Outreach of traditional Indian Art: Mithila paintings find home in an exhibition in America

Home » Outreach of traditional Indian Art: Mithila paintings find home in an exhibition in America
Shanti Devi, Raja Salhesh Hunting with his Nephews Buddishwar and Karikana

It is heart-warming to see traditional Indian art getting admired and discussed outside India. Therefore, we were thrilled when we came to know about Tradition and Transformation: Mithila Art of India, an exhibition that will run at the Benton Museum, Connecticut, US, from March 24 to July 30, 2022. 

Mithila art is an indigenous form of painting originating in the northern state of Bihar in India. Historically created as sumptuous wall murals, over the decades Mithila art has evolved as works on paper and canvas which has both preserved the tradition and generated new themes. Originally a matriarchal tradition with distinct styles based on caste, current Mithila art is created by both female and male artists and caste distinctions have become more fluid.

Baua Devi, Jitwarpur, Sita Garlanding Ram, 1977 commercial colors on paper

This exhibition will include over thirty works of art from the collection of Professor Kathryn Myers as a bequest to the Benton Museum. A catalogue with essays by leading scholars in the field will be available. Professor Myers has collected Mithila art for over two decades and visited the region in 2012 to create video interviews with two leading Mithila artists. The exhibition is also the result of a generous donation of art from the Ethnic Art Foundation which has supported the creation of Mithila art in India since 2003. Below is an email interview we got an opportunity to conduct with Kathryn Myers about her passion for Mithila Art. 

You have been collecting Mithila Art for over two decades. What drew you to the art form? What are its characteristics that fascinate you the most?

I bought my first Mithila paintings in craft fairs in Chennai and Delhi. I was drawn to the amount of detail and pattern and skillful compositions where every space is filled with something.  As a “realist” painter myself, I was impressed with the way artists invented how to depict phenomena through flat patterns and how often those completed patterns were juxtaposed with one another. I’m also impressed with how artists can continually reinvent traditional iconography that’s been illustrated thousands of times in other forms of traditional and popular art, as well as branch into new themes. This is particularly true of women artists who are creating a lot of powerful works on feminist themes and women’s empowerment. I also appreciated how specific styles were at first determined by caste. Brahmins had a style called bharni, with the use of bright colors outlined in ink, while the linear kachni style derives from the caste of scribes of the Kayasths. Dalit artists work developed a bit later when they were encouraged to develop a style called “godana” based on their unique tattoos. Now often these styles are fused and there is a lot of fluidity of caste-based styles. For example, Naresh Paswan Kumar, a Dalit artist, created the most sumptuous heavily detailed painting about Krishna in the kachni style, but he has another work about the Dalit deity Raja Salhesh. I love that these art forms are not locked in the past but are living traditions both revisiting the past and inventing the future.

Dulari Devi, Krishna Stealing the Saris of the Gopies, 2020 copy

You conducted video interviews with two artists in 2012. Can you share more about the process? What did you learn from interacting directly with the artists and what were your biggest takeaways?

I started the Regarding India series, which is ongoing, during a Fulbright Fellowship I had in 2011 to create video interviews with contemporary artists that would contribute to my University of Connecticut course, “Indian Art and Popular Culture.” Artists express what their work is about so differently than critics or historians and all are needed to fully communicate what the work is about. But for an artist in a video, sometimes a gesture, look or tone of voice will communicate so much more than a thousand words. I love video editing as a form of art, so it’s most suitable to my skills and temperament. I did a great deal of research before I interviewed each artist so I could ask questions that would be most helpful for my primary audience of American students who didn’t have much exposure to Indian art, traditional or contemporary. Because of the series, I was invited to join a group of American, British and Indian historians, curators and book publishers to the Mithila region to do an interview with Urmila Devi who is a celebrated Dalit artist. It was an incredible trip, I’ve been to India many times but never to villages such as these, filled with such talented artists. Urmila Devi is a remarkable artist who worked through great adversity and is now in international exhibitions. This was the first collaborative interview video I made, which also had to be subtitled, another valuable skill I learned. Prior to that I had seen some of Santosh Kumar Das’s powerful works on the Gujarat riots at the Asia Society in New York so I was also eager to have a chance to meet and interview him. These are the first indigenous artists in the series and I plan to go back and interview more artists, now also because I’ve been in contact via social media with so many artists due to the exhibition, I feel very strongly connected to them.  I had planned to go back to Madhubani during my Fulbright in 2020 but had to return to the US early due to Covid-19.

Nisha Jha Chhath, The Incredible Festival of India. acrylic on paper, 22 x 30_ 2021 copy

What is the response to the art form from viewers in the US? What reactions are you getting for the current show?

The show opened just last week and is up through July, but so far, at least from my students who visited yesterday, and some faculty, they have not seen anything like it and are quite blown away by the skill, also considering that these artists don’t have a formal art education.  A colleague just texted me moments ago saying that the exhibition is a “triumph.”

Nisha Jha, Hungry Man of Dowry, 22 x 30_ 2021

Can you expand a bit on the lecture series organized for the event? Who is your target audience and what are the messages you wish to convey?

The immediate audience is our university but also the wider community. I think it’s quite unusual for this type of work to be exhibited in the US so I hope it draws a broad audience from all over, which is why we wanted it to extend through most of the summer.

The first talk on the history and themes of Mithila art was delivered last week by David Szanton and was recorded so should soon be available on Youtube.  David is president of the Ethnic Arts Foundation who also helped create the Mithila Institute of Art in Madhubani that gave artists two years of free schooling in Mithila art. (This school has since closed due to lack of funding and that a new government school was created in Patna.) David has devoted so much to the support of Mithila artists and the dissemination of Mithila art in the United States though purchasing work from artists and finding exhibition opportunities. As the EAF is disbanding after 30 years, they donated 20 works from the collection of the EAF to individuals such as myself that are committed to getting the work out to audiences. These works are included in the exhibition and are part of an eventual bequest of my art collection to the Benton Museum of Art at UConn. His talk outlined some of the main features of Mithila art but then focused on the work of contemporary women artists and themes that are pertinent to their lives; very powerful works.

Santosh Kumar Das, Kali Series (1)10 x 16

On April 6th from 3:30-5pm EST, there will be a panel discussion on more broad themes of indigenous art in India. John H. Bowles, who is a leading curator and writer on indigenous art in India will discuss the work of Dalit artists in Mithila. (This will be a nice preview to a major exhibition of Dalit art he is curating at the Radford Art Museum in Virginia to open in late August.) Tula Goenka, a professor of film and television at Syracuse University has created a series of short videos on Mithila artists that are part of the exhibition, she will discuss her experiences making these. Her videos inspired me to purchase two gorgeous works by Dulari Devi that are highlights of the exhibition.  I’m also pleased to be able to invite Akshaya Tankha who is a post-doc fellow at Yale University. From Akshaya we will be able to learn about indigenous artists in Nagaland which I’m really looking forward to.

Shalini Kumari., High Flying Hope

On April 13th, Susan Wadley, an emerita professor of Anthropology at Syracuse University will focus on the work of women artists and feminist imagery and be in conversation (via zoom) with the Mithila artist Shalinee Kumari who is in the exhibition. Shalinee’s painting, “High Flying Hopes” is featured on the cover of the exhibition catalogue. It was Susan’s Mithila art exhibition and conference at Syracuse many years ago that helped increase my own knowledge of Mithila art and she has a fabulous collection of works, mostly by women artists.

Sharwan Paswan, Children Left Alone While Parents Work
Vinita Jha, Responsibilities of Women During Covid, 2021