July 05, 2020
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Love's Labour Lost

Yashoda Devi, prominent Madhubani artist, struggles in penury

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Love's Labour Lost

NOTED Japanese journalist Norio Osaki included her works in his book on exquisite collections of original early Madhubani paintings. In the galleries of the Tokyo Museum, her art usually finds front rows. They adorn the Bihar Bhawan in Delhi, grace the walls of the Indira Gandhi National Museum and decorate the office of the cultural secretary. Yet recognition hasn't paid for the medical expenses of the almost-60 Yashoda Devi. Afflicted with bone tuberculosis and a heart ailment, she's currently living out a penurious existence in the heart of the Madhubani district, in Jitwarpur.

For four years now, the impoverished artist has been struggling to obtain a sum of Rs 5,000 announced by the then state chief minister for her medical expenses and treatment. At the Womens Enterprises Mela, she got an opportunity to hand over her petition to Rabri Devi in the hope that a woman chief minister would better understand the problems of another woman, but says, she resignedly, nirasha hi haath lagi (I only had to face disappointment).

Of course, she still paints. But, says her 27-year-old son Rajkumar Lal: It takes her months to paint a single piece. She can barely bend for half-an-hour over her canvas, yet it's a labour of love for Yashoda Devi who has nurtured the art for over 35 years. She's won the prestigious state honour from the Bihar government in 1982-83; and has been recommended thrice for the Lalit Kala Akademi Award.

Well-known journalist and writer Anees Jung visited her recently, courtesy Unesco, to promote the art and was particularly impressed by the artist's expression of linear imagination on canvas with an amazing mix of colours.

Adulation always came spontaneously for this niece of Padmashree awardee Jagdamba Devi. Now Yashoda Devi recalls the fate of neighbourhood poet Baba Nagarjuna who died in poverty in spite of being nationally acclaimed. I too would meet the same eternal fate, says she ruefully. Her aunt Jagdamba was luckier. When the then prime minister Indira Gandhi got to know of her illness, she had her examined by her personal physician. But for me, there's none to fall back on, she says in anguish.

Struck by the pathetic plight in which she paints, the Lalit Kala Akademi has helped her with a small grant of Rs 5,000. The Central government too, of late, has roped in her services for the Advanced Training Scheme (ATS) conducted by the textile ministry. Shes also a member of the Bihar Lalit Kala Akademi. Says its chairman Mahesh Kumar Sinha: She's truly an asset of the cultural tradition of the state (and) its a matter of shame that such a great artist lives in such a state.

Where once she painted for love, Yashoda Devi now paints in pain to meet her medical expenses and to look after her family of three. Things got worse after she lost her husband two years back. Her son, a political science graduate, and her youngest daughter Surekha also paint with her. Madhubani art is essentially a feminine preserve and is a community legacy passed down for centuries from every Mithila mother to her daughter. Says Surekha: My mother learnt the nuances from my maternal grandmother who received the Padmashree in 1975 and now Im learning it from her.

Alive for centuries in remote villages, Madhubani was brought to the national scene in the 60s through the seminal efforts of Padmashree Upendra Maharathi. The art form flourished in the hands of the womenfolk of Jitwarpur, Ranti, Chiri, Simri, Uchait and Hashidpur. They appeared prominently in the Gosainghar where the household and clan gods and goddesses were installed and in the kohabar, where newly-wed couples underwent their initial rites.Mithila painting is a connecting link between metaphysical concept and artistic libido, says Yashoda Devi. It was traditionally painted on walls with dyes from vegetables, flowers, leaves and cowdung. But today, the art has been highly commercialised and can be found on saris, dupattas, bedsheets and other decorative items.

Perhaps the greatest tribute comes from Vandana Kinni, an ias officer and a keen lover of Madhubani paintings, who has dedicated the following lines to Yashoda Devi's predicament: Ek Madhubani ki kalakar/banati nitya naye aakar prakar...Milta gaya samman uphar/puruskar aur yash ka daan/par na mila ek ghar apna/jeene ka aur sajo-saaman...bhookh ne jab kiya behaal/puchha nahin kisi ne uska haal; Rahti hai woh hardum vyakul/nitya din samasyaon se askul...madhubani ki tasbeeren usse karti vyanga/puchhati hain ab uska ant (One painter of Madhubani's/ she daily drew new designs...she received acclaim, gifts/but not a house to live in...when hunger besieged her/no one asked after her; she was troubled at all times/faced with new problems daily...the Madhubani paintings now taunt her, ask her when it will all end).

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