North India’s Mithila region lies just south of Nepal and the Himalayas, and north of the Ganges River in the Indian state of Bihar. It is a large region, well-watered by thousands of ponds, streams, and rivers. When the weather has been kind and the rulers benign, Mithila has been fertile and prosperous. As the birthplace of the goddess Sita, close by the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, and with centuries of famous scholars, poets, and theologians, it has long been a major religious, intellectual, and cultural center.
Today, Bihar, though now rapidly developing, is still one of the poorest states in India. In the Mithila region—home to over thirty million people—the roads and electricity are improving, internet access is available, but clean water and sanitation are limited, and unemployment forces many people to migrate to other parts of India and beyond. Monsoon floods compound social and economic stress.
Despite these difficulties, an ancient Mithila painting tradition is thriving. Since at least the twelfth century, women in Mithila have painted divinities and icons of fertility and well-being on the interior walls and floors of their homes. Intended to provide auspicious settings for a family’s daily and life-cycle rituals, the images are especially elaborated for marriages.
In 1934, a British colonial officer, William G. Archer, inspecting damage caused by a massive earthquake, “discovered” these paintings on the shattered walls of local homes and returned later to photograph them. In 1968, during a devastating drought, the Indian government sent a Bombay artist, Baskar Kulkarni, to encourage Maithil women to transfer their wall paintings onto paper and sell them as a new source of family income.
Today, most of the painters–and most of the paintings in this exhibit–come from a small number of villages: Jitwarpur, Ranti, Rasidpur, and Lahariaganj near the district market town of Madhubani.
More than most of India’s other indigenous painting traditions, thanks to the rich visual heritage, the skills of the painters, and expanding consciousness of the world around them, Mithila has been a site of constant artistic innovation. Within and across generations, at least five distinct painting techniques and styles have evolved, proliferated, and in some cases, merged. The subjects painted have gone from traditional ritual images to include episodes from local legends and ancient epics; domestic and community life; the painters’ personal lives; national and international politics; and most recently, powerful feminist critiques. A modest but formal art school, the Mithila Art Institute, has been established, and artists of international stature have emerged.
While retaining its distinctive character and deeply rooted aesthetic and cultural traditions, Mithila painting has evolved dramatically over the past 40 years. Today, Mithila painting encompasses ritual, folk, and fine art. This exhibition hopes to provide a glimpse into its continuing and extraordinary vitality.
Exhibition Note – Amboise, France. November 2014; Tours, France. January 2015