Ganga Devi (b. 1928; d. 1991)
Credited as a pioneering artist of Madhubani painting, Ganga Devi is known for her narrative painting and drawing, as well as a visual vocabulary that went beyond ritual and myth.
Devi was born in Chatra village in Madhubani district, Bihar, to a Kayastha family. Her father was a local landlord and her mother took particular interest in folklore, mythology and painting. Customary to her caste’s practice, she was taught to read and write from an early age. The women of Devi’s community undertook the key artistic rituals of kohbar ghar and aripana. In kohbar ghar, the bride’s wedding chamber walls were plastered with cow dung and then painted with fertility motifs and symbols. Aripana, literally meaning “to smear”, are a type of rangoli floor painting tradition made by women using rice paste pigment and a twig as a brush. These paintings were done on special and auspicious occasions such as birth, initiation into learning, puberty, betrothal, marriage, festivals, etc. Both of these practices were informed by particular iconographies and styles rooted in tradition, and following them, the painted walls and floors were decorative markers of ritual purity. The pictorial representation of mythical scenes, oral and textual narratives, painted deities, primordial forces, ritual accessories, heavenly bodies, male-female couples — all became subject to her creative interpretations. These practices laid the foundation for Devi’s skills as an artist, and she preserved much of the iconography typical of kohbar ghar and aripana in her subsequent work as a commercial artist.
After her husband abandoned her, Devi used her skills as a painter to make a living. During this time, the government of Bihar was looking to foster employment for people in the state following a drought. The government supplied artisans with paper and other materials as a way of encouraging them to make more saleable art. The change of medium from wall and floor to paper transformed Devi’s style. The paper was smoother, portable, and allowed her to test the possibilities of both line and colour. Madhubani is largely a tradition of coloured drawing and not painting, and Devi’s control over the line, more than other forms of mark-making, was honed on paper. She also experimented with formal elements such as perspective: instead of incorporating a three-dimensional view, she chose to handle her scenes with a two-dimensionality, mimicking the surface of the paper. While depicting stories from Krishnaleela and Ramleela she divided the space into grids that resembled comic strips, with each compartment holding a complete painting. The spaces between sections were filled with creeping flowers, branches and foliage. The compartments would be framed ornately with these elements and the focus would be on subjects’ actions and dialogue. The backdrop, whether mountains, forests or rivers, were minimally indicated.
A significant turning point in her career arrived in 1982 when she set out to do her The Cycle of Life series. Until then, she had worked on themes that were borrowed from religious lore. At this point of departure, she chose to paint a series of samskamas or ritual events of initiations that were practised in Madhubani. Her subject however was everyday life and the human world. With no precedent to follow, Devi experimented extensively: she eliminated compartmentalised scenes, instead filling the composition with people, trees, animals, and birds. Composed of twenty-four scenes, the cycle was a highly individualistic rendering of the collective culture of Madhubani.
Devi’s work was widely lauded and received support and recognition from national and international governments and institutions. She was awarded the National Master Craftsman Award and later the Padma Shri in 1984 by the government of India. In 1985, she visited the United States of America to participate in an exhibition of Indian Folk Art and Culture in Washington. Upon her return, she produced visual recollections of her memories of America, which were notably minimalistic and culturally comparative. Scenes of wonder such as a roller-coaster ride were drawn with a graphic quality and the everyday reality of American life mythologised in her frames. In 1988, she was invited by the Mithila Museum in Japan to make traditional Madhubani paintings that were later added to the collection there.
In 1987 she was diagnosed with cancer, following which Devi spent most of her time in Delhi. Devi was undergoing treatment at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) at this time. She continued to paint through her illness, making a four-part series of autobiographical drawings called The Cancer Series, which chronicled her difficulties with getting a reliable diagnosis, the loss of her brother, and her journeys between Delhi and Madhubani at the time. Devi was particularly engaged with the Crafts Museum, where she finished a large kohbar ghar in 1990. The walls of the chamber were later painted over in 2015 as part of the museum’s renovation and modernisation efforts. The removal of the work was condemned by scholars and art enthusiasts, including the Crafts Museum’s former director Jyotindra Jain.
Devi passed away in 1991 in New Delhi.
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Jain, Jyotindra. “Ganga Devi: Tradition and expression in Madhubani painting.” Third Text, 3:6. 1989.
Jha, Fiza. “Ganga Devi (1928–1991). “Archiving Feminisms in South Asia”. Medium, May 23, 2019. https://medium.com/elm-2019/ganga-devi-1928-1991-1c28c571e474
“Line Drawings of Ganga Devi.” Critical Collective. Accessed, October 6, 2021. https://criticalcollective.in/CC_ArchiveInner2.aspx?Aid=91&Eid=637
Pisharoty, Sangeeta Barooah. “An Artist’s Lifework Painted Over by the Brushstrokes of Bureaucracy.” The Wire, September 9, 2015. https://thewire.in/culture/an-artists-lifework-painted-over-by-the-brushstrokes-of-bureaucracy