About a month into India’s Covid-19 lockdown, India’s folk artists began to share their take on the ongoing pandemic. Amongst them, was Madhubani painter Hira Devi Kant whose Corona-inspired line drawing served as both, social messaging and a tribute to frontline workers.
“It took three days to complete. We didn’t know how to sell it in lockdown, so we messaged our old network of buyers,” explain Hira Devi and her daughter Madhuri who helps with coordination. The piece caught the eye of Swati Seth, founder of social enterprise The Color Caravan, who helped auction the piece via social media. The artwork was bought by Glasgow Museum with all proceeds going directly to the artist.
Hira Devi learnt her craft under the guidance of her aunt and Padma Shree award recipient Mahasundari Devi. “I was born in the Madhubani district of Bihar. Everyone learns the art around age five or six; all three of my daughters also paint,” says the Noida-based artist.
The word Madhubani means forest of honey. The artworks often feature elements of nature set around celebratory themes. They were traditionally executed with sticks and fingers (not brushes) in homemade, natural colours. Over time, experienced artists began to work with synthetic paint on varied surfaces like metal, wood, leather and canvas.
Hira Devi enjoys innovating on contemporary products for lifestyle labels like Swarang Designs and iTokri. “I love exploring new designs based on the project; working on different materials and objects,” she says. Over four decades, her work has showcased at myriad exhibitions including Dastkari Haat Samiti and SAARC Handicraft Exhibition & Workshop.
Currently, she misses teaching in local schools and engaging with customers at handicraft fairs.“The lockdown has caused a loss in income; even orders via calls have reduced as people are scared to buy anything. We have made lots of paintings in this time and stocks are piling up,” she says.
As always, Hira Devi continues to move with the changing times. Like many Indian artisans, she has added cotton face masks to her product offering; each customised with her quirky art.
Priced at Rs 80 each, the masks are sold in bulk (20pc). With her daughter’s support, she is also navigating the world of e-commerce on platforms like Etsy.