Painting on the Wall
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Maithili painter Baua Devi on creating contemporary stories in an ancient art form.
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.
Baua Devi was a teenager at the time Kulkarni met her and other leading artists like Ganga Devi, Sita Devi, and Karpoori Devi, who together are considered the doyens of Maithili art. It was her mother-in-law who assured Kulkarni that she had the potential to gain recognition and make an "impact in the city". "She used to watch me paint on the walls. My patterns and intricacies were already famous locally. I found it much less cumbersome to work on paper. Wall paintings take a while to dry and is a long process," says Baua Devi. While her mother-in-law acted as the mediator, Baua Devi remembers Kulkarni as a "kind man" who encouraged her to paint traditional patterns. "Everyone in the city appreciated the paintings the first time he took them back. He came back in a few months to get more work. Then he started coming every year. Later, he started getting some of us to Delhi to show our work at the Crafts Museum," she recalls.