Likhiya: "Writing" Women's Stories through Art

-Susan S. Wadley, Ford Maxwell Professor of South Asian Studies and Professor of Anthropology

In December, supported by a South Asia Center grant, Anthropology Professor Susan Wadley and filmmaker and Newhouse Professor Tula Goenka traveled to Madhubani, Bihar to document the current state of Mithila art, one of the most well-known and popular Indian ‘folk’ art forms. Until the 1960s, Mithila art was done only by women on the walls of their houses around ritual occasions—festivals, marriages, births and other ceremonies. It was also an art form painted almost exclusively by high caste women—using a highly colorful form by Brahman women and black and red line drawings by Kayastha women. In the late 1960s as a form of famine relief, the government introduced women to drawing on paper, making their one-time ritual art a commodity to be sold. These initial paintings on paper primarily celebrated the gods and goddesses known across India and familiar to Hindus generally.Goenka interviews a Mithila artist

During the 1970s, the lower caste Dalit community developed their own renditions of an art form termed godhana, after the tattoos common in their community. Unlike the high caste paintings, their art celebrates their hero, the god Raja Salhesh, a figure unknown to the Sanskritic Hindu pantheon. Nowadays, Mithila art, from all communities and with a merging of the older caste-related styles, essentially eliminating the caste association with style, fills the handicraft markets of Delhi and other Indian cities, as well as museums in the U.S., Japan, and Europe. And a few artists have had their work recognized by modern art galleries across India and beyond. Further, two artists have had their art transformed into book projects by the innovative Chennai publisher Tara Books.

Wadley and Goenka interviewed numerous women, and a few men, who are currently working as artists in Mithila or Delhi, as well as visited two schools, one focused on the upper caste traditions (though open to students of all groups) and one focused on the Dalit traditions of godhana (and open only to Dalit students). Both are funded by outside NGOs. They also visited those marketing Mithila paintings in the Delhi craft markets, as well as a now for-profit company that seeks to transform Mithila designs into commercial products such as wallpapers, lampshades, and tiles.

But as one painter noted, Mithila art is first and foremost about telling women’s stories, stories that originally were those of illiterate rural women (hence the use of likhiya, which literally means ‘writing’). These stories originally were of gods and goddesses, marriages, and occasionally even an image of something new, such as a train across the top of a wall painting photographed in 1937. Starting in the 1980s, the painter Ganga Devi began to tell more narrative stories, splitting the paper into units that allowed her to depict a sequence of episodes. She also painted stories of her travels to Russia and the U.S., as well as her fight with cancer. Nowadays, the younger generations of women are likely to use their paintings to tell of issues that they find compelling, whether women breaking out of purdah, the evils of dowry deaths or female abortions, or of the disrespect still shown those who are poor.