Artist Hema Devi Is On A Winning Spree With Her Bold Madhubani


She Is On A Winning Spree With Her Bold Madhubani

Written by Nitin Pradhan Oct 04, 2021
Artist Hema Devi receives national award for best artist from former textile minister Smriti Irani in 2016

Women of Madhubani are accidental artists. As Sakthi worship spread in north India in medieval times, upper caste 
Brahmin and Kayastha women started noting down their daily rituals and celebrations as pictures on walls and floors. It was said that this art originated when king Janaka got the palace painted by women to celebrate Ram and Sita’s marriage. Soon, it became a tradition to have detailed floor paintings (aripana) and wall paintings (kohabar – a room where kula or family goddess is placed after marriage) but subject to strict community regulations on what to paint. For most Mithila men, it was just something the women in their families did to mark special occasions. Mithila art, thus became, all about women, goddesses, brides and grooms, writes American ethnologist Carolyn Brown.

Till an earthquake threw open the broken pieces of richly decorated walls to the eyes of young British civil servant WG Archer in the 1930s. He wrote some fantastical piece about the origins of the art form, probably incorrectly linking it to Tantric fertility rituals says Brown. Mithila women went on with their domestic painting and entered the commercial arena only when famine ravaged Bihar in the 1960s. Encouraged by officials like Bhaskar Kulkarni, these upper caste women started putting down their Bharni and Kachni designs on canvas and became instant stars who could earn a livelihood and a professional identity. Dalit communities like Dusadhs and Chamar were supported by many, including anthropologist Erika Moser to copy their upper caste counterparts and thus were born Godna (tattoo) and Gobar (cowdung wash) paintings depicting subaltern lives and motifs.

There are no longer strict caste divisions when it comes to Madhubani art but just a desire to learn and get better, says Catterfly master artist Hema Devwho recently received the Bihar State award for paper mache (See Hemaji's Ganesha For Catterfly). She talks to Catterfly CEO Nitin Pradhan (Catterfly Madhubani Open House) about her life, artistic journey and how each award helps her propel to do more.

How did you learn to paint and who was your teacher?
I was 15 years old when I started learning from my mother, who is an artist. I would sit with her and paint on ‘reject’ paper. I would copy what she was doing. As a girl in Rashidpur village, you couldn’t go out. Once I finished my lessons, there would be no timepass. I liked my mother’s work so I would sit with her and learn. She was happy to teach as she also wanted us to learn and move forward in life.
I would ask her where is kachni, where to put colour. I would make mistakes – draw crooked, forget colour, miss design – and she would scold. I have learnt from her daands (scolds) and reached this far.
Then there was my chachi Ganga Devi (mother-in-law) who got Padma Shri for her art. We used to have good conversations after my marriage and she kept on encouraging me and asked me to learn more. I felt very happy that she got Padma Shri and was encouraging me to do more.

What are the common principles of making Madhubani, which seems to be a free-flowing art form?
There are no rules as you have to do as per your mind. I will keep working on a painting and think about what would make it look good. There are no rules that there should be a design here and a colour there. It is our own ideas on what makes a painting looks good that works.

You have received state and national awards. When are you applying for Padma Shri?
Anyone can apply once the date is out and local officials have to certify your application. Everything is online now. I haven’t applied for it yet. I think I need to do more work and I have been thinking about it.

Does life change after you get an award?
Yes it changes. You get more support when you get an award. If you go to an office, a Padma awardee gets first priority. If there is work to be done, I am approached first in Patna because I am the only national awardee there. Only if I say ‘no’, it goes to another artist.
Also, government supports a lot by allotting stalls free of cost to awardees at art and craft bazaars at Dilli Haat and Surajkund (both in Delhi). You can put your board outside and you get travel and food allowances also. They are also helping us sell online. It is good support from the government. For instance, seeing the board outside my stall, more people come inside. I also put my name on all my work so people know that NA stands for National Award. (See Hemaji’s Works)

What kinds of paintings do you make in Madhubani for sale?
I do small kachni (mostly black and red) paintings of elephants, peacocks. The peacock one takes me three days to finish. There are Godna paintings, folders with Bharni designs, laptop bags with Bharni and dupattas in silk and khadi cotton. Dupattas get sold all the time and not just during Diwali-Dussehra as they are something that can be used any time. (Buy Hemaji’s Works)

A richly painted silk sari by artist Hema Devi (enquire +916393897910 for buying)

Have you travelled abroad and how has been the response from foreigners to your art?
Madhubani is well known and appreciated abroad. I have gone only to Amsterdam and they liked it very much. They liked my art and me too (laughs). Many asked: you are from India and came all the way from Madhubani!” They were so happy to see when did a demonstration. The sale was very good as well.

Have you ever felt that what you are doing is not much fun anymore?
So far I have not felt like that. I don’t know what will happen in the future. Since the time I have come to the market as an artist, I have kept going on, learning new and doing new things.

An elegant Kachni work featuring elephants by Hema Devi

What will make your life better? Do you have a wish list?
I have realized that as you move forward, whatever you have help you get more. Once I got state award, it helped me win national award. When I won that, I realized that it would help me with my Padma award application. You need support like that. Now I have my own website. All this will help.

(Watch out for Catterfly’s upcoming Madhubani Art Residency in Delhi where you will get to learn from Hema Devi in person.)

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