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/)

Alia Syed’s Eating Grass: On View at LACMA

Guest blogger Tracy Buck reviews Alia Syed’s Eating Grass currently on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Alia Syed, still from Eating Grass, 2003, 16mm film, transferred to HD DVD, sound, 22:56 min.Image courtesy: http://lacma.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/eating-grass-qa-with-filmmaker-alia-syed/

Alia Syed, still from Eating Grass, 2003, 16mm film, transferred to HD DVD, sound, 22:56 min.
Image courtesy: http://lacma.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/eating-grass-qa-with-filmmaker-alia-syed/

Los Angeles: In a far gallery of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s (LACMA) South Asian exhibition space is an installation somewhat out of step with the space’s other offerings. The South Asian collection at LACMA, housed on the fourth floor of the Ahmanson Building, is renowned for its Hindu and Buddhist sculptures, its Indian paintings, and its impressive array of decorative arts, dating largely from the pre-modern period. First-time visitors to the space may find it unexpected, then, to step in the far gallery and into a contemporary film installation – that of Alia Syed’s 2003 twenty-three minute video, Eating Grass. As such, the film offers an intervention into the otherwise largely encyclopedic model of LACMA’s South Asian collection.

Alia Syed, born of Indian and Welsh descent and today based in London, works mainly in the medium of film. She trained in the United Kingdom and has exhibited widely in Europe and North America, with shows in New Delhi and Sydney as well.  Her work deals with themes of identity, with public and private space and their boundaries, with speed and stillness and the pace of days and of our social and private selves within these rhythms of light and darkness. Visually, Eating Grass relies on impressions and on shadows; aurally, it is a swirling, dizzying but captivating mix of English overlaid onto, but not directly in-sync with, Urdu.

Alia Syed, still from Eating Grass, 2003, 16mm film, transferred to HD DVD, sound, 22:56 min.Image courtesy: http://www.lacma.org/art/installation/alia-syed-eating-grass

Alia Syed, still from Eating Grass, 2003, 16mm film, transferred to HD DVD, sound, 22:56 min.
Image courtesy: http://www.lacma.org/art/installation/alia-syed-eating-grass

The title Eating Grass refers to and questions a remark made by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in regards to Pakistani development of a nuclear bomb. Bhutto stated that, should India develop nuclear technology, Pakistan would go hungry, would eat grass or leaves if necessary, in pursuit of its own nuclear arms. The two countries – with so rich a shared past and so conflicted a shared present – are today pitted against each other and as such, Syed seems to say, the only possible result is to the detriment of each.  At a more personal level, the film and its title can be construed as referring to the diasporic experience of living in two cultures at once, of negotiating between two worlds and multiple identities. Its pace emphasizes the permeability of identity, and of the instability of the zone of “multiculturalism.”

Filmed in London, Karachi, and Lahore – one city, Syed has said, falls into another – Eating Grass is organized around the five daily prayers of Muslim traditional practice. Syed, who is also a poet, compliments this pace of the day as punctuated by calls to prayer with an underlying poetic and lyrical rhythm. As per a 2012 interview with LACMA assistant curator Julie Romain, Syed originally wrote a short story in relation to the early morning call to prayer, inspired by her realization one day in Karachi that the call she had originally taken to be the traditional one of a muezzin was actually a distorted tape recording. She then went on to write four additional short stories that relate to the remaining daily calls to prayer; together these five visual and audio vignettes comprise the film.

Calls to prayer, Syed has stated, serve as access points to memories. The stringing of these memories together in and through our daily lives results in a feeling of continuity; it is this flow she calls upon in the film. In an October 2, 2012 guest lecture given to art history students at UCLA, Syed suggested that the viewers allow themselves to “feel” the film, to follow it in a dream-like manner, rather than attempt to intellectually trace or decipher its meaning. Such instruction frees from viewer from attempting what tends to come naturally – finding a pattern or inventing a story – and allows him or her to instead give in to nuance and impression. Visually, the film has a “ghosted” appearance – a result of her filming and processing technique – that emphasizes a realization of the very real presence memories have as they juxtapose themselves in our daily lives. The lyrical rise and fall of the audio – comprised of English and Urdu voice-over – follows its own cadence. The two languages are not quite direct translations, do not quite line up either in meaning or in pace, and therefore portray both the disconnect and the complexity of language.

Alla Syed, ‘Eating Grass’, 2003Image courtesy: http://www.a-n.co.uk/artists_talking/images/130011

Alla Syed, ‘Eating Grass’, 2003
Image courtesy: http://www.a-n.co.uk/artists_talking/images/130011

Life, Syed has beautifully said, is littered with intimacies; this may take the form of a stranger on the bus with whom one has, at a distance, developed an imagined affinity with, or of a sound or smell that suddenly connects one’s immediate reality with some distant past. Her film Eating Grass, gives visual and aural form to these intimacies, places them within the flow of a day, and recreates the experience of the drift between public and private, outer and inner, realities. Throughout, Syed’s work recalls both the delicate balance and the inherent instability between the two worlds.

Tracy Buck is currently pursing a PhD in Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles. She holds MA degrees in South Asian Cultures and Languages and in Museum Studies, and has worked in the Collections Management and Curatorial departments of several history and art museums in Seattle and Los Angeles.

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