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In Conversation With Sunanda Sahay

Nirmala Garimella
02/26/2009

In April when the Holi festival is celebrated with colors, Sunanda Sahay, a well known and sought after artist in New England will celebrate the festival with a display of a unique art form – her Madhubani paintings at the MFA and Warli paintings at the Peabody Essex Museum on April 4th and 5th. The artist who has exhibited in various New England Museums and in libraries in and around Massachusetts has introduced to the local art community, a traditional folk Indian art that speaks of stories of the famed Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

Twelve years ago when Sunanda first came to the US, a family of two growing sons Pratik and Prakhar kept her busy. Yet Madhubani surrounded her life when she grew up in Darbhanga and Mithila, in Northern India, a land where every lane and every home boasts an artist of this form. During that time, she underwent formal training under local well known artists and kept alive the interest with constant encouragement from her parents who were great patrons.

So what made her take the art form here at her home in Acton? “I was urged by many friends here along with my husband Praveen Sahay  to exhibit my paintings to the public” says Sunanda. “I started taking it seriously. Now my entire dining area has become my art space and studio. Madhubani paintings require tremendous patience and precision and it takes several weeks to finish one of them. I am totally dedicated to this form and am happy that I am able to bring a folk art spreading generations and centuries to this country. There is a lot of appreciation in the mainstream community for it and I have the opportunity to talk about it to a variety of artists and exhibit it at different places”. I would also like to express my gratitude to the entire community of friends and supporters who have been in this journey with me. Without their active encouragement this would not have been possible".

Her work has been in display at Massachusetts libraries from Acton to Lexington and has been displayed in venues such as the Peabody Essex Museum and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and now at the MFA.

So what exactly are Madhubani paintings? Sunanda explains, “It is mostly practiced by village women who have passed this art to their daughters, generation after generation.  They paint pictures of nature and mythology to depict different events like birth, marriage, and cycles of life”. This art was practiced for centuries by women to decorate their homes and their walls. Madhubani painting was executed on smooth mud walls plastered with cow dung. Traditionally natural colors obtained from plant extracts were used as the medium. Natural juices obtained from plants were mixed with resin from banana leaves and ordinary gum in order to make the paint stick to the painting medium. “Now of course we use acrylics colors for the same effect” explain Sunanda.

The art got its revival in the late 60’s during a period of drought in India when people looked for ways to earn beyond the agricultural economy. Now you will find Madhubani in saris, bedcovers, kurtis, jewellery, cards and letter holders. “The art is very much alive” says Sunanda, “thanks to its patronage and commercial viability”.

Some of her paintings are featured on her website http://colorofindia.com/. Whether it is Krishna charming the Gopis with his Flute, Hanuman comforting Sita in Ashok Vatika, or a day in the village and even a wedding with a bride in a doli , there are visually pleasing and colorfully attractive.

 While not engaged in this creative pursuit, Sunanda is involved in community activities  like the ‘English at Large’ program at Acton helping non English speakers learn English, volunteering at the town library and in the Parent Involvement Project (PIP)  a volunteer organization of parents, students, educators and community partners promoting science and math educational activities for families in the Acton-Boxborough (AB) community.

 

For more information on the artist and her work click on http://colorofindia.com/

 





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