Far away from Indian big cities and the modern world lies a beautiful region once known as the Kingdom of Mithila. In this mythical region, Ramayana god-hero Rama married princess Sita. The founders of Buddhism and Jainism were born close by. Yet, if you ask any Indian about Bihar, he will advise you not to go there: ‘Bihar is the most backward state in India: it is corrupt, widely illiterate and full of daccoyts, gangsters who highjack trains or buses to rob the people of whatever they have. Why should you go there?’
For the paintings, of course! There, in a few tiny farming villages, women have been painting on the mud walls of their houses for centuries. Their works keep recurring with each new marriage, religious ceremony or adorning mood. They had a small audience in the Sixties when the ritual was fixed on paper, once and for all, for the eyes of the world to see. The stylised figures, fierce lions with electrified manes, the human profiles reminiscent of ancient Cretan pottery, the bright naive colours or the ‘pre-Columbian’ earthy tones, appealed to the public. You may think Mithila paintings are full of cultural references, yet none of the painters is aware of them! Deciphering them is like following the traces of numerous foreign influences: past invasions or trading routes coming together at a crossroad which is art itself.
The region is a vast plain stretching north towards Nepal, south towards the Holy Ganga River and west towards Bengal. It is a beautiful place if the monsoon is good, otherwise it turns out to be a dried-up furnace with barren fields and empty plates. The popular legend has it that after a terrible drought in the early Sixties, Indian government emissaries came to discover the vivid paintings on the walls of the starving villages. Like the last refuge of life! In the Sixties and early Seventies, women such as Sita Devi contributed to promote the Brahmin style of Mithila paintings. This art, characterised by bright colours and an absence of shade, is mainly concerned with khobars (symbolic marriage paintings) and gods (Krishna, Rama and Durga mostly). Bawa Devi and her daughter, Sarita Devi later made important personal contributions. Another social group achieved recognition in the Seventies: Kayastha women, admired for their elaborate ‘line paintings’, depict village or religious scenes in the finest details such as the late Ganga Devi, Pushpa Kumari, Karpoori Devi, Mahasundari Devi or Godawari Dutta. These two forms of Mithila expression, both due to women from the higher castes, embody traditional Mithila art.
But there is a larger number of Mithila farmers who belong to the lower castes. Called ‘Untouchables’ because their contact was considered impure, they have been despised by most of the higher castes for hundreds of years. Gandhi coined the term ‘Harijan’ or ‘God’s Children’ as a way to include them in the human family, through language at least; today, the most politically conscious prefer to call themselves Dalits: ‘the oppressed’.
It took the Harijans well over ten years to overcome some of the restrictions that were imposed upon them as far as painting was concerned. Together with the intervention of a few men in a formerly all-feminine field, their approach renews Mithila painting, both in technique and inspiration.
Being farmers, they rely on the kindness of nature for colours. It provides them with a wonderful range of natural hues derived from clay, bark, flowers and berries. Paper is prepared with a washing of cow dung. Being Harijans, the farmers were tacitly denied the right to represent the main gods of the Hindu pantheon but their need for expression led them to explore new territories, especially nature where no limits bound the imagination. After a day of toiling in the fields for a meagre subsistence, Mitar Ram sees turtles flying in the sky, Sarup Lal Paswan charms trees like snakes, Ram Rup Paswan stages Harijan gods in the sky, Jamuna Devi peoples a new Ark with extraordinary animals, Lalita Devi sews faces of deities like fruits; profusion of motives seems to rightly counterbalance the precariousness of existence, they transcend their daily lives to harvest new creations.
Together with her brother Mitar Ram, but to a greater extent, Jamuna Devi has developed a brightly coloured style that has no equivalent in Mithila art. This woman of seventy years of age is self-taught and no rules apply to her work which evokes children’s play and raw art. She delights in portraying animals – cows, for example. Her representations of the sacred animal range from a parody of anteaters to a hybrid combination of dancing angels and juggling balls. Many of her paintings can be viewed upside down, showing her total freedom from conventions.
Harijan women also drew inspiration from their tattoos: ‘Godhana’ paintings were born. Their pictorial alphabet began to include lines, waves, circles, sticks and snails, opening the way to stylisation and more abstraction.
Harijan paintings may seem repetitive but only from a distance. On a closer look, one sees no real symmetry in them but an unceasing surge of new patterns. Diverging parallels, distorted circles and freedom from the constraints of naturalism can be interpreted as a contesting of established rules. Thus, by painting, Harijans reassert the human dignity that was denied to them through centuries of caste rule.
A trip to Bihar is full of surprises. The new daccoyts are not those against whom people warned you: today, the creativity of painters is threatened to be hijacked by the thoughtless marketing of culture. ‘Brokers’, as locals call them, are beginning to commercialise Mithila paintings in the major cities of India and some painters lured by easy money are in danger of losing their souls. Yet, like Australian Aborigines or Haitian painters, a few Mithila painting farmers will be encouraged to deepen their art and explore new fields instead of merely copying tradition.