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The art that women make every day, as part of their lives, is difficult to define. Chennai-based indie feminist publisher Tara Books aims to showcase just this in a photography exhibition, Floor to Book: Women’s Everyday Art Traditions, starting on Saturday, International Women’s Day, in Chennai.

“The women who make such art seldom see it as art. Neither do those who write about art imagine that household spaces are congenial to the making of ‘art’ as we understand it in the modern sense," says V. Geetha, editorial director of Tara Books. For over a decade, the organization has been exploring the trajectory of indigenous art forms and their women practitioners from rural areas and tribal communities, bringing such work to the forefront through illustrations in its books.

This exhibition’s three sections—Everyday Art; Transitions; and The Book—will map the journey of these folk art forms. It will feature images of women making kolam outside homes in villages, towns and cities every day in Tamil Nadu; aripana from Bihar, done by Brahmin and Kayastha women during marriage and religious ceremonies; Bihar’s khobar wall art, done exclusively inside the bridal chamber; digna, drawn inside and outside homes in Madhya Pradesh’s Adivasi Gond region to mark the harvest season and other festivities; and mandna from Rajasthan, done by Meena women during the harvest season, before Diwali and Teej; Warli women in Maharashtra make warli art on walls during harvest season and weddings.

Most folk and tribal art is acknowledged to have emerged from such everyday art, says the exhibition brochure. Women, the custodians and torch-bearers of this tradition, beautify their homes—thresholds, floors, walls, alcoves, prayer spaces—as part of housework, which involves physical labour and commitment. It is one of the many things they do as a daily routine.

“We want to make a case for seeing women’s creative labour within the household as holding out possibilities for those women who wish to transcend their given roles, as mothers, wives, and for whom the making of art can hold out a moment of epiphany, happiness and self-fulfilment," says Geetha, who has curated the exhibition along with her colleague and author Gita Wolf. While gods are invoked in aripana imagery, dignas stick to geometric and abstract designs, and kolams to dots and lines; most other imagery and motifs are part of the collective repertoire that women access by watching and learning from other women. Warli and khobar imagery has to do with fertility; Meena women draw images of nurture, baby animals and birds with their mothers.

The art is passed on from mother to daughter. Geetha says: “Not all women who draw within household spaces enjoy doing so. Some do it out of a sense of duty, inseparable from the daily chores, and it is expected of them. For instance, to be able to make kolams marks you out as an ‘ideal feminine’ woman."

However, wherever these forms of art have moved beyond the household, and on to paper, canvas or cloth, that is, when they are made for commercial purposes, men have joined in. “In some cases, as with the art of the Warli people, male artists have adapted traditional ways of craftsmanship to develop extraordinarily beautiful styles. With the Gonds, women as well as men paint on canvas and paper, and likewise with the public art form called Mithila art, which has its beginnings in aripana and khobar," says Geetha, adding, “While men have turned these traditions to greater commercial and aesthetic advantage, women artists, especially from the Mithila and Gond traditions, are well-known to the oustide world."

“In bazaars, the art is adapted to fit on to pieces of paper, canvas, textile and objects that are sold to middle-class consumers looking for ‘ethnic’ products. Our work at Tara Books has been with the book form, which becomes a curatorial space where women speak, in relation to a story, or reflect on the world. Drawing From the City by Teju Behan, Following My Paintbrush by Dulari Devi and Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit by Amrita Das are good examples of what we have done with these art forms." Another recent example is Samhita Arni’s 2011 graphic novel Sita’s Ramayana, illustrated with Moyna Chitrakar’s patua scroll art (part of Bengal’s folk performance tradition, where the artist sings out a story holding a long painted scroll as illustration).

Floor to Book: Women’s Everyday Art Traditions opens at 6pm on 8 March and will be on, 10am-7.30pm (Sundays closed), till 31 July, at Book Building, 9, CGE Colony, Thiruvanmiyur, Chennai (24426696).

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