The Arts

Madhubani Art: ‘The Most Rewarding Aspect Is the Sense of Belonging It Gives You to Express Yourself'

In conversation with Ashutosh Kumar Thakur, a Bengaluru-based management professional and literary critic, Santosh Kumar Das speaks about his life and works.

Born in 1962, Santosh Kumar Das is an acclaimed Madhubani painting artist. He pursued his Bachelor of Fine Arts at M.S.U, Baroda. Following his BFA, he made a conscious decision to return to his roots in the village and continue his artistic journey in the traditional style, using a basic nib and ink to create mesmerising artworks. Ashutosh Kumar Thakur, a Bengaluru-based management professional and literary critic, speaks with Santosh Kumar Das about his life and works.

Tell us about your background and how did you become interested in Madhubani paintings? Can you recall your earlier memories/influences of holding the brush?

Santosh Kumar Das: I originally come from ‘Ranti, a small village situated a few kilometres to the east of Madhubani. I don’t remember exactly when I started to paint and draw. Music and drawing have always been with me. Roughly around the age of five, I could sing and draw. Singing and drawing constantly occupied me. I remember my mother saying that when I could not speak words, I could still sing and hum. One of the songs she said I could sing was “Dheere Chalo Jara Muqaddar Ki Gaari Mein Main Hum Do Anari, Ye Hai Naya Raasta” – a Lata Mangeshkar-Subir Sen duet from Aas Ka Panchhi, a 1961 Hindi film.

She also noted that I could not do full justice to the lyrics being a young kid of roughly four (or five). Naya rasta funnily became ‘Nara Raasita’ in my version (rendition). Music and painting ran parallel in my life then and even now.

My father worked in the railways. In my early childhood, we lived in Muzaffarpur in the railway colony near the station. As a child, I would pay several visits to the railway station in a day spending time looking at the film poster on the poles and pillars. A child drawing the faces of the matinee idols from those posters was a common sight. I would be surrounded by excited and equally astonished onlookers who showered gifts on me as I finished the sketches.

How long have you been practising Madhubani painting?

SKD: Coming back to Mithila art, I have been painting since 1970 fired by my own skills of drawing.

Could you tell us a bit about the history of Madhubani paintings? When and how did they originate?

SKD: It is tough to put an exact date as to when it first began. However, as historians and writers have noted, Lord Ram is believed to have seen some murals adorning the walls of King Janak’s palace in Janakpur, now in present-day Nepal. On the cultural level, the Brahmin and Kayastha women of the Mithila region have been making ritualistic paintings for weddings (in the form of vermilion wrappers, traditionally carried by the groom’s side for the wedding to be organised at the bride’s place) and ‘Aripans’ on the floor. For the wedding, a special room is earmarked as the ‘Kohbar Ghar’, the walls and corners of which are richly painted. On the eastern wall, the Kohbar representing the lotus plant, symbolic of fertility, is painted.

In fewer words, I can say without much hesitation that the roots of this art form lie well within the domestic space of the Mithila household wherein the physical and the divine mingle to give shape to a unique cultural artform that later got rechristened as Madhubani painting.

Coming to modern times, Mithila art was first discovered in the wake of a natural disaster by a colonial officer named William G Archer. In the year 1934, a devastating earthquake measuring 8.0 magnitude hit northern Bihar and neighbouring Nepal. William G. Archer, who was posted in Madhubani as an SDO, was forced to make a survey of the entire Mithila region. During his survey, what he saw immediately mesmerised him.

In the broken mud houses of the ‘upper’ caste Maithils (chiefly Brahmins and Kayasthas), the murals on the outer and inner walls of the dwellings left him dumbfounded and he took several photos of these murals consisting of the gods and goddesses and the ritualistic wedding diagrams. This was the first time the outside world took notice of this beautiful tradition which had been in practice since the time of Ramayana.

Long after Independence, the Congress government led by Indira Gandhi took attention and thought of bringing this art form majorly done by women into the mainstream. Mithila owing to its geographical proximity to Nepal was a perennial victim of floods and droughts. The erstwhile Congress government sent the handicrafts on a mission to Mithila to create economic opportunities for the people through art. And the people found themselves taking to this traditional art with great enthusiasm and hope.

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What challenges did you face while mastering this traditional art form?

SKD: When I first started painting, my mother, Savitri Devi was my first role model. I tried to paint in her style. I have told the entire story of my beginning in Madhubani art in a book called Black: An Artist’s Tribute (published by Tara Books, Chennai). In the early days, my mother was my muse. Later on, I saw Ganga Devi’s art in a film on Madhubani art by a French filmmaker, Yves Vequad. I at once fell in love with her neatness and incredibly powerful nibwork. Painting in the line style, discovering Ganga Devi was a turning point in my artistic journey. Her use of black and red mesmerised me. My urge to paint became stronger. It is hard to believe what transpired in me. But I definitely found a direction I would go with my art and talents.

A painting by Santosh Kumar Das.

Can you share a brief overview of your artistic journey? When and how did they originate?

SKD: Well, my artistic journey began as early as 1970. Bhaskar Kulkarni had just introduced handmade paper to the village women who were used to drawing/painting on the walls and floors of their households. For I had been already drawing portraits from calendars and religious books (Gita Press booklets), the Madhubani painting came easy for me. I devoted all my imagination and skill in creating beautiful paintings on paper. To put it more clearly, I would paint like an enthusiast improving with each painting; always trying to make the next painting better than the last one. If I started work, I would not rest unless I completed it as I had visualised in the beginning.

I have been quite an instinctive person all through my life. This was a very exciting time with all the ladies taking to painting with great ardor. The arrival of painting in the community gave me an opportunity to develop my congenital talents. It continued in this manner till the 1980s began. In 1979, I moved to Delhi for a brief stint to pursue English literature at the university level only to return back to my village forced by financial constraints.

Thereafter began a new phase of my life. In hindsight, I realised it was destiny that did not let me succeed in my academic plans. Coming back to the village, I abandoned all fancy ideas of studying outside and thought of staying in the village and living an utterly simple life and pursuing my love for English in ways which were possible here. I returned to the same college in my hometown. Around this time, an American anthropologist named Raymond Lee Owens and his ethnomusicologist wife, Naomi Owens, came to Madhubani to research Madhubani painting. I was asked to join their team as a translator. The job on offer was to help collect, record and translate Mithila songs. I grabbed it with all my hands.

What lured me was the opportunity to spend time in the company of such great scholars that too, English speakers. Saying yes to this job, I brought myself closer to the culture and art of the region. I came in contact with painters across the communities. While I worked with them, I had the privilege of talking to and seeing Ganga Devi, the most famous Kayastha painter from very close quarters. Her works, her hermit-like personality, and her intensely beautiful paintings rendered in her characteristic exquisiteness left a strong mark on my mind, rather than my heart. Even though I never entered into a formal tutelage, she became my Dronacharya, my Guru in absentia.

After my work ended with the Americans, they decided to help me return to Delhi University to once again resume the same education there. They were so happy with my job as a translator that they were willing to help in all the ways they could. Raymond took me to Delhi and put me in touch with a few professors and scholars there hoping that those meetings might help me get into the University again. But one Bengali professor, who was also a part-time artist, suggested that if I could paint, why not pursue painting at an art school rather than study English here? He strongly advised me to give the artist in me a chance and lead an exciting life.

Raymond liked what that professor said. It echoed what he had dreamt about me. Meeting that professor turned out to be prophetic and set my life in a new direction. In 1984, Raymond was able to find a donor who would sponsor my education at the art school. A professor friend of Raymond from Denver agreed to finance me. In 1985, I joined the Faculty of Fine Arts at MSU Baroda. Coming to Baroda, a whole new world opened up for me. I was exposed to arts from all over the world. But to the surprise of many, I unconsciously kept closer to my Madhubani roots in my art practice there. I more or less stayed away from modern materials and confined myself to pen drawings in black that spoke of my origins and my natural gifts of portraiture. Now I would say I was just responding to the things that spoke to me. Picasso and his freedom to express, unhindered and less academic in form appealed to me. I was shuttling between the neat Madhubani lines and the freakish forms rubbing on me from Picasso. The professors and the seniors looking at my pen doodles often remarked that they (the doodles) resemble the works of Joan Miro and Paul Klee.

Baroda proved to be crucial in opening new ways of seeing for me. I have grown totally disenchanted with Madhubani art. But after five years there, to my surprise, I could look at this traditional art form with new eyes. In 1990, I returned and began exploring the elements, metaphors, and motifs associated with Madhubani art. It was a long process that made me revisit the intersections of culture, myth, ritual, and folklore within the Madhubani idiom. I took to pen and paper again, started doodling and found how all the different elements could fuse together into a visual language that could accommodate both personal and cultural demands simultaneously.

For a decade after coming back from the Baroda Art School, I immersed myself completely in exploring how the hand-drawn line (the typical line made by the nib as represented in the works of the great Mithila painter, Ganga Devi) could hold within it the whole visual world – from the human figures to ‘Aripans( Alpanas) to clay idols, to Likhua-Padhua (the intricately made Urad-Besan savouries that was primarily part of the wedding (feast) menu, etc. My innermost belief was that the line defines, shapes, characterises everything seen in the whole world. My urge to see the world in the traditional Madhubani style constantly engaged me, forcing me to draw and paint themes not very popular amidst the community of artists living around me.

Who could have thought that child games like ‘Ghughua Manna Upje Dhanna’ could have a visual life of its own? I was doing all this in the early 1990s. All those drawings were bought by the Japanese collector Tokio Hasegawa. He promised that these works shall go into the Mithila Museum which he had just founded in Niigata, Japan.

The hard work of the 90s reinforced faith in my decision to return to Mithila Art despite having gone to an art school. This decision was not an easy one to carry off. The community was busy churning out reproductions of things that sold without much difficulty.  I would only take up themes that had a personal appeal. Painting revolved around consolidating a proper understanding of the Madhubani style with an emphasis on the technique and treatment. By honestly applying myself to the Mithila medium and mastering its various elements through practice, in my mind, I began to rise above all the petty divisions of classical, folk or modern. Painting in the traditional style now was no less an inferior job.

Come the new millennium, Raymond (sadly this is the only word that immediately came to my mind) again made a comeback in my life. He was seeing me after a decade and a half. I had very little correspondence with him since I joined the art school and he left for America. He was so happy to see that I still carried the same love and passion for art and had done well in my own right. He saw my paintings and the only piece of advice he gave me was to supersize my works. He was very impressed with the use of neat lines and designs. The line style was witnessing a certain shift of loyalty in its practitioners. The 90s market made the boundaries between blurs. But I still kept painting in the line style in all its dignity and essence.

I began working with a greater urge and vigour. The beginning of the new millennium saw me entering into large panels depicting folk stories rendered in the wonderful line style of Madhubani. The panels describing the story of ‘Hansraj and Bachraj’, a story I heard from my mother in my childhood are a prestigious part of the Art Institute of Chicago.

In 2002, after the horrific communal riots in Gujarat, the reports of killings of Muslims as well as Hindus started to spread through newspapers and television. I was greatly shocked at the turn of events that shook the whole nation. On a personal note, I was emotionally hurt as I had a special bond with Gujarat. Overcome by grief, I thought of capturing the riots in the Madhubani style – initially, it seemed too daunting a task especially as there had been no such depiction in this style before. I did a series of 24 paintings highlighting the death of human values, the death of Gandhism and the death of secularism.

In 2003, one of my American friends, David Szanton (a close friend of Raymond Owens – with whom he had floated an art organisation called EAF in the US that focused on the marketing and appreciation for Mithila Art and a committed academic who has curated shows on Mithila art extensively across US and Europe, and has also published a number of papers on Mithila art in prestigious publications across the world) saw them and was mesmerised by such beautiful handling of a subject as unusual as riots in this folk style. He took them to the US. Eventually, in 2005, it ended up travelling to a number of cities in the US, India, Australia, and Mexico as part of an exhibition titled ‘Edge of Desire: Recent Art in India’.

In 2003, at the behest of David Szanton, in the wake of the sudden demise of Raymond Owens, I joined an art school, Mithila Art Institute in Madhubani as its first teacher-cum-director. For five years, I taught 30 students (per year) the basics of Madhubani painting, the principles of drawing, the technique, and the designs – in brief, every department associated with the Madhubani. The school was very successful as we were able to impart cultural awareness and technical proficiency to the young, modern Maithil boys and girls. In the five years I worked at the institute, it acquired a strong reputation as a centre of learning and Mithila art.

My journey so far has been very diverse.  Nowadays, I am mostly painting from my home studio in the village. My journey would not have been the same had it not been for one individual, my nephew, Shantanu Das. He has always been there with me from a very young age. We live in a joint family.  Shantanu has been there like a shadow to everything that I have done in the arts since 2000.

After I quit the Mithila Art School in Madhubani, I decided to devote all my time to the artist inside which was crying for my time and attention. I began painting with the same youthful fervour, painting everything that engaged my imagination. I painted a long series of paintings depicting the exploits of Lord Krishna and a series on yoga and different postures. I am a lover of arts of all kinds – be it music, dance or cinema.

Nowadays, I am painting mostly in black and a bit of red. From a very young age, I am deeply influenced by the lives and teachings of mystics, saints and seers of India. I have a special connection with Buddha and his teachings. There is a strong reflection of all these on my art and my life as well.

What challenges did you face while mastering this art form?

SKD: I never had challenges, especially those of the artistic kind. I have always been doing art from a very young age. And it has been a permanent character of my life. In fact, I have understood life and the bigger questions around it through art. So, I never found any difficulty in drawing and painting. When it came to art, I was never in a hurry. I always approached it with all my passion and devoted as much time as I could manage. Even as a young boy, I would not relax till my painting would be complete. I have that natural perseverance and concentration required for art.

The only challenge I think I faced was how to restrain myself and retain focus on what I wanted to do. The market can be a distraction and it can often trap you into a cycle of repetition. And that could mean death for an artist who wants to keep growing and finding new directions for his imagination and skill. I am lucky I always had that rootedness and self-belief that kept me tied to my own natural talents and the activities my heart believed in. I have never run after money. I have rather earned it after investing decades in learning art. I don’t believe in any shortcuts.

A painting by Santosh Kumar Das.

How does the Madhubani painting reflect the cultural heritage and traditions of your region?

SKD: Madhubani painting has its very roots in the everyday rituals and festivals observed in a calendar year. In weddings, the painting was a key ingredient that appeared prominently in the ‘Khobar Room’ and also as a decoration of the household. The painting is the meeting ground of all the different elements of the culture. The sources are so varied. Yet they all find their place in the traditional painting. Mithila’s cuisine is so much dominated by the fish motif which also figures in the ‘Vamacara’ Tantra practice. Even in the wedding, a fisherwoman is expected to show up with fish – a sight that is believed to give an auspicious start.

Coming to Mithila, one would be so surprised to see the number of ponds punctuating the area. The culture is based on the human ties with nature and the Madhubani tradition reflects just that. Culturally, it is also a form of visual literacy – one that allows you to tap into one’s creativity. And in the case of women, culture makes the physical space more interesting, and they own it with their creative endeavours. Painting is just a small part of that rich cultural life.

What motifs are commonly used in your Madhubani works? Could you briefly tell us?

SKD: In my works, parrots have a strong presence. They come directly from the ‘Kohbar’ painting which symbolises love. In the Maithili language, it is called ‘Latpatiya Suga’ (intertwined parrots). Fish is also a motif I have used a lot. Sometimes I use them in the exact context as dictated by the tradition. Sometimes I also add my own meaning depending on the way I choose to present them. On that note, parrots are a love symbol. But I have also used them as symbols of freedom or dream.

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How would you describe your unique style within the realm of Madhubani art?

SKD: My style is very distinct. Fundamentally, it is rooted in the line style of Madhubani art. What I strive for in my painting is the purity of form and drawing. The application of designs and patterns to distinguish a character or emotion or feeling has to be very fluid and musical. Physically, my paintings are a mix of my own visual memories and the cultural overtones that I imbibe from them. It is all actually a very instinctive process; particularly hard to put in words.

What are the traditional materials you use for Madhubani painting?

SKD: Madhubani painting is basically done with the most basic of tools. The colours when I first started in the 1970s were all handmade. The black colour was initially made with the juice squeezed out of leaves from the runner bean creepers that would be fixed gum. To get the right thickness one would add water. This black [colour] would not last long and would turn a pinkish shade only to fade quickly. We have tried making black colour with the oxide powder bought from the market. This powder was boiled with gum in water. This was a little better than the first one. It lasted a little longer.

In the 80s, we all switched to the easier option, that is, the drawing ink in bottles made by companies like Camlin. Towards the new millennium, people started using acrylic colours as acid-free paper came into fashion. The line style uses a minimum of tools. All you need is a pen and a nib tucked on one end. My tools and materials are the same as others. Moreover, the paper I have been using for the last 10 years is not something I can buy in the local market. I have to import it from Delhi, or I pick up paper when travelling to bigger cities.

Could you briefly explain the techniques involved in creating a Madhubani artwork?

SKD: The technique involved is simple. We all start by drawing out the composition on paper. Most of the artists first use a pencil to eke out the draft. Personally, I believe in first-hand drawing in colour using a dip pen. And then steepling or hatching comes into play. The last part is the decoration or design of the spaces and clothes or other adornments. If it is line style, we have to deal mostly in two colours, namely, black and red. The designs in the line style are mostly intricate and a bit subtle as compared to colour style, where forms and surfaces are bolder. Once the characters and background are taken care of, the painting is supposed to be complete.

What inspires your creativity when starting a new Madhubani project? Are there any particular stories or cultural elements that often find their way into your artworks?

SKD: If it is a personal project, it is an extension of an idea or an image my mind is engaged with at that very moment. I can often see the final painting in my mind’s eye. Once I set out to give shape to it, I follow my plan inch by inch. In case things are not working out, I let it grow organically. I start working on the face and gradually, the picture of the torso starts to get clearer in my mind. Then the rest follows in sync.

If it is a commissioned project, I can work on the brief shared. Else I can work on a draft thinking what may suit the client. To an extent, the process remains the same.

How do you choose the colour palette?

SKD: For me choosing the colours is never a fuss. Black for me is the colour that gives form to my paintings. Black is the body, Red is the prana, the energy of being. A tiny bit of red and the black begins to move in the frame.

When using colours, I follow my instincts and ascribe them to my memories of those colours. Like the orange of a mango seen 25 years back can inspire me to take up orange at this very moment.

What are the most rewarding aspects of being a Madhubani artist?

SKD: It is hard to pinpoint one. But what immediately stands out for me is the facility, the sense of belonging it gives to you to express yourself. It gives you the same feeling as speaking in your mother tongue. I personally don’t attach much value to the labels of folk or modern. For me, art is a result of observation and experience. While pursuing art with honesty and spontaneity, it can open you to the infinite possibilities embedded within itself. Practice is the key.

In what ways do you actively promote and preserve the Madhubani painting tradition?

SKD: Madhubani painting, in my opinion, is a social art. Painting for the market is pretty recent. By doing art in the best possible way, by practicing the art form in the most refined way, I think I am doing a great service to the culture of the land. What you achieve through your efforts becomes the message for many.

Do you conduct workshops or teach the art form to others?

I have done workshops in the past. But now, I only accept senior students who want to learn Madhubani painting in a deeper, freer way without any concern for time. I also give WhatsApp lessons to a few.

In this age of smartphones and computers, Madhubani painting is spreading far and wide, to very unlikely places. We often see a non-Maithil eager to learn and practice this art. The major change is the internet where you can find out things that can aid your learning. It has also resulted in duplicity. That is a little sad. But then, these things will happen. We need to stay positive and work hard as artists.

Do you see any major change in Madhubani paintings in recent times? Is a traditional Madhubani painting different from a modern one?

SKD: In this globalised world, it is easier to confuse oneself with baseless and alien ideas of modernity. The youngsters are natural prey to such ideas. In my years as a teacher-director at Mithila Art Institute, I can say I was able to bring youth from all castes and communities under one roof to explore and learn Madhubani art.

In the 1990s, some revolutionary changes happened to Madhubani painting. The prevailing traditional styles became more fluid, and the boundaries of the colour and the line started to blur.

Do you believe that Madhubani art has the potential to bring about social change or raise awareness on certain issues?

SKD: Art does have the power to bring change. The best it could have done for Mithila society is to present an economic opportunity that could bring succour to the land subjected to political apathy, natural disasters, and economic abjectness. More than creating immediately recognisable changes, it can create social and cultural awareness.

Have you ever used your art to convey a particular message?

SKD: My own series on the 2002 Gujarat riots was a response to the social and political upheavals in the country. From time immemorial, art has provided a mirror to society creating relevant debates around culture and history. These days, Madhubani paintings have done well in highlighting social issues like female infanticide and dowry deaths. Cultural awareness is at the root of all human creation I believe.

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Tell us a bit about painters from Mithila belonging to non-Brahman/’upper’ caste, Dalit and Muslim (minorities) communities who have enriched Madhubani painting?

SKD: It’s a very good question. I am thankful to you for putting it across. The non-Brahman Or Dalit painters in popular parlance belong to two main genres. Harijan art, Godana art. Both styles are practiced by the Dalit women. The harijan style is a bold expression that uses dots in the outlines and figures. It was mainly done on the walls of houses. And ‘Godana Art’ basically drew upon the forms found in the tattoos on the body of women representing paddy fields, flowers, mythical birds, spice, and elephants. When the Dalit women (especially from the Dussadh caste) were encouraged by Dr Erika Moser, a German Anthropologist to transfer these images on paper, Godana art was born.

There have been many great painters. Chano Devi, Uttam Paswan, Swarup Lal Paswan. Lalita Devi and Urmila Devi to name a few. The presence of such diverse artistic voices alongside the upper caste, Brahman and Kayastha painters speak of a very cohesive, syncretic culture of Mithila. My favorite was Jamuna Devi. She painted in the harijan style. Her paintings on the life of chamars(the blacksmiths) are exemplary of how art can document social realities, and can also provide a lens through which society can be seen.

Amidst the current generation of Dalit painters, Naresh Paswan and Shrawan Paswan stand out prominently. These are two artists who possess great skill and strong powers of storytelling. The unique feature of these artists is that they are quite fluid over caste lines. Shrawan especially can work in both styles, in the upper caste Mithila style that uses sophisticated lines and colour as well as the more playful Godana style. Naresh limits himself to paintings done in black colour and has a very sensible take on issues around caste and migration.

The Dalit art in Mithila does not have a long history. But in a short span of time, it has grown strongly, mixing social critique and folklore to lure the art world globally. I won’t hesitate to say that the presence of such diverse voices both upper caste and Dalit vouch for the inclusive nature of our socio-cultural ecosystem where social interaction across caste and religion is embedded in the culture itself.

In the Mithila region of Bihar, a remarkable shift is occurring as Muslim girls embrace the art form of Madhubani painting. This art form is now being explored by these girls, challenging long-held taboos.

In the realm of traditional Madhubani painting, a group of Muslim women is making their presence felt. Among them are prominent voices like Sarvari Begum, Rehmati Khatoun, and Shazia Sheikh. They have also trained under teachers from the Hindu community and are driven to represent social issues, women’s rights through their artwork. All of them are young trying to break away from religious restrictions in order to use art as a means of social awareness.

Have you participated in any art exhibitions, either locally or internationally? What are some of your notable achievements as a Madhubani artist?

SKD: Yes, I have taken part in exhibitions. At the local level, due to the dearth of patrons and entrepreneurs, there are no exhibitions taking place. But I do participate in national and international exhibitions. For the last 10 years, I have been working constantly with a Delhi-based gallery, Ojas Art. Ojas Art is probably the first private organization/gallery that solely works in the field of the folk and tribal arts. It keeps conducting shows of my art. It has been a wonderful association and hope that continues forever.

The most notable achievement is that I have been able to devote my whole life to art. Despite a bleak local scene and conservative attitudes shown by the community, I have continued my work from my frugal home studio in the village.

What are your future goals and aspirations as an artist? Are there any new directions or experiments you want to explore within the realm of Madhubani art?

SKD: The only goal is to keep painting till my last breath. This is the only wish I have standing at the juncture I am now.

Also, I would like to do more illustrations for books, particularly children’s books. In the past, I have once done my autobiography in the Madhubani style which was published by Tara Books, Chennai.

What advice would you give to young artists who wish to pursue Madhubani painting or traditional art forms?

SKD: My advice to young artists is simple. Don’t go for shortcuts if you want to seriously learn art. Art, specifically, demands greater honesty and patience. These are the two qualities that can help you apply yourself appropriately to the pursuit of excellence in this field. It is a blessing if you can find the right teacher.

Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and experiences with our readers!

Ashutosh Kumar Thakur is a Bengaluru-based management professional and literary critic. He can be reached at [email protected].