The morphing of traditional Mithila art

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David Szanton, president of the Ethnic Arts Foundation, spoke on the evolution of Mithila art for the opening of The Benton’s new exhibit, “Tradition and Transformation: Mithila Art of India.” Mithila art originates from Bihar, a state in India that borders North India and Nepal. Around 700 years ago in the Ramayan period, women in Bihar painted scenes of marriage, love, religion and culture on walls of various structures. Mithila art styles were unique to each caste, or social class.  

“Brahmins, the highest caste in the community were doing very colorful paintings,” Szanton said. “The black and red paintings were being done by the Kayastha community. The Kayastha were accountants, scribes, they have at home red and black ink and their wives were doing paintings in red and black ink because those were the inks available at the time.” 

Different forms of Mithila art also serve unique purposes. For example, Khobar paintings are created specifically for marriage rituals and painted in rooms where the bride and groom will consummate their marriage on the fourth night. Kohbars usually utilize a theme of rings and lotuses to represent love and fertility. Depictions of birds symbolize the love between couples and fishes represent fertility, according to Szanton.   

Mithila marriage paintings often focalize on women. Hindu goddesses like Durga can also be depicted in such paintings, as Durga is a representation of motherhood and protection. 

According to Szanton, “When women started making money and started selling paintings and becoming major contributors to the family economy, their status began to grow, which is symbolically recognized by the fact that they get center stage [in paintings] and the groom is present but just on the side.” 

“BRAHMINS, THE HIGHEST CASTE in the community were doing very colorful paintings. the black and red paintings were being done by the kayastha community. the kayastha were accountants, scribes, they have at home red and black ink and their wives were doing paintings in red and black ink because those were the inks available at the time.”

David Szanton

While much Mithila art depicts marriage, artists also illustrate the feelings of unmarried women who are anxious about marriage. One painting features a woman in her home with her hands tied up as her mother and husband pour kerosene on her. The painting also features a line of women protesting outside the woman’s home and two women pouring kerosene on the mother through the window.  

“In the last 10 to twelve years, as women are getting better educated and more able to see the world inside their towns and on television and radio, then they become much more aware of gender and feminist issues and that marriages are not always gonna work out well as most people watching the world have figured out and in the Khobar,” Szanton said. 

In another marriage painting,  a couple is shown exchanging offers with an elephant. According to Szanton, the elephant symbolizes the deities Parvati and Shiva, who were seen as the ideal couple.  

Nowadays, the tradition of Mithila art is practiced by both men and women, and the content of the artwork is no longer limited by caste. Recent Mithila art portrays women peeking through walls to demonstrate solidarity for women’s rights, and another depicts Durga using a syringe to battle against COVID-19. 

“The expansion of the repertoire deals with the physical, international and spiritual world among Mithila painters,” Szanton said. “For me, it’s absolutely fascinating to see this kind of expansion. It’s reminiscent of what happened in Mid-evil Europe going from wall paintings, to gods, goddesses, saints to Renaissance, then we got paints for soldiers, kings, queens to farmers. The paintings move from the ritual paintings and events to the larger world surrounding the world of artists.” 

“Tradition and Transformation: Mithila Art of India” will be on display at The Benton until July 31. 

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