It’s all in the Detail: Exploring India’s Textile Traditions

The weaving and embroidery techniques seen in Indian textiles open windows into the symbolic, cultural and ritual beliefs of the people who created them.

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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/)

Poetry and Painting: Krishna in the Mewar School of Indian Miniature Paintings

Amy Lin of Saffronart explores the significance of Krishna in the Mewar miniature painting tradition

Lot 18: A Page from a Rasikapriya Series
Saffronart Indian Antiques Auction

New York:  One of the most fascinating types of ancient painting is the Mewar school of Indian miniatures that continues to baffle viewers today with its brash display of love and sexuality. Unlike princely portraits from the Mughal courts, paintings from the Rajasthani courts depict heroes and heroines in various stages of vigorous romance and passionate love. The most celebrated couple is undeniably the Hindu god Krishna and his beloved Radha. For centuries, poets and artists across India have recreated their passion in both painting and literature. Just like poetry that’s laden with symbolic meaning, paintings also include symbolic objects such as lotus flowers and swirling clouds.

Collectibles Antiques India’s Auction of Indian Antiquities, powered by Saffronart, features a set of beautiful Mewar paintings of Krishna and Radha from the poems of the Raskpriya series. These stunning paintings depict the heavenly lovers in various engagements of courtly love. A distinct simplistic and robust style contrasts with elaborate details in the fashionable dresses and vegetation. The figures with their bright eyes and bold colors command attention from the viewer to closely decipher the scenes.

Lot 19: A Page from a Rasikapriya Series
Saffronart Indian Antiques Auction

The Krishna and Radha stories were made popular by the poet Kesava Das of Orchha in his Raskpriya of 1591. Krishna is believed to be the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. He is the protector of love and divine joy, usually depicted as a mischievous boy, a flute playing shepherd or a princely youth. His divine love is his childhood friend Radha, who is the incarnate of the goddess Lakshmi. Together, they represent the essence of love, devotion and aesthetics. The fables of Krishna appear across different Hindu philosophies but it is the playful anecdotes of Raskpriya that became inspirations for generations of artists to come.

Artistic creativity in the Mewar Kingdom (present day Rajasthan) flourished during the 17th and 18th centuries. It came at a time when the Mughal invasion was sweeping across Northern India and the Mewar Kingdom was striving for its sovereignty. Under the patronage of Maharana Jagat Singh I, a new style of bold colors, simplified outlines and primitive renderings of the backgrounds developed. This vigorous and expressive style harks back to the native land of Mewar, devoid of Mughal influence.

Jagat Singh I was a devotee of Krishna and the themes of passion and devotion lend themselves well at court which can easily translate to loyalty for the Rajput land. Krishna in the eyes of the artists became a Mewar noble, pursuing his Radha and freely engaging in passionate lovemaking. He is every bit a Rajput prince with his fashionable Mewar clothing and a robust figure that appear in stark contrast to his delicate depictions in Mughal miniatures. Through prose, poetry and painting, the Mewars bestowed their hopes and aspirations in Krishna, the symbol of divine joy and devotion.

Lot 20: A Page from a Rasikapriya Series
Saffronart Indian Antiques Auction

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