Artistic discourses are often characterized by debates about cultural significance, strokes of genius, and the cult of the artist as creator - all valid conversations, but those which nonetheless divorce themselves from a much more grounded concern of art. High-brow discussions tend to overlook the role of art as a means of income precisely because the cultural economy refuses to associate itself with transactions. The idea of art being created for monetary gains is passé. It is not real art. These statements come from a position of privilege and invalidate the existence of artists for whom art has been a means of emancipation from destitution. For Ganga Devi, as a patriarchally oppressed woman, this was certainly the reality.

Born in Chatra village, Bihar in the year 1928, Ganga Devi grew up in a fairly wealthy family. Like other girls belonging to her caste, she took up a paintbrush early on in life for the purpose of creating sacred floor murals (aripana) and decorating the walls of the bridal chamber (kohbar ghar). She was handed her first paintbrush by her mother, who was quite an artist in her own right. It was a simple object, made from rice straw and loose threads from the hem of her sari–and young Ganga used it mainly for ritualistic Madhubani art.

It wasn’t until she was married that her woes truly began. Ganga Devi’s conjugal life was a tormented one. She was unable to conceive, and so, her husband married for a second time and cast her out of the house without a penny to her name. Vulnerable and defenseless, it was upon being rendered homeless that Ganga Devi turned to art as a means of salvation. With a practiced hand and an eye for detail, her paintings became her only means of income.

She was discovered by a French journalist, Yves Vequad, who was impressed by her work and took it upon himself to promote it. This is how Ganga Devi began to make a name for herself outside Mithila, eventually making her way to the traditional art scene in New Delhi. It was during this period that she was finally able to obtain paper–thanks to benefactors like Vequad. Paper, until then, was largely unavailable to women in villages. It was only in the 1960s that the government of India began distributing paper in rural areas, allowing women to enter the handicraft market as individual breadwinners. Moreover, the translation of Madhubani from walls and floors to the transportable medium of paper freed the artform from ritualistic constraints, sanctioning experimentation with iconography and symbolism.

 

Madhubani Artist Ganga Devi's Cycle of Life Painting

 

Ganga Devi’s perseverance and skill in the kachni style (line drawing) were rewarded, and she was considered for the National Award. In spite of her husband’s protests, she did not let him stand in her way to success. She was awarded the National Master Craftsman Award, and also went on to win the Padma Shri later in life. She was invited to the United States as part of the Festival of India, and resultantly created innovative works by marrying traditional Indian form to quintessentially Western elements. The artist portrayed what she observed during her visit, and these fusions are delightfully unique in their defamiliarizing capabilities. 

The shift from walls to paper gave Ganga Devi the freedom to experiment with form, creating new syntax for Madhubani with which she invented ingenious compositions. For instance, on Nag Panchami, she transformed the imagery of a snake on paper by depicting it as a labyrinthian maze covering all blank space. As mentioned earlier, the break from chamber-painting signified movement away from ceremonial art, birthing new forms of expression. For Ganga Devi, this meant that she was given the license to explore the inner dimensions of the life cycle of a rural woman. In her Manav Jeevan series, she depicts the journey of a woman from birth, through puberty, marriage, pregnancy and so on. 

 

Madhubani Artist Ganga Devi's Nag Panchami Painting

 

Unfortunately, she was unable to lead such a life herself, having been removed from the comforts of home due to her inability to carry a child. And ironically, she attained fame for her mastery of Kohbar Ghar paintings, which are a symbol of matrimonial harmony and fertility. 

In fact, she was asked to paint such a mural on the walls of the Crafts Museum in Delhi. A quick enough job otherwise, this mural took a few months to complete because Devi had been diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing treatment at AIIMS. Nonetheless, she powered through and finished the famous painting. Sadly, it was demolished in 2015 as part of a renovation project, sparking debates about the world’s indifference toward ritual or traditional art in comparison to that which is considered “high art.” Time has denuded the former from the collective memory of the nation–but Ganga Devi’s legacy lives on in every woman who has been liberated through art.


 

References 

https://medium.com/elm-2019/ganga-devi-1928-1991-1c28c571e474

https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/ganga-devis-left-the-building/

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09528828908576213

https://blog.artlounge.in/blog/2021/4/8/ganga-devi

https://www.inditales.com/madhubani-artist-ganga-devi-mithila/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ganga_Devi_(painter)

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