Dulari Devi lives in a discrete village in Bihar where resources aren’t resplendent and dreaming of a luxurious life seems like luxury itself. However, with her regional tongue in Maithili and undying spirit of keeping alive the traditional culture of her state, Dulari Devi is connecting a thousand hearts across India.
Her story is rife with adversity, trials, subjugation, but ultimate deserving triumph. In her 50s now, Dulari Devi is recognisable as a recipient of the Padma Shri honour and an artist with an impressive body of work that contains knowledge – about history, mythology, culture – that may well become endangered and subsequently extinct if not preserved.
At a conference organised April 15 by the Indian Social Responsibility Network (ISRN) to honour the life and times of Dr BR Ambedkar, Dulari Devi was seated against a magnificent background of Madhubani art, in all probability her own. She recounted her journey, from a child bride to an accomplished artist, focusing on the need to retain folk art.
“Bachhe kitaab toh padh lete hain, painting sikhana padta hai,” she said. [Children can read books, but you have to teach them how to paint.] “When I teach them Mithila art, I make sure to introduce themes of nature and the fishing community I belong to. Traditions should not be forgotten, they should be preserved.”
Dulari Devi, Other Academics, Scholars, Officers Uphold BR Ambedkar’s Feminism
Dulari Devi, who belongs to the oppressed Mallaah caste, was married off at thirteen to a husband who soon left her. A child she had during her early years of marriage tragically died. Today, she says, when she is asked if she has any children, there’s only one answer: “I may not have kids of my own. But all the kids of India are my children.”
The Madhubani painter is now renowned nation, even world, over for her efforts of art preservation and traditional skill – a step towards actualising the intersectional dream of financial and social empowerment Babasaheb Ambedkar saw for Dalit women.
On acknowledging the relevance and importance of Babasaheb to the modern feminist discourse
Professor C Sheela Reddy, the principal of Venkateswara College, Delhi University, meanwhile, weighed in academically during the ISRN conference on Ambedkar’s central relevance to India’s movement of women empowerment. “Why Ambedkar matters to women’s rights is because he changed the debate on women’s social position. It is exclusively different from other reformers like Rammohun Roy because they tried to reform Hindu society of certain practices without questioning the social order.”
“Ambedkar rejected reform that was ‘charity.’ He wanted reorganisation and reconstruction of Hindu society on equality and absence of casteism. He analysed the manner in which gender is artificially construed… how it conditions women with certain ‘feminine’ behaviours. Society should be based on reason, not caste, he argued.”
In the pages of history, Dr Ambedkar is credited with not just laying the foundations of a Constitution for all, but for the pertinent discourse he led across issues, including that of eroding the hierarchies that instruct the gender order. In the 1920s, he impressed upon the need to ensure maternity benefits and recognise the rights of working women, the first push that resulted in the Maternity Benefit Act of 1961 years later.
“Women must attain enlightened citizenship not enlightened domesticity”: Scholars weigh in on Ambedkar’s teachings
The legislative proposals he put forward – focused on equal marriages, franchise, property rights – resulted in watershed moments in Indian history, such as in the consolidation of voting rights for women and the protective Hindu Marriage Act of 1955. More on that here.
IAS officer and Women and Child Development Director Dr Rashmi Singh, at the conference, invokes the Global Gender Gap Index 2021 recently released by the World Economic Forum, referring to India’s fall in the index. “The political representation of women is important. Ambedkar was not just a ‘thinker,’ he was a ‘doer.’ He realised for women’s genuine place in politics, a piecemeal approach will not work. Law is where it starts but to change the patriarchal mindset, social andolan is important.”