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Mithila painting: 1949-2014.

IN 1949, WILLIAM G. ARCHER CONTRIBUTED AN ARTICLE ENTITLED "MAITHIL Painting" to Marg Vol. 3, No. 3. It was the first article to bring public attention to this painting tradition. Despite some problematic interpretations, Archer provided a thorough and appreciative account of the social and ritual context, conventions, sources of variation, and uses of line and colour in the ancient wall-painting tradition widespread across the Mithila region of Bihar. Beginning his article with the 1809 epigraph above, articulating Blake's concept of art centred on invention and visionary conception, Archer ended it in his own words: "In the best art there is an inescapable element of strangeness, the sense of a novel wonder, a mystery burning at the heart of life, and it is this strangeness, this incandescence which above all the painting of Mithila transmits."

The world, India, and Mithila painting have all changed dramatically since Blake's day--and Archer's. Yet the epigraph and Archer's closing lines are as apposite today. Although the Mithila murals were distinctively different, Archer saw them as parallels and equivalent to "modern European art" in their invention and visionary conception. A similar case can be made for Mithila painting today. For while many Mithila painters have been reduced to the sordid drudgery of facsimile representations (producing the stacks of repetitious paintings one sees on sale at Dilli Haat), several serious artists have been using Mithila's distinctive aesthetics to produce inventive and visionary works of contemporary art.

Archer studied History and Economics at Cambridge in the late 1920s, but also actively followed contemporary European art and the debates over "fine art" vs "folk art" and "craft". In 1931 he entered the Indian Civil Service and in late 1933 was posted to Madhubani, Bihar. Thus he was there during the massive 8.2 Bihar earthquake of January 15, 1934. Assessing the damage after the earthquake, he "discovered" the centuries-old Mithila wall-painting tradition on the newly exposed inner walls of shattered homes. Most of what he saw were paintings on the cracked walls of the kohbar ghar, the marriage chamber. These paintings were centred around a kohbar, a large image of the lotus pond, with flowers, fish, turtles, snakes, parrots, peacocks and love-birds, all symbols of female beauty and fecundity, with a stylized bamboo grove alongside symbolizing male fertility and the male family line. These, in turn, were surrounded by paintings of Durga, Krishna, Shiva, Parvati, Vishnu, Lakshmi and Ganesh, there to provide a protective and auspicious setting for a marriage. Some murals also included marriage processions, and at least one depicted a railroad train on a trestle with avatars of Vishnu below.

A later article, "Into Hidden Maithila", of uncertain date (Archer died in 1979), appeared in India Served and Observed (London, 1994) a joint volume of reminiscences put together by his wife, Mildred Archer. In this article, Archer reflected more broadly on the day he "discovered" the paintings, what they meant to him and to art more generally. Describing a Brahmin home, he wrote, "I could see the walls were covered with brilliantly painted murals.... Everything meandered, yet everything cohered. The faces had a gay insouciance, the fanciful contortions of a Klee or Miro. The figures also had a dream-like vacuousness. Their very freedom from what was normal sparked off the imagination and one felt as if one was in a fairy-like palace, brimful of wonder.... I had seen nothing [elsewhere in India] which so instinctively took for granted the assumptions of modern European art."

On the other hand, in the Kayastha homes, Archer noted that while the imagery was similar, "the style of their murals was quite distinct. It presupposed the same liberties, the same repudiation of truth to natural appearances, the same determination to project a forceful idea of a subject rather than a factual record. But in contrast to Brahmins, Kayasth women were vehement. They portrayed their main subject with shrill boldness, with savage forcefulness.... If Maithil Brahmin murals resembled Miro or Klee, here was Picasso naked and unashamed."

He then went on to say, "All murals were the work of women. Men had no part in them. In a kind of underground conspiratorial manner each group of women tapped a regional reservoir of idioms providing each bride and bridegroom with the heavenly images requisite for their bliss." And further, "I must confess that for at least an hour, I forgot the earthquake and its horrors. I was entranced by what I saw. They were a product of pre-industrial India. I was a product of sophisticated England. Yet in these murals we somehow electrically met. What they took for granted, I considered superb ... the art was there and made us one ...I saw the beauty on the mud."

While Archer named the (male) head of the household, he neither named individual artists, nor used the terms "folk" or "folk art" in either of his articles. What he saw were paintings by upper-caste women in strict purdah who drew upon a regional reservoir of idioms to express their deep concern for the health, ritual well-being and prosperity of their family. Yet the paintings also met Blake's and Archer's own criteria for art: invention and visionary conception, and strangeness and incandescence. Thus, despite the differences in their sources, subject matter and aesthetic conventions, for Archer, Mithila painting was an Indian counterpart to contemporary European art. With that in mind he subsequently photographed at least 200 paintings while travelling through Mithila during the 1930s, ultimately leaving 50 prints along with contact sheets of the wall-paintings at the India Office Library in London (now part of the British Library collections).

From Walls to Paper

When in 1949 Archer published his article in Marg, he had just become Keeper of the Indian Section of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. He and his wife Mildred soon became major figures in the British art world, but still retained close ties to India. When in April 1965 Pupul Jayakar--then Head of the All-India Handloom Board--asked W.G. Archer's advice about preserving a visual record of the wall-paintings, he urged her to contact the Brahmin and Kayastha families in Madhubani, and especially in the villages of Jitwarpur and Ranti where the wall-paintings were particularly concentrated. No such visual record was compiled, but in response to the devastating 1966 drought in Bihar, Pupul Jayakar commissioned the Bombay artist Bhaskar Kulkarni to go to Jitwarpur and Ranti to train local women to transfer their wall-paintings to paper for sale as an income-generating project.

The first paintings on paper that Kulkarni brought back to New Delhi for exhibition in 1967 caused a sensation. Almost immediately, two Kayastha painters, Ganga Devi and Mahasundari Devi, and two Brahmin painters, Sita Devi and Jagadamba Devi, were recognized as extraordinary artists. They drew on the conventions of the wall-paintings, yet each quickly developed her own distinctive and immediately recognizable style. All four received private and government commissions, and during the early 1970s Ganga Devi and Sita Devi were sent by the Indian government to represent the country at cultural exhibitions in Japan, the USSR, Europe and the United States. On return to Madhubani they produced stunning paintings on paper based on their international travels (e.g. Ganga Devi's Moscow hotel and her ride on an American roller-coaster; and Sita Devi's New York brownstone facades, her ride in a World Trade Towers elevator and her visit to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC). Then, through the 1980s and into the '90s, they continued painting on paper, both classic wall-painting images and scenes from the Ramayana and their own life-histories--most famously, Ganga Devi's 1988-89 series on her battle with cancer.

Inspired and encouraged by the successes and income generated by these celebrated artists, hundreds of women in many villages in Madhubani district began painting on paper from the early 19705 through the '90s. Among them were an expanding array of highly original, innovative, technically skilled and consistently productive women artists from various castes: Baua Devi, Vinita Jha and Bachadai Devi from the Brahmin community; Kayastha painters Godaveri Dutta, Shashikala Devi, Kapoori Devi and Lalita Devi; Chano Devi, Shanti Devi and Lalitha Devi from the Dusadh community; and the Chamar painter Jamuna Devi. There were four men as well: Batohi Jha and his brother Krishnanand Jha, sons of a Tantric priest; Gopal Saha, a Bania; and Santosh Kumar Das, a Kayastha. Skill, invention and vision were by no means limited to the upper castes.

Drawing on their personal knowledge and experience--an expanded version of Archer's regional reservoir of idioms--these artists painted the full array of marriage and other rituals, extended narratives of their own lives, episodes from local oral traditions and classic texts, as well as descriptions and wry critiques of contemporary life. Despite expanding the repertoire, they insisted upon working within the severe aesthetic conventions of Mithila painting: two-dimensional imagery, no horizon line or use of perspective, no modelling of figures, deities facing forward, humans in profile, open spaces filled with flowers, plants and trees, and a frame painted on the paper itself often reflecting the theme of the painting. And most strikingly, despite the aesthetic constraints, each painter's work--much like that of Miro, Klee, Picasso or Chagall--was distinctive and immediately recognizable as her or his own.

External Patronage

In 1986, after I showed a collection of 50 paintings by these artists to Stella Kramrisch, at that time the Dean of South Asian Art at the University of Pennsylvania, she flatly asserted, "Mithila painting is the most vital tradition in contemporary Indian art."

While obviously some might dispute her opinion, it is striking how many "outsiders"--non-Maithils--starting with WG. Archer have become entranced by this art. Archer was followed in the 1960s by Pupul Jayakar, who visited with the painters and wrote extensively about them (notably in The Earthen Drum: An Introduction to the Ritual Arts of Rural India, New Delhi, 1980), then Bhaskar Kulkarni who assisted them in transferring their paintings from walls to paper. Since then many other critics, artists and collectors--both Indian and foreign"--have been struck by the power, beauty and sophisticated knowledge underlying the paintings. In the early 1970s Upendra Maharathi, the Patna-based artist, collector and cultural promoter, started grading paintings on artistic quality from D to A+. In the same period, Erika Moser-Schmitt, a German anthropologist and filmmaker made repeated trips to the Dusadh community just 100 metres from Sita Devi's home in litwarpur. There she encouraged the Dusadh women to develop godana painting, a distinctive iconography consisting of small repetitive designs based on their protective tattoos and their own ancient cultural traditions. She even built a large protected workspace for them. Also during the early 1970s, the French journalist Yves Vequaud made several trips to the villages, collected paintings, made a film about the painters, mounted exhibitions in Paris and Barcelona, and wrote L'Art du Mithila (Paris, 1976) translated as Women Painters of Mithila (London, 1977). Like Archer, he never used the term "folk art" in his writings on Mithila. Indeed, towards the end of his Introduction to the book he expressed his hope that a "school of 'modern art' [would] develop there".

Then from 1976 to 2000 the American anthropologist Raymond Owens made seven extended trips to Madhubani, staying in Ranti and Jitwarpur for many weeks to many months at a time. Owens made two films about the painters (Munni and Five Painters), encouraged the artists to do their best work, and paid them 20 to 30 times the exploitative amounts offered by local and Delhi-based dealers. He then brought these paintings to the us where he and colleagues founded the not-for-profit Ethnic Arts Foundation (EAF) to mount exhibitions and sales in the us, South Africa and India. As further encouragement to the artists, he returned the profits from sales to those whose works had been sold. Owens avoided telling artists what to paint, but he did suggest that in addition to the traditional iconography they might draw on their personal knowledge, experience and interests, as well as familiar oral tales, classic texts and the great epics. Owens died in 2000, but left a modest bequest to the EAF to continue its activities.

Tokio Hasegawa, the Japanese poet, composer and musician who first visited Madhubani in the mid-198os, has also been an important external influence. Aside from purchasing numerous paintings, he established the Mithila Museum in the mountains northwest of Tokyo--the only museum in the world specifically dedicated to Mithila painting. The museum also houses a studio to which Hasegawa has for two decades invited pairs of Mithila painters (many of those mentioned above) for three-to nine-month residencies, providing their travel and living expenses and a monthly stipend, thus enabling them to work without distraction on larger, more ambitious paintings than would be possible at home in Madhubani. The museum retains the paintings produced there--among the artists' most striking works--and covers the cost of the residencies by selling some of the paintings at exhibitions in cities across Honshu to which he also brings the artists.

Finally, Jyotindra Jam's stunning volume Ganga Devi: Tradition and Expression in Mithila Painting (Ahmedabad, 1997) both excited and encouraged many artists and brought new national and international attention to Ganga Devi and to the art form generally. And much like Blake defining art as invention and visionary conception, and Archer's account of the paintings as marked by novel wonder and freedom from what was normal, Jain wrote that Ganga Devi "transforms the ordinary commonplace images of hotel facades, motor cars, national flags, ticket-booths, roller-coasters, and people carrying shopping bags into imaginary and 'fantastic' objects".

Clearly, the fundamental sources of the continuing creativity and innovation of the artists working in the Maithil tradition derives from their individual and collective knowledge and passions, their skills and rich visual imagination--in effect, a continuously expanding version of Archer's reservoir of idioms. However, the recognition, encouragement and support of outside patrons, audiences and markets--much as artists everywhere have always depended upon--have also played an important role in the continuing evolution and vitality of the painting tradition.

The New Generation of Artists

At the same time, India, Bihar and even village Mithila have also been changing economically, socially and culturally, and at an accelerating pace in the new millennium. This has been of special significance for young women who, with increased access to education, the media and images of urban life, are less inclined to settle for narrowly domesticated village life and are instead eager to study English, commerce and computers, and to move to urban centres. Indeed by 2002 many established artists feared the painting tradition would die soon because few young women were still interested in learning to paint--as they had for generations--from their mothers, aunts and older sisters. That in turn prompted the EAF'S offer to use Owen's bequest to establish a free art school, the Mithila Art Institute (MAI) in Madhubani, in the hope that young women might be more interested in learning their own tradition at a formal art school, taught by major artists. All agreed it seemed worth trying, and while most doubted it would last more than two or three years, when the MAI opened in February 2003, 108 young women (mostly 18 to 25 years old) applied for the 25 places. Since then, every year some 250 to 300 young women (and a few young men) from villages as much as 5o kilometres away, and from all across the caste spectrum, enter the annual "blind" entrance competition. Identified only by number, not by name, applicants gather at the MAI on an appointed day and are given four hours to produce a painting on the spot. At the end of that period their paintings are passed to a panel of senior artists who select 25 to 30 applicants for the one- and two-year programmes based solely on perceived talent.

The teachers at the MAI are all senior painters, and the first six months of the year-long curriculum focuses on command of the materials, drawing and traditional iconography. For the next six months the students are free to paint what they wish, traditional or contemporary. Many do both. At the end of the year the most serious and talented students are offered a second year of training.

The ten works by MAI graduates featured in Marg's March 2013 (Vol. 64, No. 3) thematic advertisements illustrate the painters' expanded consciousness of the multiple worlds around them, the new contexts and issues in their lives (much as their mothers and grandmothers did before them), as well as their growing technical skill, invention and visionary conceptions--Archer's strangeness. The ten paintings by this new generation ranged from Rashmi Kumari's classic red "Kobbar", to Rambharos's nearly psychedelic "Four Fish" and Angeli Kumari's painting of Orlando pinning love poems on trees along Rosalind's path in the forest from Shakespeare's As You Like It. And perhaps most indicative of the inventiveness and depth of feeling these works express are the "feminist" paintings such as Shalinee Kumari's "Woman as Radiant, Woman as Submissive", conveying both woman's Shakti-like powers and her overwhelming control by men depicted as a five-hooded naga; Amrita Jha's extension of the concept of Ardhanarishvara (half male, half female) in her "Two Snails", pointing to the interdependence of male and female "throughout nature, even in snails"; and Supriya Jha's domestic scene of an impending bride burning, but now with women protesting outside the house and leaning in a window to set the mother-in-law alight.

While the MAI has made important contributions, there are also highly productive and original new-generation artists based in the surrounding communities and from all across the caste spectrum. At present six new-generation artists, three from the local communities and three graduates of the MAI, stand out for their continuous productivity, technical and expressive power, and breadth of subject matter. Space here does not allow for more than ten images, but these at least provide some sense of the scope of their work within the Mithila tradition.

Since 2002 Rani Jha has been producing powerful paintings on women's issues Including the dramatic "Abortion Clinic" (2004) with a pregnant woman on a gurney viewing the ultrasound while her mother-in-law insists she abort the female foetus, and her daughter pleads with her to save her unborn sister; and "Breaking through the Curtain" (2011) that she explains by saying, "In the past women could only peek through the curtain, now we are joining together and breaking through the curtain."

In the past five years the young self-taught Dusadh artist, Naresh Kumar Paswan, has produced a large array of work with extraordinary skill and imagination dealing with a wide range of subjects using only a black pen on paper, for example "Sita in Captivity in Lanka" (2011) and "9-11-2001" (2013).

Again starting in 2002, Dulari Devi of the fisher community has turned out to be a brilliant colourist, muralist and social commentator, as suggested by her "Durga" (2013) and "The Flood of 2006" (2009) that depicts her observation of scenes in her village: the rich family, having locked their house, flee across the flood waters with a boatman, while the poor are left to gather the drowned and mourn the dead (shades of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans). In 2010, Chennai-based Tara Press published her prize-winning autobiography, Following My Paint Brush, "written" in paintings.

Among the many fine young artists who have come through the Mithila Art Institute, three currently stand out for the breadth of their work, their continuous productivity, and aesthetic and intellectual imagination.

The first to emerge was Shalinee Kumari who has an extraordinary capacity to draw on traditional motifs and imagery to address contemporary issues and concerns. This was manifest in her 2009 solo exhibition in a major San Francisco gallery that included "Weeping Mother Earth Prays to the Sun God to Spare the Earth from Global Warming" (2009), and "Passion, Generation, Creation" (2012).

Rambharos has had a continuing interest in underwater imagery and mythology, as well as the power of line and abstraction in Mithila painting. This is evident in "Nagkanya and Turtles" (2010) and "Water Spirits" (2009), his Maithil reinvention of the century-old technique of the collage used by Braque and Picasso. Tara Press published his prize-winning silkscreened volume Waterlife in 2011.

Amrita Jha paints with clarity, intensity and hard edged detail, drawing on both spiritual convictions and deep personal insights, as suggested by "Tiger" (2011) and "Identity Crisis" (2012), in which the nagas, representing the males in her life, keep pressing her to turn in one direction or another.


If Blake, Archer, Jayakar, Maharathi, Moser, Kramrisch, Hasegawa, Owens and Jain are correct, and original work of this sort carried out with passion, intensity, skill, vision and imagination is art, what kind of art is it? Clearly, it is an art deeply rooted in Indian tradition, but like all art its appeal is universal and it draws simultaneously on both past and present, on ancient truths and current concerns. Some years ago, Lalita Devi, one of the finest painters of her generation, depicted a many-armed Durga with a broom and pots and pans in her hands rather than weapons. Recalling the painting she said, "An older man told me this was not Durga. But I told him that he keeps looking for Durga in the sky, but he does not see the hundreds of Durgas all around him."

Like other vital art forms, Mithila painting has evolved and grown over time and space. In this dynamic matrix the artists have been drawing on their personal and social experience, and have been using a set of distinctive indigenous techniques and conventions - in effect, a visual language - to express powerful images and ideas. And strikingly, while all of the "patrons" mentioned above - except of course Blake - have engaged personally and at length with these painters and their paintings, none write of them as "folk artists" or Mithila painting as "folk art". As in all art traditions, here too there are painters engaged in Blake's facsimile representations. But the specific painters mentioned above, even though they may live and work in rural communities, are producing a sophisticated alternative contemporary art that is rooted in a distinctive, flexible, powerful and evolving indigenous Indian aesthetic and expressive tradition. As WG. Archer discerned 8o years ago, and as hoped for by Yves Vequaud nearly 40 years back, Mithila painting is indeed a school of "modern art" that both parallels and provides a compelling alternative to the colonial introduction of European pictorial traditions and the fickle fashions of the current globalized art world.

Shall Painting be confined to the sordid drudgery of facsimile representations of merely mortal and perishing substances, and not be as poetry and music are, elevated into its own proper sphere of invention and visionary conception?

WILLIAM BLAKE, A Descriptive Catalogue, 1809

Caption: W. G. Archer, 1976. From India Served and Observed, London, 1994.

Caption: 1 "Tiger", by Amrita Jha, 2011.

Caption: 2 "Breaking through the Curtain", by Rani Jha, 2011.

Caption: 3 "Passion, Generation, Creation", by Shalinee Kumari, 2012.

Caption: 4 "Identity Crisis", by Amrita Jha, 2012.

Caption: 5 "The Flood of 2006", by Dulari Devi, 2009.

Caption: 6 "Nagkanya and Turtles", by Rambharos, 2010.

Caption: 7 "Water Spirits", by Rambharos, 2009.

Caption: 8 "9-11-2001", by Naresh Kumar Paswan, 2013.

Caption: 9 "Abortion Clinic", by Rani Jha, 2004.

Caption: 10 "Weeping Mother Earth Prays to the Sun God to Spare the Earth from Global Warming", by Shalinee Kumari, 2009.
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Title Annotation:PERSPECTIVES
Author:Szanton, David
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Sep 1, 2014
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