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Straight out of Mithila

by Sura Wood

"Prime Minister Modi arriving in a village via helicopter" (2015) by Dulari Devi. Ink and colors on paper. Bihar  state, Mithila region, India. Asian Art Museum. Photo: Asian Art Museum
"Prime Minister Modi arriving in a village via helicopter" (2015) by Dulari Devi. Ink and colors on paper. Bihar state, Mithila region, India. Asian Art Museum. Photo: Asian Art Museum  

"Painting is My Everything," an entrancing new fall exhibition at the Asian Art Museum, is an unmitigated delight. Though not large in scale, the show, featuring 30 modern ink-and-color works on paper, is big and zestful in spirit, and provides wider attention to an art movement emanating from a part of the world many in the West have never heard of. For centuries, women have painted the walls and floors of their homes with festive stylized imagery of deities, fertility icons and emblems of protection in the rural Mithila region of Bihar state in northeastern India, where the practice has been passed down from mother to daughter for generations.

Two natural disasters brought their art to light. After a catastrophic earthquake in 1934, British Colonial officials, scouring the rubble of toppled homes, uncovered the paintings. Enchanted by their bold compositions and vibrant colors, they documented them, igniting interest in works that had previously been hidden within family compounds, like the secret inner lives of the women who created them. In response to a severe drought that crippled the area three decades later, the government encouraged these local artists to translate their paintings from interior walls to thick, handmade paper so they could be sold commercially in the country's major cities and generate income for families suffering economic hardship. Who knew that such a pragmatic initiative would spawn a creative boom?

Since then, the best-known Mithila artists, the majority of whom are women belonging to marginalized communities and lower castes, have achieved recognition and attained financial independence through their art. Works by the 17 artists represented here display some of the exuberance and unconstrained freedom associated with outsider art, but they reflect assurance and discipline, too. Striking aesthetics predominate, as do ornate borders and an assertive delineation of figures. Color schemes vary depending on the source. High-caste Brahmin designs are characterized by multiple colors, from hot pink and purple to orange and lemon yellow; linework from the clerical caste is frequently black & white, complemented by red pigment; and Dusadh (low-caste) painters incorporate flowers, heroic tales and assorted gods inspired by the protective tattoos that adorn their bodies.

Each painting in the show is accompanied by a detailed label, making every stop along the way in the roomy exhibition gallery a chance to pause for storytelling time. The explanatory text is superb, illuminating a pantheon of arcane gods, religious myths and otherwise indecipherable symbols, as well as the lives and personal travails of the artists. There's absolutely no one better at this aspect of exhibition craft than the Asian and its crack curatorial team.

Though there are renderings of an unlikely sightseeing trip to Washington, D.C. monuments, a frisky pregnant cow, and an anomalous conclave of long-haired, smoking, drinking Japanese hippies, the subjects are primarily traditional. They conjure events in daily life, magical animals, wedding celebrations and beloved gods such as Ganesha, a Hindu deity with an elephant's head that's joyfully depicted by Jogmaya Devi as an upright, human-like, four-armed figure, embedded in a maze of intricate patterns and a shower of floating plants and buds in blasts of deep indigo, magenta and citron. But the artists don't shy away from troubling issues of modern life. Dulari Devi's cartoonish, mildly comical "Prime Minister Modi arriving in a village via helicopter" (2015) presents the candidate and his retinue aboard a hovering aircraft resembling an oversized fish, waving to a throng of female supporters gathered on the ground below in the run-up to the 2014 election. Shalinee Kumari, who's in her early 30s and received a year of formal training at the Mithila Art Institute in Madhubani, has tackled such controversial topics as environmental sustainability, political corruption and equal rights. It's possible to discern a subtext of sexual politics and gender identity in "Women's Power" (2017), where she inventively interprets the Great Goddess Devi, a formidable, multi-limbed, triple-headed entity emerging from a lotus. Her lower half, a combo of Shiva and the goddess Parvati appearing as "The Lord Who is Half Female," stands on the supine corpses of two men. A young Hindu bride, transported in a palanquin by a pair of turbaned men to the home of her new husband's family, seems trapped and downhearted in Kumari's "Daughters Are for Others" (2006), which sheds light on the sexist, tradition-bound domestic roles that confine daughters, wives and daughters-in-law in Indian society. Kumari will participate in a week-long residency at the museum next month.

Other works portray deeply felt experiences such as "The Death of Baua Devi's Daughter" (1980), an autobiographical painting in which the artist mourns the loss of her six-day-old baby girl. Devi, who, at the age of 12, wed an abusive husband, was only 19 when she lost her child. Created a decade after her daughter died, the painting shows a girl standing between two nearly identical women. They're flat and in profile on a fuchsia background, facing each other across a divide, mirror images of a bereaved mother before and after the tragedy. In the center, piercing eyes, presumably those of a god or death, stare down at the viewer from behind a black curtain.

Like so many women artists exhibited here, Devi's talent changed her life, elevated her status in the community, and gave her fame and a powerful voice that can reach across continents.

Through Dec. 30. www.asianart.org

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