Mithila: Evolution of a Women's Art in India and Nepal

September 29, 2022 to January 25, 2023

The Maithil paintings of Nepal and the Mithila or Madhubani paintings of Northern Bihar, India are two sides of the same art form.  The historic Mithila kingdom once spread across the southeast plains of Nepal and the northern Bihar and Jharkhand states of India.  In both countries an ancient domestic wall painting tradition has been adapted to painting on paper, but it has evolved differently and at different times in the two countries. 

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 a terrible drought and famine in Bihar. The women of Mithila were encouraged by the All-India Handicrafts Board 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 were painted with natural plant and mineral-derived colors, using bamboo twigs in lieu of brush or pen.

A wide range of styles and qualities of Mithila art have evolved over the ensuing sixty years.   Styles were differentiated by region and caste - particularly the Brahmin, Kayastha and Harijan castes. Many individual artists emerged with distinctive styles. Among the best known early Brahmin artists were the late Ganga Devi (1928-1991), Baua Devi (b. Late 1940s), Sita Devi, Karpoori Devi and Mahasundari Devi (1922-2013).  Baua Devi was the only woman artist from India to show at the groundbreaking  Magiciens de la Terre exhibit in 1989 at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.  In 1990, shortly before her death,Ganga Devi painted her masterpiece, a kohbar ghar mural covering several walls in the national Crafts Museum in Delhi.  Sadly, and inexplicably the directors of the museum demolished the mural during a renovation in 2015.  

Today’s leading artists, working in the kayastha style, include Pushpa Kumari  granddaughter of Mahasundari Devi.  Other painters in their family include Pushpa’s brother Pradyumna Kumar and younger sister Mala Karn.   Among the current generation of Mithila artists, Pushpa and younger artists such as Mahalaxmi Karn and Shalini Karn have expanded the canon to embrace contemporary issues of education, technology, women's rights, marriage equality and even female infanticide.  

In Nepal the transition from painting on walls to painting on paper came later, spurred by the founding of the Janakpur Women's Development Centre in 1989.  The initial group of women who came from their villages to the centre in Janakpur decided to paint on the handmade lokta paper characteristic of Nepal, and to paint with brushes and acrylic paint rather than the sticks and mineral pigments used on the walls of their houses.  This gave their paintings a look quite distinct from those of the Indian Mithila artists, though many of the traditional subjects of village life, animals and Hindu gods and goddesses were similar.  As in India, the women were quick to take on contemporary themes as well:  "being associated with a development project they were soon making paintings promoting Vitamin A, the chance to vote, safe sex and saying "no" to drugs."  

In both countries the artists have ventured into non-traditional topics, leading critics to write of a "feminist renaissance" in Mithila art.  A painting by Nepali artist Madhumala Mandal shows a woman in traditional dress operating a huge backhoe with ease.  Indian artist Shalini Karn paints a rickshaw driver with her baby strapped to her back confidently pedaling a family through city traffic.  Mahalaxmi's series called, “Household Diaries,” depicts women in their “various incarnations”— wives, mothers, workers and painters.  She depicts a modern Indian woman caring for a baby, taking a child to school, tending to crops, picking flowers and taking selfies on her phone.  In a wry commentary on the patriarchy, a woman massages her husband's feet while he reads the paper, with the flat screen TV watching over the scene.  In this time of Covid, Manjula Thakur paints a masked driver driving a busload of masked passengers.   In Mother Train, a 2020 painting that seems painfully innocent today,  Mahalaxmi depicts a mask-wearing train carrying its cargo of masked migrant workers home during a pandemic lockdown.  In "Waiting for the Pandemic to End" she paints a masked mermaid-like goddess, calmly reading a book about Peace and Love.

Krishna and the Gopis
SKU: SHLK-2201

Madhubani, Bihar, India
2019
Ink and acrylic on paper
21 1/4” x 29 1/4” sheet (54 x 74.5cm)

$900

Family in a Rickshaw
SKU: SHLK-2202

Madhubani, Bihar, India
2019
Ink and acrylic on paper
21 1/4” x 29 1/4” sheet (54 x 74.5cm)

$900

Mithila painting
SKU: MTP-1706

Undetermined artist - Madhubani, Bihar, India
c.1976
Ink and paint on paper
(22" h. x 30" w. )

$550

Mithila painting
SKU: MTP-1710

Undetermined artist - Madhubani, Bihar, India
1975
Ink and paint on paper
(30" h. x 22" w. )

$550

Mithila painting
SKU: MTP-1703

Undetermined artist - Madhubani, Bihar, India
1978
Ink and paint on paper
(30" h. x 22" w. )

$450

Mithila painting
SKU: MTP-1705

Undetermined artist - Madhubani, Bihar, India
1976
Ink and paint on paper
(22" h. x 30" w. )

$450

Naina Jogin (the eye goddess)
SKU: MHXD-2120

Madhubani, Bihar, India
2019.  Acrylic on paper (19 1/2” x 12 3/4” on 22” x 15” sheet).

The artist explains:  "A character that is painted in the nuptial chamber in Mithila. She is supposed to bless the newlywed couple, protect them from evil eye and also to ensure conjugal warmth forever.  I thoroughly enjoy doing this image again and again especially the eye. It is so simple and the effect hypnotic."

 

$450

Baby Krishna Suckling at the Breast of the Demon Putana
SKU: SHLK-1901

Shalini Karn - Madhubani, Bihar, India
2019
Ink on paper (20 1/4" x 12" on 22" x 14 3/4" sheet).

$400

Mithila painting
SKU: MTP-1711

Undetermined artist - Madhubani, Bihar, India
1979
Ink and paint on paper
(22" h. x 30" w. )

$375

Birds in a Green Tree
SKU: RMK-1702

Madhubani, Bihar, India
c.2011
Ink and paint on paper
(30 1/2" h. x 22" w. ).

$375

Mother and Son
SKU: MHXD-2117

Madhubani, Bihar, India
2021
Acrylic on paper (13 3/4” x 9 3/4” on 15” x 11” sheet).

$360

Mother Massaging the baby
SKU: MHXD-2118

Madhubani, Bihar, India
2021
Acrylic on paper (13 3/4” x 9 3/4” on 15” x 11” sheet).

$360

Mithila painting
SKU: MTP-1702

Undetermined artist - Madhubani, Bihar, India
1976
Ink and paint on paper
(22" h. x 30" w. )

$350

Mithila painting
SKU: MTP-1709

Undetermined artist - Madhubani, Bihar, India
c.1976
Ink and paint on paper
(22" h. x 30" w. )

$350

Three Goats
SKU: MHL-2210

Rebati Mandal - Kuwa village, Janakpur, Nepal
c.2021
Acrylic paint on handmade lokta paper
(20" h. x 30" w. ).

$325

Hanuman - Mithila painting
SKU: MTP-1701

Undetermined artist - Madhubani, Bihar, India
1982
Ink and paint on paper
(30" h. x 22" w. )

$475

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Mithila painting
SKU: MTP-1707

Undetermined artist - Madhubani, Bihar, India
1976
Ink and paint on paper
(22" h. x 30" w. )

$375

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Spirit of the Forest
SKU: PUK-0301

Pushpa Kumari - Madhubani, Bihar, India
Late 20th cent.
Ink on paper
(22" h. x 15" w. )

Price on Request

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Snake Goddess - Mithila painting
SKU: BD-0702

Baua Devi - Madhubani, Bihar, India
Late 20th cent.
Ink and watercolor on paper
30" h. x 22" w. )

 

Price on request

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Tiger Eating Man - Mithila painting
SKU: BD-0704

Baua Devi - Madhubani, Bihar, India
Late 20th cent.
Ink and watercolor on paper
30" h. x 22" w. )

Price on request

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Fish-Carrying Woman with Daughter and Son - Mithila painting
SKU: BD-0703

Baua Devi - Madhubani, Bihar, India
Late 20th cent.
Ink and watercolor on paper
30" h. x 22" w. )

Price on request

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Snake Player - Mithila painting
SKU: BD-0705

Baua Devi - Madhubani, Bihar, India
Late 20th cent.
Ink and watercolor on paper
22" h. x 30" w. )

Price on request

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Spirit of the Forest
SKU: PUK-0301

Madhubani, Bihar, India
Late 20th cent.
Ink on paper
(22" h. x 15" w. )

Price on Request

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Tiger in the Grass - Pradyumna Kumar
SKU: 
PRK-0801

Pradyumna Kumar - Mithila, Bihar, India
c.2007
Ink on paper
(18" h. x 24" w. )

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Pushpa Kumari
SKU: 
PUK-0801

Pushpa Kumari - Mithila, Bihar, India
c.2007
Ink on paper
(12 1/2" h. x 16" w. ) framed

Price on Request
Product Status: 
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