Mithila painting, as a domestic ritual activity, was unknown to the outside world until the massive Bihar earthquake of 1934. House walls had tumbled down, and the British colonial officer in Madhubani District, William G. Archer, inspecting the damage “discovered” the paintings on the newly exposed interior walls of homes. Archer – later to become the South Asia Curator at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum – was stunned by the beauty of the paintings and similarities to the work of modern Western artists like Klee, Miro, and Picasso. During the 1930s he took black and white photos of some of these paintings, the earliest images we have of them. Then in a 1949 article in the Indian art journal, Marg, he brought the wall paintings to public attention.
Then a second natural disaster, a severe draught in the late 1960s, prompted the All India Handicrafts Board to encourage a few upper caste women in villages around Madhubani town to transfer their ritual wall paintings to paper as an income generating project. Drawing on the region’s rich visual culture, contrasting “line painting” and “color painting” traditions, and their individual talents, several of these women turned out to be superb artists. Four of them were soon representing India in cultural fairs in Europe, Russia, and the USA. Their national and international recognition prompted many other women from many other castes – including harijans or dalits, the ex-“untouchables” – to begin painting on paper as well.
By the late 1970s, the popular success of the paintings – aesthetically distinct from other Indian painting traditions – was drawing dealers from New Delhi offering minimal prices for mass produced paintings of the most popular divinities and three familiar scenes from the Ramayana. Out of poverty, many painters complied with the dealers’ demands, and produced the rapid and repetitious images known as “Madhubani paintings.” Nevertheless, with the encouragement of a number of outsiders – both Indian and foreign – other artists working within the same aesthetic traditions continued to produce the highly crafted, deeply individual and increasingly diverse work, now known as “Mithila Painting.”
Mithila had long been famous in India for its rich culture and numerous poets, scholars, and theologians – all men. For women, it has been a deeply conservative society, and until painting on paper began 40+ years ago, most women were confined to their homes and limited to household chores, child rearing, managing family rituals, and ritual wall painting.
Painting on paper for sale has changed this dramatically. Aside from generating important new family income, individual women have gained local, national, and even international recognition. Artists are being invited to exhibitions across India, and to Europe, the United States, and Japan – no longer as “folk artists,” but now as “contemporary artists.” Where once their paintings were “anonymous,” now they are proudly signed. Along with economic success, opportunities for travel, education, radio, and now television are expanding women’s consciousness and engagement with the multiple worlds around them. Gender relations are shifting. A few men continue to paint within what is still defined as “a women’s tradition,” but their work tends to be personal and anodyne. In contrast, the women’s paintings are increasingly socially charged, critical, and edgy.
These changes have provoked an argument in Mithila and beyond between cultural conservatives who claim that commercialization and the loss of its ritual functions has debased Mithila painting, versus those who see Mithila Painting as a contemporary art form rooted in the expanding experience, concerns, and freedoms of Mithila’s women. Viewers of Mithila Painting: The Evolution of an Art Form are encouraged to form their own judgments.