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Celebrated abroad but little-known at home, Mithila art is inventing itself in new and astonishing ways, says John Bowles

A Politician Buys Votes in Patna by Komlesh Roy of Madhubani (2005)
In recent years, a number of truly accomplished Mithila artists have been painting original and sometimes surprisingly innovative works which have become increasingly exhibited and recognised abroad, from Japan and the US, to South Africa, France, Australia, Germany, Mexico and even Iceland. Yet these artists remain virtually unknown within India itself. That may soon change, thanks to the appearance of a significant publication and an accompanying exhibition — “Mithila Painting, The Evolution of an Art Form” — on next year at both galleries of the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi between January 14 and 26. Those who thought that Mithila painting had irrevocably degenerated into an unoriginal souvenir-quality craft will discover that it has instead been undergoing an astonishing efflorescence — the latest in a series of ‘renaissances’ since these arts were first admired by visiting foreigners over 70 years ago.

Contemporary themes from globalisation to women’s empowerment are finding increasing reflection in the younger generation’s work
For centuries, ritual murals had been painted in the interiors of homes in Mithila, yet they remained a closed world to outsiders who were able to observe and record them only after a major earthquake in 1934. William Archer, the colonial subdivisional officer inspecting the damage to villages in Mithila, was the first to photograph them. Archer and his wife Mildred (both of whom went on to establish reputations as eminent Indian art historians) immediately recognised the importance and beauty of these murals, and promoted their broader appreciation through several publications. The forthcoming India Habitat Centre exhibit (jointly curated by David Szanton, Malini Bakshi, Parmeshwar Jha and Manisha Mishra) features a selection of Archer’s black and white photographs, reproduced from original prints long sequestered at the India Office Library in London. Through these images, one can glimpse the different stylistic and thematic prototypes distinctive to Mithila’s Kayastha and Brahmin domestic visual art traditions. Amidst the depictions of deities and other religious imagery (including the famous kohbar motifs — ritual symbols and icons used in the decoration of nuptial chambers), there also appears a railway train with a belching smokestack, a station master and tickets — all blithely running above depictions of Vishnu and his avatars.

It was in Baroda that Santosh Das first heard his work being compared to Klee and Miró — artists whom he knew nothing of but came later to admire
In 1966, another tragedy struck Mithila in the form of a severe drought. As part of a larger initiative to bring economic relief to the region, Pupul Jayakar, the then director of the All India Handicrafts Board, sent the Bombay artist Bhaskar Kulkarni to Mithila to encourage women there to replicate their mural paintings on paper which, it was hoped, could be sold elsewhere as an alternate source of income. Kulkarni, whose hippie-like appearance made an odd impression in Mithila’s conservative rural community, only succeeded in cajoling a few Mahapatra Brahmin and Kayastha women to experiment with the new medium. But by the early 1970s, their paintings had become widely known, and two of them — Ganga Devi and Sita Devi — were recognised as major artists both in India and abroad. Their success further encouraged other local women to try their hand at this new art form. In 1972, Erica Moser, a German anthropologist, film-maker and social activist, came to the village of Jitwarpur and encouraged the impoverished Dusadh dalit community to paint as well. The Dusadhs naturally emphasised themes and subject matter relating to their own oral histories (such as the adventures of the hero Raja Salhesh, and depictions of their primary deity, Rahu) — drawn with vigorous brushwork, bold compositions and figural renderings largely based on traditional tattoo patterns. Their eagerness to experiment added yet another distinctive new style to the region’s flourishing art scene.

Foreign patronage of Mithila painting entered a new stage when the American anthropologist Raymond Owens first arrived in Madhubani in 1977 and thereafter exerted significant influence on these arts until his death in 2000. Owens had done his doctorate at the University of Chicago (on small-scale industries in Calcutta’s Howrah district), co-authored a book with Ashis Nandy (The New Vaisyas: Entrepreneurial Opportunity and Response in an Indian City), and was teaching at the University of Texas, Austin. Owens’ passion for Mithila painting soon led to his part-time residency in the area — he made at least six to eight visits there and is still warmly recalled by elder artists and civic leaders. His patronage included the purchase and distribution of huge reams of handmade, acid-free paper from Jaipur, the production of two documentary films on the artists, as well as the co-founding of the Master Craftsman’s Association of Madhubani and, thereafter, the US-based Ethnic Arts Foundation (EAF), specifically for promoting a broader appreciation and support for Mithila painting. Owen’s patronage has now continued by means of his bequest enabling the EAF to pursue various Mithila art-related research, publication, and exhibition projects; it has also helped the EAF establish the Madhubani-based Mithila Art Institute.

Leela Devi doesn’t own a television and never saw the 9/11 broadcasts; her painting of the attack came from hearing about it on the radio
Founded in 2003, the Mithila Art Institute (MAI) annually grants 20 tuition-free, year-long, merit-based scholarships, awarded in an open competition of anonymously submitted artworks. About five especially accomplished first-year students are selected to continue their studies for a second year, during which they each receive a modest monthly stipend.

MAI offers an unusual experiment in vocational art education. Its curriculum — which focuses first and foremost on mastering Mithila’s traditional thematic motifs and only later allows experimentation with individual expression, innovation and ‘outside’ influences — reflects the hybrid background of its director and primary instructor, Santosh Kumar Das.

Das first learned about Mithila art as a child at his home in Ranti (a village on the outskirts of Madhubani), where his mother painted kohbar compositions on paper, and his aunts Karpoori Devi and Mahasundari Devi (both master Mithila artists) experimented with narrative themes. In his early 20s, he did some translation work for Mary Lanius, a visiting art historian from the University of Denver, who recognised his talent and then underwrote his five-year scholarship to study in the famous art department at Baroda’s Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU). It was there that Das first remembers hearing others compare his drawings to those by Paul Klee and Joan Miró, whom he knew nothing of then but came to admire, along with Picasso and other Western masters. Gulammohammed Sheikh, then head of the art department, recalls how Das’ talent forced the department to loosen its norms to permit him to continue working in his traditional Mithila style. Although the programme’s curriculum required drawing, it didn’t specify ‘life drawing’, and so the faculty — in consultation with Das’ fellow students — ultimately decided that his work did indeed satisfy the course’s requirements.

Women Can Do Everything by Shalinee Kumari of Baxi Tola (2005)

After graduating from msu, Das returned to Mithila, where he pursued his artwork at home. Then in 2002, the year before his appointment as MAI director, communal violence erupted in Gujarat. Das and his family closely followed the media’s vivid reports of the atrocities, which made a horrifying contrast with his fond memories of student life in Baroda. Shocked into a new level of political consciousness, Das fell into a depression that lasted three months — he began spending more and more time at home, not going out but instead discussing his political concerns with close family members. Having earlier been a well-wisher of the BJP, he became disgusted and angry with what he saw as the party’s violent betrayal of basic Hindu values. He decided to express his outrage in the best way he could — by creating a series of 23 paintings on the Gujarat riots. Among these powerful pictures, the graphic impact of the one entitled Chief Minister Narendra Modi Inciting Religious Intolerance while Gujarat Burns and Gandhi’s Death is Forgotten, has made it an internationally famous icon representing contemporary Indian sectarian strife. Needless to say, through these paintings, Das brought himself, and Mithila art, far into controversial territory. The series has been exhibited both abroad and at the National Galleries of Modern Art in Delhi and Mumbai; it is due for a showing early next year in Ahmedabad itself.

While Vasudevan Akhittam, the current head of the art department at Baroda, has especially commended Das as an artist who has “…kept the debate of tradition and modernity alive”, there is also a need for professional caution. There are cases when curators improperly impose extraneous topicality in commissioning or interpreting a work by a ‘folk’ or tribal artist. But it would also be a mistake to generalise too broadly from such instances. Fortunately, the manipulation or authenticity of such contemporary work can ultimately be discerned from meeting with the artists themselves.

9-11-2001 by Leela Devi of Rashidpur (2003)

On a visit to Mithila last October, I met with Das and many other artists who spoke at length about their interests and choice of subject matter. While most of the elder, well-recognised artists continue to devote themselves entirely to traditional religious subject matter, a small but apparently growing number of artists there have definitely chosen ‘contemporary’ themes on their own initiative — without promptings from market-savvy middlemen or outside curators. Consider, for example, the artist Leela Devi of Rashidpur (a contemporary and former neighbour of master artist Ganga Devi). Although Leela Devi doesn’t own a television and never saw the 9/11 broadcasts, she heard about it all by radio and later discussed it at length with her nephew, a local doctor. Although initially unsure how to represent the event, Leela Devi could visualise how it might have looked, having seen the skyscrapers of Tokyo en route to Japan’s Mithila Museum (which specialises in Indian folk and tribal art and periodically hosts artists-in-residence). She later showed her 9/11 picture to anthropologist David Szanton, who bought it on behalf of the EAF so it could be featured in the upcoming publication and exhibit. Shalinee Kumari and Pinki Kumari, two young MAI graduates residing in Baxi Tola (a village many miles away from Madhubani), paint kohbars and other religious subjects, as well as depictions of women’s empowerment, environmental pollution, corruption and social inequities, the benefits and costs of capitalism, global terrorism, etc. When asked how they chose such highly-charged subject matter, they promptly answered: “We listen to the BBC and then discuss what we hear.”

Some of the younger Mithila artists will be attending the Habitat Centre’s mid-January exhibition opening and a special day-long symposium on Mithila art, to be held on January 19 at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. According to David Szanton: “Both the symposium and exhibit will address the earliest recorded origins of Mithila painting, yet emphasise the most recent developments of the art form. This is because the work of earlier masters (like Ganga Devi and Sita Devi) has already received great attention, while the work of equally talented painters still active today, and others just starting out, is still hardly known to the Indian public.”

From the earliest recorded Mithila murals — of deities, ritual icons, and railway trains — to new visions of contemporary women (as mountain climbers, scientists, astronauts and political protesters), Mithila painting, while retaining its distinctive techniques and styles, has demonstrated an extraordinary vitality and a remarkable expansion of subject matter. As will be shown by the Habitat Centre exhibit and its accompanying publication, Mithila painters continue to produce powerful imagery, from the most traditional iconography to contemporary social and political themes and issues.

Bowles is an art critic. More on both the EAF
and the MIA can be found at

Dec 30 , 2006

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