creators.

The bus was exhibited in the Patna Book Fair on December 19 and 20, 2010 for public view. The interior was converted into a gallery space adorned with the canvas paintings, terracotta works and a video installation. The public came in large numbers to view the works.

‘Rikhiyaasan Rath’ is a Multi-Utility Bus which will be functioning as Mobile Clinic, Mobile Library and a platform for various Social Awareness programmes and social interactions with rural people. The bus will ply into various rural Dalit settlements and campaign for various issues related to the lives of people. This Multi-Utility Bus is the property of Nari Gunjan. It has been donated to Nari Gunjan under the Matching Grant Project of Rotary International by Rotary Chanakya, Patna.

All images from Rikhiyaasan

First published by Art and Deal, September 2011

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