DRAFT 1/28/04
Folk Art No Longer: The Transformations of Mithila Painting

David Szanton*
Ethnic Arts Foundation


This Article was published in Bibilo March/April 2004


Two weeks before the attack on the World Trade Center, the eminent Mithila painter, Baua Devi, painted one of her favorite subjects, a naga rising from a golden earth against a luxuriant background of leaves and flowers. On September 13, 2001, two days after the attack, she painted the same naga, but now embracing a world in black, reds, and browns, and writhing against a flaming sky. In 2002, the Mithila painter, Santosh Kumar Das, produced a series of 23 stunning paintings of the Gujarat massacres. During the 1980s and '90s, Mithila painter Krishnanand Jha, produced 32 paintings chronicling the murder of a local youth and the investigation and trials that followed. More recently, Godaveri Dutta painted iconic figures of Ardenishwara (Figure1) as well as huge images Shiva's trischul and Ram's bow, now masterpieces in a Japanese museum dedicated to Mithila painting. Mithila painters, Vinita Jha is producing acutely feminist paintings (Figure 2), while Gopal Saha continues to give us ironic images of local life, often satirizing local NGO activities (Figure 3). Most recently, a new young painter, Lalita Devi, is doing original, Brughel-esque, images of Dusadh rituals and celebrations (Figure 4).

"Ritual Art"? "Folk Art"? Or simply Art? When Mithila painting was first transferred to paper for sale in the late 1960s, the previously unsigned if not quite anonymous "ritual art," was popularly recast as "folk art." For many painters today these two categories still seem accurate. But Mithila has also been generating numerous highly individuated self-conscious artists. As a result - and unlike most "traditional" arts of India - the styles and subjects of Mithila painting have evolved and multiplied dramatically. Displaying an extraordinary vitality, painters of different backgrounds have drawn on their own caste traditions, interaction with outsiders, a new sense of themselves as artists and social actors, and have responded to a wide range of national and international audiences and markets.

Mithila painting is still village-based and readily recognized. Yet its rapidly ramifying variants and dynamics suggest a developing aesthetic community or artworld (Danto 1964) as rich and complex as that found among academically trained artists in Bombay, Calcutta, and New Delhi, or elsewhere in the world.

Ritual wall painting is of course an ancient domestic tradition in Mithila. Many people helped "discover" it; William and Mildred Archer in the 1930s, the Bihar cultural critic and collector, Upendra Maharathi, and Pupul Jayakar, Director of the All India Handicrafts Board, in the 1950s and 1960s, and Bombay artist Bhaskar Kulkarni, who first encouraged local women to paint on paper in 1966-67. Yet it was paintings by Ganga Devi and Sita Devi thanks to government and private commissions in New Delhi and beyond, their national awards, and their GOI funded participation in cultural fairs and exhibitions around the world, that brought wide-spread audiences and attention to Mithila painting.

Ganga Devi, a Karna Kayastha, and Sita Devi, a Mahapatra Brahmin, were both artists by almost any definition of the term. Their paintings were rooted in the ritual, aesthetics, techniques, and images of "traditional" Maithil marriage chamber (khobar ghar) and interior courtyard wall painting. But once they began painting on paper they rapidly elaborated on those traditions. Sita Devi's elegant elongated and richly coloured paintings of Krishna, Radha, and other gods and goddesses, are well known. However, she also painted extraordinary images of the World Trade Center, Arlington National Cemetery, and facades of 19th century buildings in New York City. Likewise, aside from more traditional subjects, Ganga Devi used her refined linear style to depict, among other things, her hotel in Moscow, an American roller coaster, and her highly personal series of paintings of her ultimately fatal cancer treatment reproduced in Jyotindra Jain's 1997 volume "Tradition and Expression in Mithila Painting."

Both women used their sophisticated aesthetic skills to go beyond the traditional themes and images of Mithila painting and opened imaginative and expressive spaces for others to explore. Immediately striking, however, is how very different their paintings are from each other's. Aside from special commissions, both women mostly painted on hand-made white paper. They both began each painting with floral or geometric framing motifs, and both conceptualized and executed their paintings free-hand, without prior sketching. Sita Devi, however, depicted her elegant figures surrounded by flowering trees, birds, and other animals using the Brahmin wall painting bharni, or "filling" technique, characterized by broad surfaces of bright reds, blues, green, yellows and oranges. In contrast, Ganga Devi, while often painting the same subjects, produced cooler controlled images, using only fine black and red ink pens in the characteristic Kayastha kachni, or "line" drawing technique. Indeed, based on observations of the wall paintings from the 1930s, three decades before commercial painting on paper began, Mildred Archer noted:

The work of the two castes has remained clearly distinguishable even though the houses may be in close proximity in the same village… Brahmin paintings have a delicate meandering line which encloses areas of brilliant colour-pink, green, lemon yellow, aquamarine blue, red and black. The figures, reduced to fantastic geometric or vegetable forms, float in space amongst birds, animals and flowers… Kayastha paintings, on the other hand, employ only one or two colours -black and sometimes dull blood red. They rely on strong lines enlivened with hatching and spotting, and the figures, often set in
panels, are firmly ranged in long processions round the wall… Although similar in purpose and subject-matter, the two styles are markedly distinct. Their variety and inventiveness make them perhaps the most sophisticated and elegant of all popular painting still current in Bihar.

In effect, Sita Devi and Ganga Devi epitomized two distinctly different Brahmin and Kayastha styles of Mithila painting. Other Brahmin and Kayastha women also began painting in the late 1960s, and several won national and state awards. Nevertheless, Ganga Devi and Sita Devi provided the key models and encouragement for other women of their sub-castes to take up painting on paper, to emulate their styles, but also develop their own, e.g., Yogmaya Devi's Shiva and Parvati (Figure 5). Ganga Devi died in 1991, and Sita Devi has suffered from cataracts for many years and is now blind. Their influence, however, and the clear distinction between the Brahmin and Kayastha styles they exemplified, continues today among the local Kayastha and Brahmin painters.

At the same time, painting in the villages around Madhubani has now become vastly more complex, varied, and vibrant. Thus as early as 1972, Dusadh women (and some men) in Sita Devi's village of Jitwarpur, also began to paint on paper. In part they were inspired by Sita Devi's successes, but they also received encouragement from Erika Moser, a German folklorist and film maker who lived in Jitwarpur for several months. The Dalit movement, a powerful force in Bihar, fostering caste pride and competition, also seems to have been significant.

Strikingly, the Dusadh quickly developed two different styles of painting on paper. One Dusadh style, exemplified by the innovative national awardee, Shanti Devi, resembled the Brahmin style in its boldly drawn "floating" figures, flowers and trees. Like the Brahmin painters, she sometimes used vivid store-bought colours. At other times she has used natural colours produced from local flowers, berries, leaves, barks, and charcoal. However, she and others usually framed each painting and figure with a doubled outline in gobar (cow-dung), with gobar dots between the lines. The second Dusadh style, known as godana (tattoo) painting, was totally different. It consisted of small stick-like figures based on body tattoos geometrically organized in parallel lines, concentric circles, and rectangles. Some of these paintings were then filled with colour, others simply drawn in black. Over time, many Dusadh, especially the godana painters, have shifted to local pigments, and also used a gobar wash on the paper, creating a background closer to that of wall paintings.

Aside from developing different styles of painting, Dusadh imagery was also distinctive. Brahmin and Kayastha paintings on the walls of their marriage chambers, centered on the auspicious kohbar, a highly elaborated image of the lotus (purain), a key symbol of female fertility, surrounded by images of bamboo, marking male fertility, as well as fish, turtles, snakes and parrots, also fertility symbols. The kohbar was also accompanied by images of Gauri Puja, Shiva and Parvati, beneficent images of the sun, moon, and nine planets, as well as protective images of Vishnu, Ram, Durga, Kali, Ganesha, etc. These latter figures also appeared on courtyard walls, and along with the khobar, they were the most common images when the Brahmin and Kayastha women began painting on paper.

In contrast, as Jain (1995) noted, Dusadh only "occasionally painted on the exterior and interior walls of their houses ornamental motifs as well as religious themes, the most popular among them being the serpent deities, the goddesses Durga and Sita, Shiva and, to a lesser extent, diverse episodes from the Krishna legend." But when the Dusadh started to paint on paper, they most often depicted the adventures of their culture heroes, Lord Salhesh, and his elephant mount, his brothers and their horses, and their companions.

Thus by the mid 1970s there were at least four easily recognized and distinctive styles of Mithila painting; richly coloured bharni Mahapatra Brahmin paintings, Karna Kayastha kachni "line" paintings, and two versions of Dusadh painting. In fact, a fifth element had also emerged. Despite the popular impression that Mithila painting is a women's tradition, a small but significant number of men from several different castes also began painting in the 1970s. Most of the male painters have used the Kayastha kachni technique, though some add broad areas of colour in Brahmin bharni style. The men's paintings differ however in focusing on daily life and secular subjects - village life, musicians, farming activities, railroad trips, floods, local folklore - leaving the more ritual, cosmological, sacred, and symbolic images to the more numerous female painters.

As if this dispersion of subject matter, styles of painting, and indeed, of who was painting, was not enough, since the 1980s there has been further diversification of Mithila painting. Numerous Kayastha and Brahmin women, while staying within their distinctive caste styles, began painting episodes from Hindu myths and legends, especially the Ramayana. Ganga Devi's neighbor, Leela Devi, produced a stunning large multi-episode painting telling the story of Kalidasa. And Baua Devi, Lalitha Devi and Vinita Jha, among others, began producing series of 5 to 25 paintings on such varied subjects as the multi-year marriage ceremony, local legends and folktales, and most strikingly, their own life histories. Krishnanand Jha spent 2003 doing 15 paintings of some 40 episodes in the classic story of Shakuntala. And while some images still seem to "float in space," several Brahmin and Kayastha painters are beginning to include a waterline as a kind of horizon between underwater life below and land based figures above.

Dusadh painters have similarly diversified. As early as 1982, Shanti Devi did a splendid large three-panel painting of a local election complete with sound trucks, orators, flag waving crowds, and militarily guarded voting booths. Other Dusadh artists working in the godana style are breaking with the earlier geometrically organized paintings, e,g, Raudy Paswan's depiction of multiple episodes of a long Dusadh historical narrative, Urmila Devi's paintings of migrant workers, and Lalitha Devi's festival paintings mentioned above. Chano Devi is experimenting with new black on white linear compositions and Sarup Lal Paswan is producing striking new minimalist paintings of tiny birds.

Finally, some of the distinctions between Brahmin and Dusadh styles are also beginning to dissolve. Brahmin (and a few Kayastha) painters are preparing their paintings with a gobar wash, previously only used by Dusadh. Dusadh are beginning to incorporate the Brahmin and Kayastha icons, the khobar, purain, the sun and moon, in their paintings. Images of Krishna and Radha are now seen in addition to those of Salhesh and his companions. Indeed, painters of all castes now speak of "experimenting" with new subjects and new techniques.

The current artistic ferment and the emergence of many new artists in the multiple Mithil aesthetic traditions, derives from several different sources. Numerous "outsiders," Pupul Jayakar, Upendra Mahrathi, Bhaskar Kulkarni, German folklorist/film maker Erika Moser, French film maker Yves Vequaud, US art historian Mary Lanius, US anthropologist Raymond Owens, Japanese museum director Tokio Hasegawa, have spent substantial periods of time encouraging, working with, providing ideas, materials, and access to markets to various Mithila painters. During the late 1970s and 1980s, American anthropologist Raymond Owens spent more than two years living in Jitwarpur and Madhubani helped found the Madhubani Master Craftsmens Association and the Ethnic Arts Foundation. In the process he became very close to many of the painters, providing continuous advice on American tastes and markets. Over the years he encouraged them to expand their repertoire to include local stories and legends as well as autobiographical paintings and series. Shortly before he died in 2000, he brought a huge supply of acid free paper for the painters to use. From the middle 1980s to 2001, Tokio Hasegawa hosted eight Mithila painters for three to nine months at his Mithila Museum and Studio in the mountains of central Japan, and at exhibitions of their work in numerous Japanese municipalities. Several of the painters, including Ganga Devi, Sita Devi, Shanti Devi, Godaveri Dutta, Vimla Dutta, and Baua Devi made repeated trips to Japan. Their general experience and celebrity treatment in very foreign cultural settings inevitably raised their consciousness of themselves and their colleagues as creative artists.

This once largely anonymous ritual or folk art tradition has now generated highly individuated self-conscious artists, responding, as artists will, in multiple ways to their personal experience and the worlds around them. At the same time, there remain many unanswered questions about the meaning, dynamics, implications, and viability of the artistic ferment evident in the villages. Do the paintings on paper carry some or any of the ritual, symbolic, or auspicious power - either for the painters or for their purchasers - as the paintings on the walls of their homes? How has the incidence or imagery of wall painting in the District or beyond, been affected by painting on paper for sale? How do the painters themselves judge the quality of the paintings, and what new aesthetic standards are emerging? Are the painters are aware of - or how they are thinking about and responding to - the segmented markets for their work within India, among Indians abroad at least vaguely familiar with their images, and with Americans and Icelanders(!) for whom the paintings may seem totally exotic. How is the income being generated and retained by female painters affecting local gender relations? Etc.

Whatever the answer to these questions, unfortunately, little of the evolving artistic ferment and productivity in Mithila painting is evident in India's museums or urban art galleries. Likewise, the paintings in the urban emporia or offered by dealers at Dilli Haat seem limited to stacks of repetitive godana paintings and a few equally repetitive Brahmin paintings. And given the terrible state of the roads between Patna and Madhubani, few people will go to the surrounding villages to purchase paintings. As one step towards a new recognition and appreciation of Mithila painting, the Ethnic Arts Foundation hopes to organize a major exhibition documenting these new streams of artistic activity that could travel to urban centers in India, comparable to the successful exhibitions and sales it has recently sponsored in the US, Iceland, and South Africa. An extraordinarily creative center of artistic expression is emerging in Bihar. The nation and the world need to know about it - and enjoy it.


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*For possible use in identifying the author;

David Szanton, an anthropologist, has been engaged with these paintings since 1977 as a co-founder of the Ethnic Arts Foundation., He has examined over 2,000 paintings, discussed them with art historians and anthropologists working in the region, and spent seven weeks in the painters' villages around Madhubani in 2001-2004. His goal here is simply to provide a preliminary map of the dynamics and evolving trajectories of Mithila painting.