Jitwarpur in Bihar scores hattrick of Padma awards

Jitwarpur in Bihar scores hattrick of Padma awards

On the eve of this Republic Day, when Padma awards were announced, Bihar created a record of sorts. Jitwarpur village in Madhubani district became the only village in the country from where three women have received Padma Shri – all in the field of art and culture.

This nondescript village in north Bihar would have remained undiscovered to the world had the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s friend Pupul Jayakar in 1966 not asked the chief designer in the All India Handicrafts Board Bhaskar Kulkarni to visit Madhubani.

When Kulkarni landed at Jitwarpur, he was highly impressed with the Madhubani paintings being done by select group of women. They would draw designs like Kohbar or Baans, Sita Swayamvar or Radha Krishna on the mud walls on ceremonious occasions. Kulkarni motivated them to create these designs on pieces of handmade paper to be exhibited in galleries across the country and abroad.

The legend has it that this style of painting originated when King Janak sought artists to do paintings at the time of the wedding of his daughter Sita to Lord Rama. Traditionally, painting is passed down from generation to generation in the families of the Mithila region, mainly by women. The painting was usually done on walls during festivals, religious events, and other milestones of the life-cycle such as birth, Upanayanam (Sacred thread ceremony) and marriage. The painting was traditionally done on freshly plastered mud wall of huts, but now it is also done on cloth, hand-made paper and canvas.   

As Madhubani painting has remained confined to a compact geographical area of Mithila and the skills have been passed on through centuries, the content and the style have largely remained the same. It was during this visit in the 60s that Kulkarni met Jagdamba Devi, the renowned Madhubani painting artist. Jagdamba was married at a tender age. She did not have children. Staying alone at Jitwarpur, she started decorating walls and the bridal chamber (also called Kohbar ghar) with intricate paintings in bright colours. Her hobby soon turned into passion. Kulkarni was highly impressed with her artwork. It was Kulkarni and cultural advisor to the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Pupul Jayakar, who propagated Jagdamba Devi’s work. The artist was conferred Padma Shri in 1975. The accomplished artist passed away in 1984.

Another artist with equally good calibre was Sita Devi. She worked with Jagdamba and carried forward the Mithila artwork. “The then prime minister Indira Gandhi was quite impressed with my Dadi’s (grand mother) artwork. Erica Smith of Germany had done research work on my grandmother’s paintings,” informed Sita Devi’s grandson Prabhat Jha. Sita Devi’s paintings won worldwide acclaim after they became part of the exhibitions in the US, France, Germany and Japan. Sita Devi was conferred Padma Shri in 1981. The veteran artist breathed her last in 2005.

Another pioneer of Madhubani paintings Baua Devi was married at the age of 12. Born in a Brahmin family, she was adept in different art form giving interpretations to folk tales in her own unique style. Her work would range from paintings on small sheets to canvasses up to 20 feet high.

It was one such work which drew huge media limelight on February 4 this year.
The Madhubani paintings doyenne, who was awarded Padma Shri this Republic Day, was one of the guests at the Patna Book Fair on February 4 when Chief Minister Nitish Kumar came to inaugurate the event.

When asked to draw something for the Chief Minister, she drew a sketch of lotus. And then asked Nitish to colour the sketch. As Nitish put colours to the lotus (also the election symbol of the BJP), the entire media started speculating that Nitish was about to change colours and dump the Grand  Alliance before joining hands with the BJP.

But Baua Devi was furious over political colour being added to her art work. “What politics? The Mithila paintings usually depict images of lotus, bamboo grove, fishes, snakes and birds, which together symbolise fertility and proliferation of life. When I was asked to draw something for the chief minister, the first thing that came to my mind was the lotus, as it represents the customary female face,” the 68-year-old artist said clarifying further that no one from the organisers had asked her to do so and it was just a coincidence that she drew lotus. The chief minister too honoured the Padma awardee by colouring her sketch (of lotus).

Other artists told DH that lotus’ association with Mithila tradition was age old. “Lotus is in the centre even when Kohbar ghar, where the newly-wed couple spend their first three nights without cohabiting, is decorated by women folk with symbolic images.These images represent fertility and a happy married life,” an artist explained.

The veteran artist from Jitwarpur, Baua Devi, however, rued that people in Patna were apparently either not aware or not keen on Mithila art form.

“More awareness needs to be generated about this traditional art form,” said Baua Devi, who lamented that one piece of her artwork was sold for Rs 2,500 at Patna Book Fair. “Two years back, a similar Madhubani painting was sold for Rs 1.25 lakh at Dilli Haat in the national capital. In other states too, I have received better response,” the artist, who has exhibited her artwork in the US, France and Japan, averred.

So remarkable has been her art work that Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented Hanover Mayor, Stefan Schosstok, a Madhubani painting by Baua Devi when the dignitary visited India in 2015.

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