The Mithila paintings derive from an ancient cultural region in northern Bihar where women’s paintings have been used to consecrate space for human habitation and ritual purposes for many generations. In this region, a sharp contrast is drawn between ritual, consecrated space and the ordinary space inhabited by dangerous spirits where chaos reigns. In addition to floor paintings called aripan, women make their homes fit for human habitation by painting the walls of wedding chambers with symbolic wall paintings. The paintings are filled with magical properties and cover the walls near their hearths with images of their gods and goddesses. For weddings and festivals, they embellish the outer walls of their homes with elaborate drawings based on familiar mythological stories. Hence a major theme here is women’s art for the domestic world, and especially art that is found in association with life-cycle events.
Paper was introduced into the Mithila painting tradition in the 1960’s. The changeover to a portable support for the paintings moved the locus of the artists’ efforts out of the home and removed the creation of this art from its ritual setting. Despite the persistence of traditional themes, the change to paper also allowed the women artists to experiment with newer themes, and allowed them a broader freedom of expression. Today it is not unusual to see contemporary social themes and current events incorporated into the Mithila painters’ work.
The pieces in this exhibition belong the H. Daniel Smith Collection, also owned by Syracuse University. Professor Emeritus of Religion, H. Daniel Smith taught at Syracuse from the 1960’s through the 1990’s. In addition to the Mithila paintings and Indian brasses found in the University Art Collection, he donated some 3000 ‘god posters’ to Special Collections in Bird Library, a collection which attracts scholars from around the world.
In 1980, Professor Smith asked his colleague and filmmaker Durai Rajendren to travel to Mithila to collect paintings for him. One hundred were collected, but approximately one-third were lost in transit from India to the United States. The remainder form the collection represented here.
An additional three paintings were collected by the directors of the Ethnic Arts Foundation on a trip to Mithila in 2002. Two were purchased by Susan S. Wadley for use in this exhibition, while a third is on loan from the Foundation. These three represent crucial shifts in Mithila art work, including two pieces by male artists and one non-religious piece by a woman.