This woman is empowering rural women in Maharashtra by creating art spaces for them
The Red House Art Exchange, an art space built by Mumbai-based journalist and painter Mamta Chitnis Sen, is empowering women farmers in the Konkan Region through art.
Monday March 20, 2023,
6 min Read
In Ronapal village of Maharashtra, a group of women farmers working in sweltering heat, with their feet submerged ankle-deep in muddy water, walked out of the paddy fields. With sweat dripping down their sun-tanned cheeks, they were using their arms to shield their foreheads from the sun.
But these women were not going home after a hard day’s work. They were walking towards “their space”–an art studio of sorts–to paint their hearts out on blank canvases.
These women are part of The Red House Art Exchange, an art space surrounded by paddy fields in Ronapal village, which is empowering women farmers in the Konkan Region through art. The name is derived from the red soil of the Konkan region that symbolises life, love, passion, desire, action, energy, and confidence.
The centre was established in 2020 by Mamta Chitnis Sen, a Mumbai-based journalist and painter, who has been passionate about women’s liberation, and art and culture.
How it all started?
A graduate of Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai, Sen inherited an ancestral piece of land in 2012, but she was denied ownership by her distant relatives. She took the legal route to settle the dispute, which took her three years.
Sen recalls visiting the village court every month, a small room surrounded by paddy fields, where she met many women fighting for “their piece of land.” These visits birthed the idea of a painting series on Konkan's women farmers, which Sen later exhibited in various galleries around the world.
During one of her exhibitions in Lithuania, Ieva Matulionyte, an art curator and Sen’s friend, gave her the idea of starting an art residency in the Konkan region to empower women farmers by giving them access to a form of creative expression.
“Art has always been an integral part of my life and it was in that moment that I decided to empower the marginalised women farmers through this passion of mine,” she tells HerStory.
In 2015, Sen won the case and decided to use the land to start the art centre. However, her mother disagreed. The disagreement continued till the pandemic struck and left Sen lying on her “death bed”.
“I was diagnosed with typhoid, and being a diabetic, the recovery process was extremely slow. I was bedridden for 10 long days, and my health started deteriorating. I was unsure if I would live any longer,” she recalls.
Hanging between life and death, she contemplated life and everything else. “In my heart, I knew that if I made it out alive, I would build the art space I have yearned for so long,” she recalls.
After regaining her health, in September 2020, Sen took a loan and invested all her savings to build a 500 sq. ft structure on a 10,000 sq. ft of land. The art space, designed by Sen’s husband and photographer, Sanjit Sen, has now extended to 4,000 sq feet, and features two in-house art galleries.
However, Sen’s journey ahead was anything but easy. In 2021, Cyclone Tauktae hit the region, bringing incessant week-long rainfall and a power outage for eight days.
As a result, there was a shortage of labourers, and what was already built was partly damaged, increasing Sen’s construction budget.
But these roadblocks only reinforced Sen’s conviction in her goal. On Independence Day in 2021, Sen hosted the first workshop with the women farmers on their ideas of freedom, which were later displayed as an art exhibition in the art space.
“Most women had never held a paint brush, and they created beautiful art pieces, which left me astonished,” says Sen.
The second workshop, ‘Project Wildflower,’ was held in collaboration with Soraya Marcano, a New York-based artist, wherein the children of the women farmers were asked to paint wildflowers found in the forests.
Slowly, the initiative garnered the attention of government officials and sarpanches (village heads) of nearby villages. To spread more awareness about the art space, Sen arranged for a cooking competition where couples were asked to cook local Malvani cuisines. These officials were requested to judge the contest.
In January 2023, the art space held a photo and art exhibition of ‘Dashaavatar’ (the folk-art form depicting the ten avatars of Lord Vishnu) by Sen’s husband, Sanjit Sen.
The exhibition was a big hit as it was inaugurated by the king and queen of Sawantwadi– Rajasaheb Khem Sawant VI and Ranisaheb Shubhadhadevi along with wildlife photographer Indrajeet Ghorpade and noted author Shailendra Ghorpade.
Sen says her struggles saw no end even after setting up the art space. No woman was ready to visit the art centre as they were all daily wage workers.
However, with constant efforts, coupled with the help of the village sarpanch, Sen managed to convince the women to visit the art space in their free time. While she decided to keep the art space open even in the afternoons to avoid this problem in the long run, most of them visit the space on Mondays as they are relatively free then.
Sen was skeptical of the response she would get as she did not know how much importance would be given to art in the village area.
Although the idea of the art workshop was initially not paid heed to, the eventuality was very different after the first workshop.
“They all agreed to come for an hour, but they liked it so much that they stayed till the evening,” Sen recalls.
Following the first workshop, many women from the neighbouring villages wanted to be a part of the art space. Sen initially started with women from two villages, which has now increased to more than ten villages.
“Women welcomed art with open arms. It feels so good to see them at leisure and create whatever they feel like,” Sen adds.
The way ahead
In the coming months, the art space is expecting the arrival of artists from all over the world to exhibit their artworks, create sculptures and murals, and provide art education to the women farmers.
India’s leading charcoal artist Ajay De, Australian artist Leanne Bray, artist and founder of World Citizen Artists Valerie Won Lee, and French photographer Christophe Canato are some of the names expected to visit the centre.
Sen also plans to monetise the art made by the women farmers by setting up a shop in the art space. With an upcoming art workshop with the fishermen and women from Vengurla and Acchra villages in Maharashtra, she aims to open the space for all the marginalised communities.
She will also be exhibiting the paintings made by these women in Bristol, UK, in October 2023. Sen aims to make varied forms of contemporary art such as visual art, digital art, and photography, accessible to these marginalised women.
“A lot needs to be changed in the world for these women, and this art space is my effort to empower them though creative expression, and provide them with growth opportunities,” she says.
(The story has been updated to change brother-in-law to mother)
Edited by Megha Reddy