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Baua Devi

10 Followers

About Artist

At 68, age does not allow her to paint on the mud walls of her village home in Jitwarpur, Bihar, any more, but Baua Devi is one of the pioneers of Madhubani painting, an ancient folk art the region is known for. Accor...

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At 68, age does not allow her to paint on the mud walls of her village home in Jitwarpur, Bihar, any more, but Baua Devi is one of the pioneers of Madhubani painting, an ancient folk art the region is known for. According to folklore, when the district of Madhubani was gearing up for the festivities ahead of the wedding of Ram and Sita, king Janak, the bride’s father, ordered the villagers to dress up their walls with paintings of mythological events and geometric patterns to celebrate the occasion. Since then, every wedding in the region has followed the ritual, decorating the bridal chamber or kohbar ghar with intricate linear paintings in bright colours. The wall art became a local tradition.

Devi was the youngest among the first group of artists who transported traditional Maithili patterns onto white sheets of paper when Pupul Jayakar, director, All India Handicrafts Board, sent Mumbai artist Bhaskar Kulkarni to Madhubani in Bihar in 1966. Born into a Brahmin family, Baua Devi was married off at the age of 12 during a period of transition for the region. The famine in the state that year had birthed a need for other sources of income apart from agriculture. Women, who had traditionally specialised in Madhubani painting, came to the foreground, selling their artwork for money, improvising with newer mediums and styles.

Her 11 works at the exhibition are part of a series based on the legend of the nag kanya, a snake maiden, who like a mermaid has the upper torso of a beautiful woman and the lower body of a snake, a motif of both regeneration and destruction. While it has a mythological resemblance to Manasa, the snake goddess revered in east India, it also draws from the reptiles that inhabited the village where Baua Devi lived. The personal and mythological references make it one of her favourite themes, one that she has explored several times through her career. In one painting, two snakes assume a human form to fulfil the wishes of a woman they consider their sister. “She has no home and urges the snakes to take human forms so that she has a maika (mother’s home for married women),” she explains, taking out images of older paintings to show different episodes from the narrative that encompasses over 50 works.

Commercial success has followed the recognition her works have earned. Baua Devi recalls how Kulkarni paid them Rs 1.50 for each work the first year. Her paintings now sell for more than a couple of lakhs. “I never quote a price. It’s usually up to the collectors to decide and I’m never disappointed,” says Baua Devi, who is now a globetrotter with regular exhibitions in Spain, Paris and Japan.

While the scale of her work ranges from paintings on small sheets to canvases up to 16-20 feet high, Baua Devi likes to give her own interpretations to folk tales. She reworks the legend of Krishna in some, while the grand wedding of Ram and Sita is the focus in others, with the emphasis on Sita’s narrative. “Most of them are stories that I grew up listening to,” says Devi, who received the National Award in 1984.

But with changing times, contemporary issues too are gradually finding place in the traditional patterns that define the art. “It is natural to respond to situations,” says Baua Devi. After the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Baua Devi had painted a skyscape occupied by a nag in excruciating pain, looking at a world that was dark and full of misery and bloodshed. She says she hadn’t seen the horrific images of the plane crashing into the towers, but “someone had described the incident” to her.

There is no record of her artwork but Baua Devi, who mostly works on a commission basis now, does not feel the need for one. “I forget about the work once it’s complete. I don’t even have the strength to work much any longer,” she says. She recalls how art collector Lekha Poddar went searching for her to Madhuban till she found out that Devi had relocated. “She wanted me to paint a series that depicted the evolution of Madhubani art from paintings on the walls to an internationally recognised art form,” says the artist. It took her months to complete the set that showed women working on a kohbar ghar to Kulkarni’s visit that led to the discovery of the artists, including Baua Devi, and the older Sita Devi and Ganga Devi. “Most women from the village are now engaged in painting. Together, we have taken our art to the world,” she says.

Despite the modernisation in form and theme, when Baua Devi works she still prefers using natural colours. Black is made by blending soot and cow dung, green comes from leaves, white from rice powder and red from vermilion. “It requires a lot of effort but there is a sense of satisfaction,” says Devi, adding that all her children too are practising the art. Her 16 grandchildren, including six-year-old Madhuram, are showing interest in picking up the nuances of the art from their grandmother. Her husband Jagannath Jha died some years ago but Baua Devi recalls how in earlier days she used to draw the outlines and he filled in the colour.

The walls of her Delhi home are bereft of any artwork but Baua Devi shares that her house in the village is still ornate. Commercial opportunities and the persuasion of her children might have led her to shift base but her heart is in her village. For every festival, Baua Devi tries escaping from the city. “There is peace in the village. My family’s moved to the city with me, but home is home,” she says, adjusting the pallu of her sari. Her daughter-in-law Kavita sits in a corner listening to the conversation. Baua Devi, who has trained her in the family art, looks at her with approval. “She paints very well,” she says, echoing the words that went on to define her life.

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  • About Artist

    At 68, age does not allow her to paint on the mud walls of her village home in Jitwarpur, Bihar, any more, but Baua Devi is one of the pioneers of Madhubani painting, an ancient folk art the region is known for. According to folklore, when the district of Madhubani was gearing up for the festivities ahead of the wedding of Ram and Sita, king Janak, the bride’s father, ordered the villagers to dress up their walls with paintings of mythological events and geometric patterns to celebrate the occasion. Since then, every wedding in the region has followed the ritual, decorating the bridal chamber or kohbar ghar with intricate linear paintings in bright colours. The wall art became a local tradition.

    Devi was the youngest among the first group of artists who transported traditional Maithili patterns onto white sheets of paper when Pupul Jayakar, director, All India Handicrafts Board, sent Mumbai artist Bhaskar Kulkarni to Madhubani in Bihar in 1966. Born into a Brahmin family, Baua Devi was married off at the age of 12 during a period of transition for the region. The famine in the state that year had birthed a need for other sources of income apart from agriculture. Women, who had traditionally specialised in Madhubani painting, came to the foreground, selling their artwork for money, improvising with newer mediums and styles.

    Her 11 works at the exhibition are part of a series based on the legend of the nag kanya, a snake maiden, who like a mermaid has the upper torso of a beautiful woman and the lower body of a snake, a motif of both regeneration and destruction. While it has a mythological resemblance to Manasa, the snake goddess revered in east India, it also draws from the reptiles that inhabited the village where Baua Devi lived. The personal and mythological references make it one of her favourite themes, one that she has explored several times through her career. In one painting, two snakes assume a human form to fulfil the wishes of a woman they consider their sister. “She has no home and urges the snakes to take human forms so that she has a maika (mother’s home for married women),” she explains, taking out images of older paintings to show different episodes from the narrative that encompasses over 50 works.

    Commercial success has followed the recognition her works have earned. Baua Devi recalls how Kulkarni paid them Rs 1.50 for each work the first year. Her paintings now sell for more than a couple of lakhs. “I never quote a price. It’s usually up to the collectors to decide and I’m never disappointed,” says Baua Devi, who is now a globetrotter with regular exhibitions in Spain, Paris and Japan.

    While the scale of her work ranges from paintings on small sheets to canvases up to 16-20 feet high, Baua Devi likes to give her own interpretations to folk tales. She reworks the legend of Krishna in some, while the grand wedding of Ram and Sita is the focus in others, with the emphasis on Sita’s narrative. “Most of them are stories that I grew up listening to,” says Devi, who received the National Award in 1984.

    But with changing times, contemporary issues too are gradually finding place in the traditional patterns that define the art. “It is natural to respond to situations,” says Baua Devi. After the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Baua Devi had painted a skyscape occupied by a nag in excruciating pain, looking at a world that was dark and full of misery and bloodshed. She says she hadn’t seen the horrific images of the plane crashing into the towers, but “someone had described the incident” to her.

    There is no record of her artwork but Baua Devi, who mostly works on a commission basis now, does not feel the need for one. “I forget about the work once it’s complete. I don’t even have the strength to work much any longer,” she says. She recalls how art collector Lekha Poddar went searching for her to Madhuban till she found out that Devi had relocated. “She wanted me to paint a series that depicted the evolution of Madhubani art from paintings on the walls to an internationally recognised art form,” says the artist. It took her months to complete the set that showed women working on a kohbar ghar to Kulkarni’s visit that led to the discovery of the artists, including Baua Devi, and the older Sita Devi and Ganga Devi. “Most women from the village are now engaged in painting. Together, we have taken our art to the world,” she says.

    Despite the modernisation in form and theme, when Baua Devi works she still prefers using natural colours. Black is made by blending soot and cow dung, green comes from leaves, white from rice powder and red from vermilion. “It requires a lot of effort but there is a sense of satisfaction,” says Devi, adding that all her children too are practising the art. Her 16 grandchildren, including six-year-old Madhuram, are showing interest in picking up the nuances of the art from their grandmother. Her husband Jagannath Jha died some years ago but Baua Devi recalls how in earlier days she used to draw the outlines and he filled in the colour.

    The walls of her Delhi home are bereft of any artwork but Baua Devi shares that her house in the village is still ornate. Commercial opportunities and the persuasion of her children might have led her to shift base but her heart is in her village. For every festival, Baua Devi tries escaping from the city. “There is peace in the village. My family’s moved to the city with me, but home is home,” she says, adjusting the pallu of her sari. Her daughter-in-law Kavita sits in a corner listening to the conversation. Baua Devi, who has trained her in the family art, looks at her with approval. “She paints very well,” she says, echoing the words that went on to define her life.

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