Meenas and Mandanas: Tracing Identity, Stigma, and Artistic Resistance

The word “Meena” borrows its meaning from the Sanskrit word “meen” translated as “fish” in various dialects of South Asia. In this context however, it references the Meena community who form over 7- 10% of the population of Rajasthan, India. Generally recognised under the banner of scheduled tribes (ST) of India, Meenas are indigenous peoples whose histories trace back to the 6th BC. While the community’s records are predominantly oral in nature, historians such as Nandini Sinha Kapur (2007) have identified a shift beginning from the early 19th century. There have been disputes over “origins” especially since Meenas, in contemporary times, divide themselves into Ujwal Meenas and Maillay Meenas based on their culinary choices i.e., the former being vegetarians (thus emulating Rajputs) and the latter being non-vegetarians. Sinha notes this movement “back” to a larger social group as a form of “Rajputization” or “Kshtriyization”. This instance is especially interesting to note in the history of Meenas, not only because it helps map the ways in which communities re-imagine themselves as per social-cultural contexts, but also the reasons behind it.

It is possible to speculate that one major cause of this intensive shift was the introduction of the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 in the country during British Rule. The stigma of such a repressive and oppressive law which deemed certain tribes as “guilty by birth” ensured a sustained image of Meenas as a people prone to criminal activities, insurgency, and rebels among other foul labels. It is alarming to know that the act (particularly referencing the Meenas) was revoked only in 1952 post-independence! In such an imbalanced economy, certain sections of Meenas perhaps attempted at re-tracing themselves to a history possibly concocted even. However, despite these speculations which also tend to turn volatile in nature, there are a good number of emerging voices from within the community itself that strives for a Meena identity distinct from a Hinduized one. For example, as per an article by the Print earlier on July, local MLA Ramkesh Meena speaking on the controversy around hoisting a saffron flag at the historic Amagarh fort in Rajasthan, stated that the flag did not respect the sentiments of Meena people’s “heritage.” Since the fort was significant to the Meena deity Amba Mata (said to be a patron of nature and creativity), placing a loaded marker like the flag takes away the unique history of local populations. It is evident that a tussle between dominant and tribal narratives continues to exist. 

This also has, to some extent, reflected itself in art, particularly Mandana. Borrowed from the Hindi word “Mandan” which means “to draw” or “to beautify”, Mandana art is a well-known art form in Rajasthan. With its geometrical shapes, symmetrical patterns, and eye for detail, this art practice although recognised widely struggles in practice— and Mandana especially drawn the Meenas, more so. Considered unanimously by cultural historians like Mandan Meena, who note that Mandanas done by the Meena women are far superior to other communities, artists (such as Kaushalya Devi, Vidya Devi, her son Dinesh and so on) from within the community in recent years have been crucial to bringing attention to the form altogether. Kaushalya (also called Koshilya in some reports) has single-handedly painted and invented over 100 Mandana designs in an effort at conservation. Urvashi Dev Rawal (2022) in an article states Kaushalya’s motivation as one brought about by the need for posterity, and after-life. 


Kamal Baori: Mandana Painting by Vidya Devi Soni
 Kamal Baori: Mandana Painting by Vidya Devi Soni


In the manner in which texts, stories, and language itself are disseminated, painting too needs to be passed on. Since art like Mandana has been described by Nidhi Suhag and Neeraj Rawat Sharma in the paper “Folk Art of Rajasthan” (2021) as being “photographs” of life rather than prolonged narratives, it is necessary that every moment of significance is documented. In the context of the Meena community then, who have had a long history of struggle for recognition, representation, self-determination, and rights to citizenship, it is plausible to see resistance in their art and artistic articulations.







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