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:

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,

The living tradition of Mithila paintings

Josheen Oberoi looks at the history and artistic practice of Mithila (popularly known as Madhubani) paintings

New York: Mithila paintings, sometimes referred to as Madhubani, originate in the region of Mithila from where they also derive their name (as is often the case in artistic traditions in India). This nomenclature is fitting since it is the geographical origin and medium of the artwork that unites this genre. Beyond that this tradition encompasses a diversity of aesthetic styles and content. As a living tradition, Mithila painting has had a dramatic trajectory over the last fifty years, and its evolution is crucial to understanding its value.

Mithila is the birthplace of Sita, located on the plains of Bihar. This mineral rich area plays into the aesthetics of Mithila paintings – the primary mediums for this tradition have always been natural vegetable dyes and mineral oxides. This accessibility of medium also tangentially relates to the original praxis of Mithila painting since it is the women of Mithila who had been the sole practitioners for generations creating ceremonial and devotional floor paintings (aripana) and wall murals (kohabar) for festivals and auspicious occasions like weddings using simple brushes made of bamboo and raw cotton. These paintings created sacred spaces for their domestic rituals.

Indrakala Devi
Earth and oxide colours on handmade paper
29.5 x 21.5 in
From: the collection “Colours of the Earth”, The Story by Saffronart

The first known recording of Mithila painting occurred in the 1930s. After an earthquake in Bihar in 1934, W.G. Archer, a British civil servant, found these wall and floor paintings in his survey of the area. He and his wife Mildred photographed and published their subsequent research over the next fifteen years. The 1950s and 60s saw a greater interest from Indian scholars. However, it was a 1966 drought in the area that led to its transformation from a localized and domestic art form to a national one. In the 1970s, the All India Handicrafts Board in an effort to provide economic assistance for the drought affected encouraged women of the region to transfer their wall paintings on to paper, for sale. The works in “Colours of the Earth” from the Story by Saffronart  primarily come from this early period, marking this critical chapter in the history of Mithila painting.

An art form independent of stylistic influences, Mithila painting was practiced by women from every caste. However, art historian Neel Rekha notes in her dissertation “Art and Assertion of Identity: Women and Madhubani Paintings” that one outcome of this change to paper as a medium in the 1970s was the emergence of different styles of painting. These can be broadly categorised as Geru, Bharni, Kachni, Tantric, Gobar (cow dung), and Godana (tattoo).

Earthoxide, ink and gouache on paper
29.5 x 21.5 in
From: the collection “Colours of the Earth”, The Story by Saffronart

In the early 70s, most paintings were close to the Geru style, the folk art tradition, with an absence of ornamentation and thick black lines. While the Bharni (filled) style uses strong colours and mostly eschews lines, the Kachni (lined) style is marked by the intricate use of line to create dense, beautiful patterns. In content, Maithil artists also retain their autonomy – subjects range from mythological epics and celebrations of rituals and important events to snapshots of their daily life. Theirs is picture writing, and their ideas and experiences remain key to this art, as they were when this tradition was private to these women’s homes.

Importantly, the names of these women artists from the 1970s onwards, like Indrakala Devi, Annapurna Devi, amongst others are documented and attributed, creating a significant canon of Mithila art. Ganga Devi, a Karn Kayastha, Sita Devi, a Mahapatra Brahmin, and Jumna Devi, a Harijan, were important early painters in this tradition, each with a distinct aesthetic. Both Ganga Devi and Sita Devi have represented India at major cultural exhibitions in Japan, Russia, Europe and the USA.

Strong scholarship on Mithila paintings, from the 1970s onwards has been vital to building knowledge around the art form. Yves Vequad, a French novelist and journalist, produced a pioneering book and a film, The Women Painters of Mithila,in the 1970s. Another researcher, Raymond Lee Owens, set up the Master Craftsmen Association of Mithila in 1977 and the Ethnic Arts Foundation in 1980. This association, which is still active, provides the artists of the region with a regular source of income through exhibitions and sales. The Mithila Art Institute (MAI) was set up in 2003 at the bequest of the late Owens, and is an important source for the transmitting of techniques and the specific Maithil painting culture. In Tokamachi, Japan, the Mithila Museum exhibits about 850 Madhubani paintings at any given time.

Attributed to Rudhan Devi
Man on Bull
c. 1970s
Earth and oxide colours on handmade paper
21.5 x 29.5 in
From: From: the collection “Colours of the Earth”, The Story by Saffronart

Works by Maithil artists are also in the permanent collections of Crafts Museum, New Delhi, Syracuse University, New York, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. At the latter two institutes, important exhibitions of Mithila paintings were held in 2002-03. Another significant exhibition was held at the Janakpur Women’s Development Center; their website has an incredible diversity of work available for viewing, while a documentary made on five Mithila artists by the University of Wisconsin-Madison documents the diversity of practices within this oeuvre.

Interestingly, the predominance of international exhibitions vis-a vis domestic suggests an appreciation for this tradition abroad that has been somewhat lacking in India. However, the government of Bihar stated early this year that plans are underfoot to open a school for teaching Mithila.

Sashikala Devi
Snake Gods
c. 1970s
Earth, oxide colours on handmade paper
22 x 30 in
Image courtesy: Saffronart’s Indian Folk and Tribal Art and Objects Auction (Aug 21 – 22, 2012), Lot 16

The shared history of Mithila paintings and the intuitive understanding of pictorial language is a constant within the diversity of the visual aesthetics that this tradition represents. Key to the economic independence of women from the region from the 70s onwards, it continues to be dominated by women artists, although now not exclusively so. The early works from the 1970s began this chapter of contemporary Mithila painting and have shown a consistent demand, even as newer artists emerge. In a recent Saffronart auction in August 2012, works by artists like Bachi Devi, Sashikala Devi (the image above) and Kali Devi, all from the 1970s, received a strong response.

“Mithila painting is part decoration, part social commentary, recording the lives of rural women in a society where reading and writing are reserved for high-caste men” (Arminton, Bindloss & Mayhew, 2006, p. 315). The suggestion  that these paintings empowered women by providing them tools of communication and documenting their lives has remained central to its narrative. The aesthetics and vibrancy of this artistic tradition has persevered in the independent voice that each Mithila artist represents.

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