Sita Devi: A Legendary Mithila Artist

In conjunction with Saffronart’s upcoming auction of Indian Folk & Tribal Art, Nishad Avari shares a note on Sita Devi, one of the most important and celebrated Mithila artists

Mumbai: We have already blogged about the history and aesthetics of Mithila paintings from the Madhubani district of Bihar and traced the development of this art form back to the first record of these works in the mid 1930s made by W.G. Archer and his wife Mildred.

Sita Devi by Edouard Boubat, 1970

Sita Devi photographed by Edouard Boubat, 1970, for the book The Art of Mithila by Yves Véquaud (Image Credit: http://sita-devi.blogspot.in/)

It was in the 1960s and 70s, however, that individual Mithila artists like Ganga Devi and Sita Devi began to be recognized and celebrated. As David Szanton of the Ethnic Arts Foundation notes, “It was paintings by Ganga Devi and Sita Devi thanks to government and private commissions in New Delhi and beyond, their national awards, and their [Government of India] funded participation in cultural fairs and exhibitions around the world, that brought wide-spread audiences and attention to Mithila painting” (“Folk Art No Longer: The Transformations of Mithila Painting”, Biblio, 2004).

Sita Devi, one of the most prominent early Mithila artists and among the first to transfer the traditional art form from the walls of the home to paper and canvas, was a Mahapatra Brahmin from the village of Jitwarpur. Her distinct aesthetic popularized the ‘bharni’ style of Mithila painting, which emphasizes strong colours over fine lines. “Sita Devi’s elegant elongated and richly coloured paintings of Krishna, Radha, and other gods and goddesses, are well known. However, she also painted extraordinary images of the World Trade Center, Arlington National Cemetery, and facades of 19th century buildings in New York City” (Ibid.).

Wall Painting by Sita Devi

Wall painting at the home of Sita Devi, Jitwarpur, 1984 (Image Credit: The Maithil Brahmans, an Online Ethnography, California State University, Chico)

Over the course of her long life (the artist passed away in 2005 at the age of 92), Sita Devi’s work brought critical national and international attention to Mithila art. In addition to her own artistic practice, Sita Devi worked tirelessly to develop and uplift her village and community through education and economic empowerment.

As an artist in residence at the National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum in New Delhi, Sita Devi found admirers of her work in several politicians including ex Presidents and Prime Ministers like Lal Bahadur Shastri, Dr. Rajendra Prasad and Indira Gandhi. In 1975, she won a National Award, a few years later, in 1981 she was awarded the Padma Shri, one of the India’s highest civilian honours, and in 1984 won the Bihar Ratna Samman. During the course of the impressive artistic career, Sita Devi has exhibited her work in more than ten countries, and finds place in the permanent collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, the Mithila Museum in Japan and many other international institutions.

Sita Devi Museum Works

Works by Sita Devi from the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Mithila Museum, Niigata, Japan, and Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One of the highlights of Saffronart’s upcoming auction of Indian Folk & Tribal Art (26-27 February, 2013) is a monumental painting of Krishna flanked by two attendants by Sita Devi, created in the 1970s. Rather than paper, this painting is created on board, lending it an exquisite finish. Finely detailed with flowers and a peacock at Krishna’s feet, and confidently signed by the artist, this painting is one of the artist’s finest mural-scale works, rivaling those in international museum collections.

Sita Devi

Sita Devi, Untitled, Signed in Devnagari (lower right), c. 1970s, Earth, oxide colours on particle board
72 x 96 in (182.9 x 243.8 cm), Saffronart Auction of Indian Folk & Tribal Art, Lot no. 41

Sita Devi with Indira Gandhi

Sita Devi presents her work of art to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in New Delhi on September 8, 1969 (Image Credit: The Times Of India Group)

Sita Devi

Sita Devi in front of one of her paintings of Krishna and Radha (Image Credit: Rawindra Das, http://www.flickr.com/photos/16413549@N04/2888477108/)

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