While the world moves onwards, it is the traditional artisans of our country who are left behind. Great maestros in their own craft, they struggle to generate demand and curiosity among the public for their intricate work. Lalita Devi is of one such great artisan who the world lacked in giving her due credit for her contribution to Mithila art. The 73-year-old artisan hails from the village of National Award Winner in Madhubani Art, Baua Devi. She learnt it alongside her in Simdi village of Mithilanchal. However, Baua Devi went on to garner praise for her work and Lalita Devi struggles to find takers for her paintings.

One of the last few artisans who start straight with a thin nib dipped in a colour pot, Lalita Devi needs not to sketch with a pencil and never re-does her work. Madhubani is a 3000-year-old form of art which found its way on the mud walls of yesteryear kaccha houses and on doorstep thresholds. Women passed it on from generation to generation like every other craft, until 1966 when a severe drought hit Bihar. And in an effort to bring up the state’s financial condition, Indira Gandhi’s friend Pupul sent his close friend Bhaskar Kulkarni to Mithilanchal to see what can be done to motivate the Mithila artisans.

Lalita Devi tells SheThePeople.TV that Kulkarni came with handmade papers to her village and distributed it to everyone who made Madhubani paintings. “He demanded that we paint the same sceneries on the paper that we draw on walls. I didn’t know what to draw but I found a picture of Goddess Durga at my house and I painted it exactly the same on the paper. After a few days, Kulkarni returned and he was giving 50 Paisa to one Rupee to everyone who drew a painting. When he saw my painting, he gave me five rupees. I felt so happy that day,” says Devi with a wide smile on her face. Devi was in her early 20s back then and this was the first time she ever drew on paper.

Madhubani artist
Lalita Devi, Madhubani Artist

However, it didn’t last long as Devi recollects that after Kulkarni became a regular, the men in her village started protesting. “They said that he comes and talks to our women. They condemned it and then curtailed his entry into the village. After that, he never came back. People say that it is an art of their ancestral mothers and grandmothers and while it is true but it was Kulkarni who brought the art on paper.”

She told me that my luck has worked this time. So, I took that opportunity and drew the journey of the birth of Lord Krishna to the death of Kansa on the cloth. That was one of my most memorable works. In those days, I used to work with my husband. I would draw in the cloth and he would fill in the colours.

In the last fifty years, Lalita Devi worked with Sewa Mithila since it gained existence to the time it ran. It was the first NGO founded in Madhubani by Gauri Mishra to promote Madhubani Paintings at a global level and socio economically empower the rural women of Madhubani in the process. Once over thirty years back, she tells us that Mishra had gone to Bhutan for an exhibition. She took some of Lalita Devi’s paintings along with her. There, she met ex-president of the Crafts Council of India and a former IAS officer, Kasturi Menon Gupta, who loved Devi’s work so much, that she asked Mishra to ask Devi to make a painting on a three-meter-long silk cloth.

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“She told me that my luck has worked this time. So, I took that opportunity and drew the journey of the birth of Lord Krishna to the death of Kansa on the cloth. That was one of my most memorable works. In those days I used to work with my husband. I would draw in the cloth and he would fill in the colours.”

Madhubani artist
Lalita Devi painting directly with the nib

Devi’s husband died about twenty years ago that’s when she quit drawing or painting completely because she thought that she would never be able to do the work of two people all on her own. “Then after some time, somebody at Sewa Mithila motivated me again to make paintings. They said that my husband has merged with my soul and I held the brush again and fortunately started making even better paintings.”

The other work that is close to Lalita Devi is when she made a painting on the journey of her own life. Born in a village near Janakpur in Nepal, she says that her mother died when she was only two-years-and-six-months old and her grandmother took care of her. Her father married her off at the age of eight and she came to her husband’s house in Bihar when she was just 11. It is here that she learnt Madhubani and grasped the art to continue it till date.

She gave birth to two daughters and one son but Devi lives alone in Bihar in a property that belongs to Sewa Mithila. She doesn’t take any money from either of her children and lives off a small amount of Rs 3000. “I don’t have much of expenditure—Rs 600 for milk and Rs 1500 for medication—that’s how I live my life. On good days, somebody would buy my paintings.”

It takes her 15 days to make a painting on half-a-meter of cloth when she works for an entire day on the painting. While Lalita Devi spent most part of her life making Madhubani paintings, she is yet to get due recognition for contributing to the origin of the artwork. She says that she did file her application for National Award recognition around 2008.

Madhubani artist
Art by Lalita Devi

“I spent a lot of money, making three files of my work then I went to the Department of Development Commissioner (DC) Handicrafts local office in Madhubani for the director’s signature so it could reach the Delhi office. But he refused to accept my nomination saying, he is not sure if I made those paintings myself or asked someone to make them for me. It broke my heart and after that, I never applied for anything,” she said with a lump in her throat.

I don’t have much of expenditure—Rs. 600 for milk and Rs.1500 for medication—that’s how I live my life. On good days, somebody would buy my paintings.

She still knows where the office is in Madhubani but never bothered to visit. It is only in this year that I went there when Ihitashri Shandilya insisted. Ihitashri is the daughter of Gauri Mishra and she founded Mithila Asmita to promote Madhubani paintings. Recently she launched ‘Gandhi Shilp Bazaar’—a 10-day craft exhibition in New Delhi and since she knew Lalita Devi so well, she wanted her to come to the capital to show her paintings at the exhibition. And for this, Devi had to go to the Madhubani DC Handicraft office after all those years.

When the local director refused to sign her nomination, Lalita Devi did not apply for DC handicraft card also. It is an official card issued by the Ministry of Textiles to artisans so they can enter exhibitions launched with the help of Ministry. To call her to this event, Mishra filed her papers in the ministry and helped in issuing her DC Handicraft card. Now she is also in talks with the ministry to file her nomination again for the National Award. So things have started looking up for Lalita Devi with the new hope of becoming a contender for the National Award in the coming years. Maybe then, she won’t have to sell her paintings for throwaway prices and she will make the paintings that she loves—draw stories and document journeys through her incredible hands that can lay magic of Madhubani on anything she wants.

SheThePeople supports artisans across India and believes in their stories. This story is from our partnership with Mithila Asmita Arts for Traditional Art Entrepreneurship Summit.

Lalita Devi can be reached at 9572242336.

More Stories by Poorvi Gupta

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