IN PARTS OF EASTERN BIHAR AND NEPAL that are associated with the birth of Sita, Ram is not considered a good husband. Folk songs from this region, which fell under the kingdom of Mithila, recount at length the grief of the common people at Sita’s mistreatment by Ram. The poignancy of this grief is also strikingly conveyed in ‘Sita Ki Kahani’, an embroidered wall hanging by Savitri Devi, a seasoned craftswoman from Bihar. In this 90 cm x 70 cm tapestry, text and images are used to create beautiful domestic snapshots of the life Sita could have had had she married a potter, a shepherd or a fisherman from Mithila. The scenes are laid out in picture-book style with the text running alongside illustrations. In each scene, Sita appears with a different husband, whose trade is clearly depicted. In one panel, she welcomes a fisherman husband returning home with nets slung over his shoulder; in another, she seems to exchange glances with a potter husband while playing with a baby in a field, from which a path winds up to a simple hut. There is palpable happiness in these scenes, which contrast sharply with two final panels that mourn Sita’s marriage to Ram. The text below the one showing a fancy royal marriage under a canopy says: “Raj Path Se Kichu Na Mel” (Royalty gave you nothing). The last panel shows her sitting alone by the river in the forest with Laxman turning away from her; the text says, “Sita Janam Viroge Gel” (Sita’s life was spent in waiting). Sita would have been showered with love by a commoner husband, who would have remained by her side forever, suggest these parallel narratives of the Ramayana.
Devi’s wall hanging is among the craftworks featured in Akshara: Crafting Indian Scripts, put together by Jaya Jaitly and Subrata Bhowmick, a book of such varied and emotive artistry that it is hard to believe it began as a catalogue for an exhibition. But the show itself, organised last September at Delhi’s India International Centre by the Dastkari Haat Samiti, a dynamic association of craftspeople, was less an exhibition than a pan-Indian crafts experiment.