Perhaps the best known genre of Indian folk paintings are the Mithila (also called Madhubani) paintings from the Mithila region of Bihar state. For centuries the women of Mithila have decorated the walls of their houses with intricate, linear designs on the occasion of marriages and other ceremonies, Painting is a key part of the education of Mithila women, culminating in the painting of the walls of the kohbar, or nuptial chamber on the occasion of a wedding. The kohbar ghar paintings are based on mythological, folk themes and tantric symbolism, though the central theme is invariably love and fertility.
The contemporary art of mithila painting was born in the early 1960’s, following the terrible Bihar famine. The women of Mithila were encouraged to apply their painting skills to paper as a means of supplementing their meager incomes. Once applied to a portable and thus more visible medium, the skills of the Mithila women were quickly recognized. The work was enthusiastically bought by tourists and folk art collectors alike. As with the wall paintings, these individual works are still painted with natural plant and mineral-derived colors, using bamboo twigs in lieu of brush or pen.
Over the ensuing forty years a wide range of styles and qualities of Mithila art have evolved, with styles differentiated by region and caste - particularly the Brahmin, Kayastha and Harijan castes. Many individual artists have emerged with distinctive individual styles. Among the best known early Brahmin artists have been the late Ganga Devi, Baua Devi, Sita Devi, and Karpoori Devi. Today’s leading artists, working in the kayastha style, include Pushpa Kumari and her grandmother, Mahasundari Devi, both represented in this show. Other painters in their family include Pradyumna Kumar and Pushpa’s younger sister Mala Karn. Works by several of these Mithila artists (Baua Devi, Sita Devi and Mahasundari Devi), along with Santhal jadupatua paintings and old Bengali scrolls, are included in the show Stories, Ceremonies and Souvenirs: Popular Paintings from Eastern India, recently on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.