Friday, December 10, 2010

Mithila Painting

Ranti Women's Art Coop
By Charles Kessler

There’s a kind of art that has characteristics of folk art, tribal art, tourist art and fine art.  It’s sometimes called “vernacular” art, but that implies the artists are untrained and that’s not the case, unless they mean untrained in the Western Fine Art Tradition. It’s highly sophisticated work within its own realm in that practitioners learn from each other, compete with each other, and evolve as artists within their own tradition with minimal significant outside influence. The art is usually encouraged and promoted by the government or not-for-profits, and a lot of it is bought by tourists, but the best work is sought by sophisticated collectors and shown in major art galleries and museums.  Examples include Gee’s Bend quilts, Australian Aboriginal bark painting, and Mithila Painting -- work which can be seen until December 13th at Pingry, a prominent private school in New Jersey.

The name Mithila (also known as Madhubani art for the large city in the region) refers to a style of Hindu art in the north-eastern region of India and parts of Nepal. It began at least as long ago as the 14th century with women painting gods and goddesses and images of fertility on the walls of their homes in order to bring blessings on marriages and other important life events. The work moved from walls to paper in the 1960’s when the government encouraged the women (and now a few men) to earn extra money by making paintings on paper. Soon the subject matter expanded from religious symbolism to depictions of local deities, and now to domestic life and even feminist and other political subjects like this:
Shalini Kumari, Women Do It All, 2005, paint on paper (collection of the Ethnic Arts Foundation)
The paintings are done without preparatory sketches, and are begun with a framing border of ornamental geometric or floral designs that reflect the subject of the painting. The main subject is in the center and the painting is worked out toward the framing border. Embellishing details are then added, and, the last thing, the eyes are filled in to bring the painting to life. 
Swati Kashyap, Women Grinding Corn, 2007, paint on paper
Bharti Kumari, bin Laden Rules the World, 2009
David Szanton, an anthropologist based in Berkeley, has been the main force in researching, preserving and promoting this art through his foundation, the Ethnic Arts Foundation (where you can find all you want to know about this work). To quote from their mission statement, the Foundation: purchases paintings directly from scores of painters, then organizes or co-sponsors exhibitions and sales to individuals, collectors, and museums. Profits from sales are then returned to the artists, in effect providing a double payment for their work. The Foundation also supports the Mithila Art Institute, a free school that trains young people, mostly women, in the art form.

Locally, Peter Zirnis ( is helping to sell their work.  The larger works (30" x 40") are $300 and the smaller works (5.25" x 7.25") are only $40 (although at present they are sold out) ALL PROFITS ARE RETURNED TO THE ARTISTS. Here are some examples of the smaller paintings:
Mamka Karn, Nandi (Shiva's Bull), 2010, paint on paper
Sharda, Tree with Pond, 2010, paint on paper

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