Mahasweta Devi was born in 1926 in Decca, British India (now Dhaka, Bangladesh) to literary parents. Her father, Manish Ghatak, was a well-known poet and novelist of the Kallol movement, who used the pseudonym Jubanashwa. Ghatak's brother was noted filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak. Devi's mother, Dharitri Devi, was also a writer and a social worker whose brothers were very distinguished in various fields, such as the noted sculptor Sankha Chaudhury and the founder-editor of Economic and Political Weekly of India, Sachin Chaudhury. Mahasweta Devi's first schooling was in Dhaka, Eden Montessori school (1930) but after the partition of India she moved to West Bengal in India. Then she studied in Midnapur Mission School(1935). After that she admitted in Santiniketan from 1936 to 1938. After that she studied in Beltala Girls' School (1939-1941) and got metric. Then in 1944 she got I.A. from Asutosh College. Then she joined the Rabindranath Tagore-founded Patha-Bhavana Vishvabharati University in Santiniketan and completed a B.A. (Hons) in English, and then finished an M.A. in English at Calcutta University.
Devi wrote over 100 novels and over 20 collections of short stories primarily written in Bengali but often translated to other languages. Her first novel, titled Jhansir Rani, based on a biography of Rani of Jhansi was published in 1956. She toured the Jhansi region to record information from the people and folk songs for the novel.
In 1964, she began teaching at Jadavpur, Kolkata-32 (an affiliated college of the University of Calcutta system). During those days, Vijaygarh jyotish Ray College was an institution for working-class women students. During that period she also worked as a journalist and as a creative writer. She studied the Lodhas and Shabars, the tribal communities of West Bengal, women and dalits. In her elaborate Bengali fiction, she often depicted the brutal oppression of tribal peoples and the untouchables by potent, authoritarian upper-caste landlords, lenders, and venal government officials. She wrote of the source of her inspiration:
I have always believed that the real history is made by ordinary people. I constantly come across the reappearance, in various forms, of folklore, ballads, myths and legends, carried by ordinary people across generations. ... The reason and inspiration for my writing are those people who are exploited and used, and yet do not accept defeat. For me, the endless source of ingredients for writing is in these amazingly noble, suffering human beings. Why should I look for my raw material elsewhere, once I have started knowing them? Sometimes it seems to me that my writing is really their doing.
Postcolonial scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has translated Devi's short stories into English and published three books Imaginary Maps (1995, Routledge), Old Woman (1997, Seagull), The Breast Stories (1997, Seagull).
Mahasweta Devi raised her voice several times against the discrimination of tribal people in India. In June 2016, the Jharkhand State Government freed the statue of noted tribal leader Birsa Munda upon Devi's activism. The statue showed Birsa in chains as was photographed by the then ruling British government. Her 1977 novel Aranyer Adhikar was on the life of Munda.
Devi spearheaded the movement against the industrial policy of the earlier Communist Party of India (Marxist) government of West Bengal. Specifically, she stridently criticized confiscation of large tracts of fertile agricultural land from farmers by the government and ceding the land to industrial houses at throwaway prices. she supported the candidature of Mamata Banarjee in the 2011 West Bengal Legislative Assembly election that resulted in the end of the 34-year long rule of CPI(M). She had connected the policy to the commercialization of Santiniketan of Rabindranath Tagore, where she spent her formative years. Her lead in the Nandigram agitation resulted in a number of intellectuals, artists, writers and theatre workers joining together in protest of the controversial policy and particularly its implementation in Singur and Nandigram.
She is known to have helped the noted writer Manoranjan Bypari to come into prominence as his initial writings were published in her journal and as prompted by her.
At the Frankfurt Book Fair 2006, when India was the first country to be the Fair's second time guest nation, she made an impassioned inaugural speech wherein she moved the audience to tears with her lines taken from the famous film song "Mera Joota Hai Japani" by Raj Kapoor.
This is truly the age where the Joota (shoe) is Japani (Japanese), Patloon (pants) is Englistani (British), the Topi (hat) is Roosi (Russian), But the Dil... Dil (heart) is always Hindustani (Indian)... My country, Torn, Tattered, Proud, Beautiful, Hot, Humid, Cold, Sandy, Shining India. My country.
On 27 February in 1947, she married renowned playwright Bijon Bhattacharya, who was one of the founding fathers of the Indian People's Theatre Association movement. In 1948, she gave birth to Nabarun Bhattacharya, who became a novelist and political critic. She worked in a post office but was fired from there for her communist leaning. She went on to do various jobs, such as selling soaps and writing letters in English for illiterate people. In 1962, she married author Asit Gupta after divorcing Bhattacharya.After that she broke up relationship with Gupta in 1976.
On 23 July 2016, Devi suffered a major heart attack and was admitted to Belle Vue Clinic in Kolkata. Devi died of multiple organ failure on 28 July 2016, aged 90. She also suffered from diabetes, septicemia and urinary infection.
On her death, Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal tweeted "India has lost a great writer. Bengal has lost a glorious mother. I have lost a personal guide. Mahasweta Di rest in peace." Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted "Mahashweta Devi wonderfully illustrated the might of the pen. A voice of compassion, equality & justice, she leaves us deeply saddened. RIP."1979: Sahitya Akademi Award (Bengali): – Aranyer Adhikar (novel)
1986: Padma Shri for Social Work
1996: Jnanpith Award – the highest literary award from the Bharatiya Jnanpith
1997: Ramon Magsaysay Award – Journalism, Literature, and the Creative Communication Arts for "compassionate crusade through art and activism to claim for tribal peoples a just and honorable place in India’s national life."
2003: Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
2006: Padma Vibhushan – the second highest civilian award from the Government of India
2007: SAARC Literary Award
2009: Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize
2010: Yashwantrao Chavan National Award
2011: Banga Bibhushan – the highest civilian award from the Government of West Bengal
Devi's major works are as listed below:Jhansir Rani (1956, biography)
The Queen of Jhansi, by Mahasweta Devi (translated by Sagaree and Mandira Sengupta). This book is a reconstruction of the life of Rani Lakshmi Bai from extensive research of both historical documents (collected mostly by G. C. Tambe, grandson of the Queen) and folk tales, poetry and oral tradition; the original in Bengali was published in 1956; the English translation by Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2000, ISBN 8170461758
Hajar Churashir Maa (1974, novel)
Aranyer Adhikar (1979, novel)
Agnigarbha (1978, short stories collection)
Murti (1979, short stories collection)
Neerete Megh (1979, short stories collection)
Stanyadayani (1980, short stories collection)
Chotti Munda Evam Tar Tir (1980, short stories collection)
Sunghursh (1968), Hindi film based on short story Layli Asmaner Ayna
Bayen (HindI) (1993)a film based on Short story Directed by Gul Bahar singh
Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa (1998)
Maati Maay (2006), Marathi film based on short story Daayen
Gangor (2010), Italian film based on short story Choli Ke Peeche
Ullas (Bengali film based on three short stories—Daur, Mahadu Ekti Rupkatha and Anna Aranya Anna Aranya)), produced by Sankar Sarkar, directed by Ishwar Chakraborty, released in 2012.