What is painting? For these Mithila artists, ‘Painting Is My Everything’

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When Dulari Devi says, “Painting is my everything,” she means it — the practice of art changed her life in a very real and tangible way. Born a member of the lower caste in Bihar, India, Devi spent years working as a maidservant before taking up the brush. One day, Devi began to draw. A natural from the start, hours of practice rendered Devi’s art exquisite. As a result, today Devi holds the titles of master painter and instructor at the Mithila Art Institute and has authored an award-winning autobiography about her artistic journey, “Following My Paintbrush.” “Ever since I started painting, I do it like worship. If I don’t paint for even one day, I don’t feel right,” she explains in Maithili in a filmed interview.

Though objectively remarkable, the bounty produced by Devi’s intimate relationship with artistic creation is not unique among the 17 contemporary artists exhibited in the Asian Art Museum’s new special exhibition featuring art from Mithila, the region of Bihar where Devi lives and teaches. The exhibition, which opened Friday, highlights distinctive Mithila stylistic techniques — delicate line work, bold coloring, intricate patterns — and the social implications for the artists behind it. The selected pieces speak to the spiritual and cultural foundations of the painters through religious and mythological imagery, while also highlighting the use of the medium as a vehicle for social change. Many of the artists, most of whom are women, use their craft to illustrate societal inequalities and hardships.

The application of Mithila artwork as both an acknowledgement of centuries-old traditions and a vehicle for change is inherent to the art form itself. In fact, the women of Bihar have practiced the style for hundreds of years, the walls of their homes serving as their eager canvases. In the 1960s, the women began painting on paper in order to sell their work. Mithila art has thus provided many Mithila women and members of low-caste communities with a vehicle for independence and social recognition.

The exhibition does not ignore these dual temporal resonances of Mithila artwork. Included among the largely contemporary pieces is a decorated ceremonial wrapper from the 1940s. A ritualistic piece, it was preserved by Godavari Dutta, whose wedding it celebrated decades ago. As the respective label acknowledges, a significant aspect of Mithila painting has long been the carrying out of tradition. The wrapper reminds viewers that the art form is not static nor constrained to the present day, as much of the other exhibition artwork may suggest. It is deeply embedded in many Mithila traditions.

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Many of the exhibition’s paintings do engage in dialogue with the present day. In Shalinee Kumari’s potently titled “Daughters Are For Others,” Kumari unflinchingly conveys a young woman’s grief as two men carry her to her wedding. In vibrant oranges and reds, two female figures stand by, fenced in by a mandala-like figure. Though composed of precise and clean line work, the painting conveys an unruly, deeply felt sadness difficult to put succinctly into words.

The Asian Art Museum emphasizes the many manifestations of Mithila painting by including mediums that do not lie flat upon an exhibition wall. Though the vast majority of the art included appears on the thick, handmade or mill-made white papers commonly used by Mithila artists today, other mediums of conveying the art appeared as well. For a handful of pieces, the museum offered “tactile drawings,” allowing visually impaired visitors to feel the selected paintings by means of raised-line patterns mimicking the original painting. Visitors also had the opportunity to experience the art in an immersive fashion via the piano stationed outside the gallery. Decorated by Mithila native Nupur Nishith, the piano features bright, striking Mithila imagery and welcomes visitors to play. As part of the Sing for Hope initiative, the piano’s presence aims to spread the joys of art by making it more accessible. Its inclusion was a fitting touch to the community foundation of the Mithila art tradition.

“Painting is My Everything” will be on display at the Asian Art Museum through Dec. 30.

Contact Ryan Tuozzolo at [email protected].