Fairs & Festivals Gender Rituals & Practices Special Feature

Durga Redefined: A Muslim Girl Inspired by Durga Paints the Goddess

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Saba Ikram documented the life of many Sufi women of Delhi like Bibi Sam, Bibi Sara, Mai Saheba and Jahanara. She took interest in Devi Durga’s stories. The author asked her to show the most relevant women issues such as domestic violence, gender discrimination, eve-teasing, women’s health, etc. through the nine forms of Durga, in her new Devi painting series, in 2012. Her Devi paintings threw light on burning women issues. These paintings were exhibited in many schools and colleges to highlight the women issues. Aseem tells us how Durga became the symbol of emancipation for Muslim women, in the Durga Puja special issue, exclusively in Different Truths.

After finishing my PG in development communication from AJK Mass Com Center, Jamia Millia Islamia, I was placed at Seelampur, in North East Delhi, which is a typical Muslim dominated area. There I had to work with Muslim women who rarely go out because of social and religious restrictions. I worked there for a couple of years for UNESCO as an ethnographic action researcher and documented the life of many unmarried and married women, suffering from domestic violence (gender-based violence). They wished to see the world beyond their narrow boundaries.

After completing the project funded by UNESCO and Queensland University, Australia, I did not leave the place and started my own non-profit work, Aseem Asha Foundation there, on special request by the young women of the area. There I met Kiran Rai, who had been living in Janta Mazdoor Colony and was determined to do something extraordinary in her life. She was the only Hindu girl among my students, who joined my classes in the Muslim dominated area.

She introduced me to Durga. Fortunately, her mother’s name is also Durga. I used to tell the story of powerful Sufi women of Delhi to my women students and my students used to make the folk paintings based on the stories that I narrated. Saba Ikram documented the life of many Sufi women of Delhi like Bibi Sam, Bibi Sara, Mai Saheba and Jahanara. She took interest in Durga Devi’s stories. I asked her to showcase relevant women issues such as domestic violence, gender discrimination, eve-teasing, women’s health, etc. through the nine forms of Durga, in her new Devi painting series, in 2012.

Her Devi paintings threw light on burning women issues. We exhibited these paintings in many schools and colleges and thus could highlight the women issues. On the other hand, we could also tell the stories of nine forms of Durga too.

The tradition of making Devi paintings is still going on. Saba trained many other girls who have been documenting the stories of Durga in their own style. All of these community artists feel empowered when they finish even a single creation.

Adiba Saifi, Farhana Saifi, Afia, Ilama, Bushra and Seema Mushtaq have beautifully painted the forms of Durga till the date and their paintings could raise Rs.18,000/- for a meaningful project last year. They organised nice Diwali lunch for the old folks living in Old Age Home, at Okhla, last year. The balance amount was spent in their art training and educational exposure visits.

Meanwhile, my Facebook friends Arindam Roy and Joyce Yarrow invited my Devi Art group in their book launch, at American Center, in Delhi, in 2015.

They gifted us a copy of their very interesting novel Rivers Run Back. My Devi Art group made portraits and pictorial calligraphy of the characters from this novel. Later, Joyce displayed these, at Seattle, during her American book launch ceremony.

Marilyn was a very interesting character which Adiba liked most. She had already met noted novelist Joyce from Seattle, who seemed to be very empowered to her, similar to Durga. She somehow incorporated many nuances of her meet with Joyce and the character of Marylin, who had been the ardent admirer of Goddess Durga and her strength.

Apart from making paintings of Devi in a very innovative experimental folk style my students also visit Puja Pandal at Chitranjan (CR) Park in Delhi.

Aseem Asha Foundation has organized five Tagore Utsavs in association with Fine Art Faculty, Jamia Millia Islamia based on the life, philosophy, and works of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

So our connection with Durga is also through the great works of Rabi Thakur (his poems, short stories, dramas, paintings etc), where the symbol of women power is somewhere much revealed and somewhere very hidden.

When our young boys visited Puja Pandal at CR Park in Delhi and heard the sound of dhak and other musical instruments during aarti they felt again a close connection with their own culture too. Hasan Raza says, “The rhythm and beats of the dhak were very divine and very close to Moharram percussions too, though the former was about joyous victory, unlike the tragic loss of Moharram. Despite all this, I felt a similarity between the two”

Hasan and other younger boys had great fun during this outing at CR Park for the last couple of years.

They try new recipes of fishe available there and chill out in giant wheels and other swings. Adnan and Qasim recently asked me “Sir, Durga Puja has arrived, are we going to celebrate this year again?”

Aqil says, “This is like our Eid Milan Mela, where we enjoy a lot…it’s another treat after Eid”.

©Aseem Asha Usman

Pic by author.

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