My name is Rani, and I was born in a village called Ranichak, in east Midnapur. My parents lived my sisters, but they had such a hard time raising my sisters that my grandmother raised me alone. I grew up sharing whatever food she had, and she even gave me her breast milk. She sold her pottery to support both of us. My grandmother is both my father and my mother—I rarely stayed with my actual parents. But when I was eight years old, my father began to play a larger role in my life. He brought me home occasionally, and there he showed me his scrolls, taught me the songs, and gradually I learned the art and trade. About five years later, my grandmother passed away, and my mother arranged my marriage. It was then that my life took a turn for the worse.
I moved to the village of Tamluk, also in Midnapur, to be with my husband. I recalled the years that I had spent with my father—we begged, and villagers would give us money and rice. We would come home with the rice, some vegetables, and spices that we bought with the money that people gave us. But, in contrast, my husband’s family was incredibly poor. When I went to my in-laws’ home, we often went days without eating. Apparently, scarcity and poverty are simply part of being married! I didn’t have many options to make money since my husband’s family forbade me from going to other villages and showing my scrolls. There were times that I told my husband that I was going to run away to my own family—at least there I could have one meal a day and not starve to death. My husband himself had no income. He could paint scrolls, but he was illiterate. Almost challenging me, he asked me what I was going to do to make our marriage survive and create a source of family income. Soon after, I left him to live alone on a small plot of land back in Ranichak. To produce a personal income, I made dolls, clay pots and plates. I’d paint these wares, and sell them in fairs and markets. Many of my customers were elderly women who recognized me from when I was younger. They would tell me, “Hello Rani, you’ve grown up! You used to sing scroll songs with your father then. Why don’t you sing a couple of songs now?” They would pay me, give me some muri (puffed rice), and sometimes they would invite me home and give me a meal. I told them never to disclose to my in-laws or anyone in their family that I was singing the songs. My husband’s family didn’t approve, and they would taunt and ridicule me if they found out what I was doing.
Some time later when the art of scroll painting was dwindling, a lot of researchers started coming here in an effort to save the art form. I would sing songs to them, and they were pleased. They wanted to arrange a seminar in Midnapur town and to have me open the meeting by singing a song. A number of scroll painters from various places attended it, including a number of male family members of mine. But my husband said he didn’t want me to go—purely because I was a woman! I was so angry and in tears when my husband told me this—he told me that I neither had to learn song or paint scrolls. These were simply not my duties. But I knew in my heart that I was ready and able to sing and paint, and my husband could not stop me. Some time after the seminar incident, Purshottam Talukdar, a man from Calcutta, came to my village and asked me if I knew of any other women that could paint and sing scrolls songs. I told him that, indeed, I knew many. He then said he wanted to organize an exhibition of scrolls and asked whether I could attend it, and I was overjoyed.
By the time that the exhibition occurred, my husband had softened to my participation in the singing and painting activities, and he accompanied me to the exhibition. But when we returned, my mother-in-law was indignant: She told me that she would never eat food that we cooked nor accept money or other gifts from him. She forbade him to call her “mother.” And in act of weakness, he touched her and vowed never to take me anywhere ever again. What a promise! I started crying when I heard him. I hadn’t done anything wrong. I only did what I knew.
It was at this point in my life that the gender-divide had become unbearable and I began to invest myself in an initiative that would empower women in my community. On my suggestion, the SDO of Midnapur created an association of all the female scroll painters of the area. The benefits that some sort of organization might provide a group of female workers would be boundless! Before, women in our village used to get no encouragement or incentive to work from anybody. They would face a great deal of resistance, like me, if they chose to sing and paint. My husband ceased to object to my work, and many villagers commented that he had become my slave. We were taunted for this seemingly backward relationship, but I didn’t care. I tried to convince the women with whom I worked that if they truly wanted to sing and paint, then they had the right to do it. Just because their husbands told them not to do something didn’t mean that they couldn’t. I also mentioned that if they do not assert their interests that they would have to spend their lives begging. If they painted scrolls and sang, they would earn respect. It was then that they realized how essential it was for us to be doing our work.
Now, women are painting publicly, and singing in groups. In the past, they were scared—but once our organization was recognized and funded by the government, their fears disappeared. I won’t say that the standard of living for members of our committee is better: there has been no change in the poverty and progress seems to be tenuous. But we paint very candidly—we depict images of HIV, spousal abuse and bridal murder. In that sense, I believe that we are progressing socially. The ways that husbands treat their wives here are outrageous, and we are honest in our work. Men don’t object to our candor: they are very well aware of their actions, and their cognizance is disheartening. But we are no longer in the dark. We have new media of expression. Ultimately, this sort of progress and development may be more worthwhile that simply earning a more comfortable life financially.