Mithila [ritual] Painting and Modern Indian Painting: When Does a Handicraft Become Modern?
A great deal of scholarship by art historians has focused on about 40-50 artists, all but two of whom were men, in urban India who formed the core of the “Modern Indian Painting” movement ca. 1947-1989. In contrast, mostly female Mithila painters who had long created images and designs on walls and floors of their homes and then began to paint on paper in the late 1960s, were viewed as makers of handicrafts. Aside from appreciation from activists promoting “Mithila identity,” these women painters have rarely received the same analysis, documentation, and exhibitions of “Modern” Indian painters. I examine initial historical, representational, and aesthetics factors that contributed to such incommensurate treatment, as well as key similarities that unite the two forms of painting today.
The history of each form of painting differed significantly beginning with the first published photographs of paintings by Mithila women (1949) and continuing when the newly independent Indian state established its cultural academies that distinguished between handicrafts, which received government assistance for only a decade, and fine art, which has received continued government patronage that continues today. Yet, analysis of paired examples of paintings reveals how each painting tradition shared certain subject matter. Finally, I examine the reasons that led both groups of painters to reject one-point perspective (linked to European Renaissance painting) and reflect on the aesthetic principles chosen in its place.
Paula Richman is Danforth Professor of South Asian Religions, Emerita, at Oberlin College in Ohio, USA. She has edited four volumes on the Ramayana tradition: Many Ramayanas, a Narrative Tradition of South Asia; Questioning Ramayanas, a South Asian Tradition; Modern Ramayana Stories: An Anthology; and most recently Performing the Ramayana Tradition: Enactments, Interpretations, and Arguments (the last co-edited with Rustom Bharucha). She has held research fellowships at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Institute of Advanced Studies and at Harvard University’s Centre for the Study of World Religions. Her interest in Mithila painting originated from the region’s connection with Sita in the Ramayana.