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Articles on Indian contemporary art by Swapna Vora

Shelly Jyoti and Mithila: The joy of decoration
by Swapna Vora

February 09, 2009

(click on the small image for full screen image with captions.)

Shelly Jyoti's modern interpretation of Mithila's traditional art is done for pure joy and for decoration. She uses bright colors, jewelry, patterned fabrics, even sari borders: there is no sadness here, deep angst or philosophical puzzles. There are lively birds and animals, fish and feathers. God's in his heaven, bright love and rainbow space filled with flowery abundance lie underneath. She loves both the pretty and the beautiful. This is fun and perhaps the future as patterns of the past are used, admired and sometimes totally transfigured. (Incidentally, 'Shelly' means skilled in art and 'Jyoti' means light.)

Mithila, Bihar, is Princess Sita's birthplace. Sita, (often called Maithili), holds a prime position in India's myths and religious inheritance and women are often compared to her. In Mithila, women paint religious and festive themes on fabric and paper. This is folk art, meaning it employs traditional themes and methods and is created by self-taught artists, often in their homes. The lines between 'sophisticated' studio art and 'simple' folk art can be arbitrary and often demeaning. Here this simply denotes a genre, a style of decoration. Mithila work shows many different events and tales. These paintings, called Madhubani, (honey forest), are loved for their depiction of old religious legends of good and evil, the traditions of Krishna when god came down in human form once again, festivals, strong detailed drawings of local flora and, today, political events.


Shelly, smart and successful, was making elegant, modern outfits fusing traditional patterns and embroidery when she fell in love with Madhubani. She dressed women and Madhubani work too is mainly done by women at home. With empathy, she drew similar work herself and learned as she went along. Shelly is a self-taught artist and refreshingly, perhaps thankfully, minus the self-conscious touch and long, elaborate stories.

Shelly drew figures for a long time in almost every media: dry pastel, crayons, oil, and grew interested in texture. Having worked with fabrics and style for so long, it seems inevitable she would paint folk embroidery and patterns. Her paintings show elaborate intricate details that resemble dainty 'kantha' stitches, painted 'kalamkari' styles, 'ari' embroidery and 'meenakam' (enamel jewelry). Consciously, she does try to create texture on paper. The result is these delightfully colorful and very bright paintings from a modern city woman's imagination and skill in perhaps updating a centuries old tradition of women's painting. Yes, one asks indignantly, why would anyone want to change this old style? The reason is we ourselves are changing, along with all life. Changing and evolving, this style too could become a tradition tomorrow. First one does feel nonplussed as to why anyone would want to redo lovely old patterns and typical ways of depiction. But Shelly's work grows on one and slowly one smiles and savors her efforts. It does not fight or argue with traditional Madhubani, it simply is itself in a similar genre. Still Shelly relies on typical and traditional symbols. Parrots mean love, a bamboo represents male energy, lotuses are for purity and spiritual knowledge. And Kali Ma's eyes follow one around the room. Her fish swim in deep blues, gods' feet beckon, beautiful birds fly through azure skies, the conch reminds one of Lakshmi and recalls the wealth generated by women, deities have lotus shod feet, the swastik speaks of health and well being, the sun offers growth and energy, swans are for Saraswati and intelligence: all appear here alongside Ganesh, Kali Ma, and traditional stick figures. Buddha, Shiv Shakti, and modern city sophisticates in all their glamour vie for our eyes.


While Madhubani work is colorful, traditionally it uses more restrained colors, more black, white and red and the soft mature hues of vegetable dyes. Shelly uses an exuberantly bright palette, overwhelming and occasionally demanding, which grows on one and not at all slowly. Her enjoyment of reds, crimsons, purples and bright turquoise colors and her acquaintance with the world of textiles and stitches, her knowledge of traditional weaving and folk embroidery all appear in the corners of her work. Fashion designers work with swatches and pattern samples. Here one sees samples in her borders and again as they are repeated in the main body.

Shelly has worked in various mediums and has shown experimental abstract work successfully. It was amazing, she says, how much I learned playing, working and laboring with pencils, brushes and spatulas in search of texture. "A flat surface was not enough for me, I wanted texture." And today, some of her work uses collages: a rich border woven with gold perches somewhat decoratively on one painting. Her paintings will please those who take joy in decoration and ornaments and enjoy jewelry for its own sake. The bright hues, these pictures of God, space, the tree of life blossoming marvelously and women's lives will appeal to all who enjoy exuberance, who insist on abundance as their inheritance.

Shelly was moving into painting after having worked with textiles. "Then Chicago invited me", she says happily and the exhibition jury chose her work. Shelly hails from the Punjab and when invited to participate, she wanted to take something from her background, something Indian. She experimented and researched as to what would express herself and her country and found an updated version of Mithila work, a combination of kalamkari painting and kantha stitches suited her. Seeing her work one first misses the simplicity of folk art, the direct story telling and soft vegetable colors but her work grows on one and we too enjoy her enthusiastic use of bright colors and modern topics. Peacocks, birds from paradise, bejeweled city slickers, blooms of red, violet and indigo, borders almost like jidwal in miniatures: her work is a combination as it leaps from Mithila's Madhubani, vaults over folk art and remembers miniatures, gorgeous quilts and borders all backed by her deep spiritual faith.

Eclectic, at first it shocks, then it provides pleasure.

She say, "This is my style, this is my outpouring. I am a visual artist, a bridge. As a fashion designer I knew how to create and how to go ahead. I knew how to make a collection of 20 garments in different styles with the same fabric. Here too I have created this collection: same size, similar colors but different contents, all unlike each other." This is true! "I used to design for my embroidery folk, draw the designs, paint precise colors. I did not just give them instructions. I actually made swatches for my workers to follow. What I could not understand at twenty, today I have begun to understand at fifty: the relationships between colors, styles, sizes and patterns. One learns and learns. I supplied many top fashion houses but deep inside I knew this was not my métier, my vocation. The search had begun. I knew I was an artist and a very visual person. A style I loved was from Raja Ravi Verma. I used his paintings, the designs on the garments and his decorative elements in my fashion designs. Today I continue to admire his rich use of color, clothes and accessories." Shelly loves detail, lapidary work: "When I use zardozi in my painting, it will look like it, not a pallid imitation. Kantha will clearly show the small simple stitches. I use block printing designs and techniques, I use embroidery. I know weaving, knitting, knotting. My painting takes off from my work with textiles, this rapport is so good."

"At the show I sent work: Indian work by an Indian artist. It was clearly from India. That is where I am rooted. Everyone was curious about my Mithila iconography." She talks of what she has taken out of Mithila work and what she has put it, a certain modernization, a certain adherence to our time, to what is fashion today in thought or clothing. "There, I spoke on contemporary folk art," describing what she is really doing.

This current work is in sections. One depicts the tree of life, another talks of space. Another group is about women from the innocence of birth, to puberty, teenage lore, weddings and partnerships with others and finally a complete, independent, authoritative old age. Her ideas remind one of Judy Chicago's grand dining table with all its embroidery, tableware, ceramics, weaving and places reserved for women who rewrote history. She speaks of herself, her mother and daughter and their shifting alliances and activities. She speaks of equality and her mother sternly asks, 'What is this equality?' Like good Indian women, we agree that children must, but must do what they are told...! They can have all the democracy they want when they are older! She speaks of liberty and fraternity. Fraternity Indian women have in plenty and equality everywhere remains a myth. She remembers she is the mother of her child and also the child of her mother, this continuity, these changing relationships please her. She has been a baby and remembers she has carries this nucleus from her mother to her daughter. About her women oriented pictures, we talk of the concept that women often complain about: Yes, I have a house but what I need is a room of my own, like every territorial being.

Coming from Baroda, she is steeped in Gujarati culture. She speaks of Baroda's much loved, omnipresent banyan trees. Here she incorporates them into her garments, hangings and paintings. The Baroda textile museum too offered her amazing stimuli. This then is a sangam (confluence of rivers) of Shelly and Madhubani, the city lady and village women: though the skills are similar, subjects change, colors and tastes change. But the resemblance springs back.

She speaks of spiritual grounding and her belief in karma. "You get what you give. And so I spread goodness, light and brightness. If I were wicked, surely I would get it back," she says fervently. "I am an artist, I explore the visual. I just produce. These are my babies. I explore decoration."

She has an exhibition coming up in 2009 at India Habitat Center, New Delhi.



Shelly Jyoti's elaborate artworks are an adoration and celebration of life. Her complex paintings express abundance and joy in a combination of intricate lines set in a rich color palette. The artist honors her culture, her earth, and the universe by employing ancient symbolic forms, ornamental patterns, exuberant flora and fauna in iconic settings. Framed in delicate borders that incorporate and repeat symbols, each painting becomes a statement of pure devotion and personal prayer. Shelly Jyoti's artwork inspires the viewer with beauty, magic and a sense of longing and hope for a better world.

Beate C Minski, Executive Director, Woman Made gallery, Chicago, IL. Oct 2008

Shelly writes on her work:
Woman: The tree of life:
The process of continuation
The tree stands
So tall and majestic
Just like my mother
Elegant and wise
Gentle and generous
Upright and magnanimous
Bearing leaves
Every new season
Flowering and fruition
Blooms and beams
The spreading
Extending branches
Into the clouds
Welcoming and fascinating
Spreading happiness
A bliss!
In spring and all
The fresh air.
A sense of freedom
I learn to live
Reminds me of my mother
So tall and majestic
Elegant and forgiving
Woman – The tree of life
Steady progression
Content with the present
Content with the future
A Furtherance!
Shelly Jyoti
February 2008

Me, My Mother and My Daughter
The three generations
A bond
A link
My mother
The nucleus
An epitome of love
My daughter
My nucleus
Me, a link between
Two strong women
The nucleus
A space
We three share
Liberty, equality and fraternity

Shelly'z Art Collezioni
11 Productivity Road
Near DodsalColony
Akota, Vadodara 390 020
Gujarat, India
Tel 91- 265-2332 160,2350 263

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