Painting Is My Everything, at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, exhibits two-dimensional, pattern-infused paintings from India’s Mithila region, in Northeastern India near Bihar. Also known as Madhubani Painting, this female-dominated art form has been around for over 2500 years, passed down from mother to daughter. The Mithila Art Institute established in 2003 offers classes to all, an attempt to break down the caste system. To this day, the caste system is still heavily enforced in India through societal norms. For many, the art form serves as an outlet for personal and social concerns. As exhibitions of Mithila paintings and academies increase, more of these women recognize themselves as artists.
I had the honor of meeting Malini Bakshi, a collector of Mithila art. She took the other Art Speaks interns and I through the galleries, a cohort of high schoolers working with the museum, in particular on planning activities to engage families. The exhibit showcases seventeen contemporary artists, ranging from traditional paintings depicting deities, nature, and women in festive attire, to more current and socio-politically oriented themes.
Bakshi described the two styles of Mithila painting: the “filled” and “unfilled”. The “filled” paintings make use of vibrant natural dyes that produce unique colors, in particular orange and pink. The “unfilled” paintings are black and white. She explained how the Mithila style is very much ingrained in the culture. Ceremonial wedding gifts are traditionally wrapped in Mithila paintings.
I asked Bakshi how she thinks we can best engage kids and their families with Mithila paintings. She replied to make it interesting by asking them to pick a painting that speaks to them or have them guess what is going on.
Bakshi explained that thankfully, due to having their art shown at a formal museum such as the Asian Art Museum, the quality of life for Mithilia artists has been improving. The Mithila region, in the northeastern state of Bihar, is home to over 40 million people. In the last century, they have survived a severe drought and 8.2 magnitude earthquake.
In this video, Dulari Devi, one of the artists featured at the Asian Art Museum, started out as a housemaid and now works as a master instructor at the Mithila Art Institute, shares the impact Mithila art has had on her life. In 2013, she won the State of Bihar Award for Excellence.
Daughters Are for Others, Shalinee Kumari, 2006
Shalinee Kumari illustrates how women can be commodified through the system of arranged marriage. Being given to another family by one’s father is romanticized to the point that it is treated as a woman’s primary purpose. In exchange, women are often treated as tools for status, pleasure, labor, etc. Kumari depicts this glorification with a yellow halo surrounding the household that the daughter is being taken to. It implies that daughters are not an integral part of the family, rather they are primed for giving away.
The Death of Baua Devi’s Daughter, Baua Devi, 1980
This striking image depicts the death of the painter’s daughter death. This painting feels very emotionally charged due to the focalization of the characters’ eyes, the pink engulfing most of the painting punctuated by a black figure. It seems to explore a theme of shock and helplessness communicated through the women’s hand positions. As many of the women from the impoverished Mithila region, Baua Devi has not had an easy life. She survived an abusive marriage, beginning at just twelve years old, and was pregnant by nineteen. Through the Mithila style of painting, she found a medium for self expression that gave her agency in her community and enough money to be able to care for herself and her family.
Painting Is My Everything runs from September 7 through December 30 at the Asian Art Museum. Tickets