Mithila, Museums, and Memories: Travels in Bihar

-Cheyenne Bsaies

During my time in Madhubani, the director of the Mithila Art Institute, Kaushik Jha, escorted me on a few day trips to nearby villages and cities. He knew it was important to me to speak directly with some of the older generation of artists to hear about their beginnings and the changes they have seen occur in the painting and the culture surrounding it. The artists I met were all very accommodating of my ignorance and curiosity, invariably hospitable and wholly interesting. This is an excerpt from my journal recounting one such trip.

From Dulari’s house we walked, with our entourage of children in tow, to the house of Karpuri Devi, Bibha Das and Santos Das, et al. The joint houses are arranged around a common courtyard, at the centre of which sits a marwa—an open gazebo-like structure which serves as a dais for weddings, etc. In fact, it was here that the funeral gathering for Mahasundri Devi took place only a few days prior to our visit. Bibha Das and her husband received us, but he did most of the talking as he seemed eager to practice his English. Eventually, we excused ourselves to meet and talk with Karpuri Devi. I asked her about her beginnings as a painter and Kaushik translated as we snacked on some pastries and drank tea. Her story and the one which Godawari Dutta would relate to me later that day were quite similar. Both learned, as was common then, from their mothers. It was expected that young women learned to paint prior to marrying so that they would know how to decorate their future homes. Karpuri and Godawari are from the same generation, and so they both benefited from the same events in the late 60s which propelled their careers—namely the creation of an All India Crafts Council office in Madhubani. Lalit Narayan Mishra (who was the grandfather of Vibha Jha Mishra—wife of Parmeshwar Jha) was the Railway Minister during the incumbency of Indira Gandhi. Due to his work, he travelled frequently all around India, and encountered the promotion of local crafts—such as miniature painting in Rajput. As a Maithil, he felt that Mithila painting should also be represented. He approached Indira Gandhi to ask that a Crafts office be established. She sent two art historians, Pupul Jaykar and Bhaskar Kulkarni, to gather information on the circumstances of Mithila painters and their tradition.Cheyenne Bsaies give the students instructions on creating a microblog at the Mithila Art Institute

At this time, the purdah system was still in place, which prohibited women from going out of the house unescorted, or being seen by or associating with men outside their family. Mithila painting was still the exclusive province of women, which meant gaining access to them and their work was nearly impossible. Still, the new director of the local Crafts office persisted and persuaded until he was able to discover the best painters and how to approach their families.

In addition to the restrictive social order, many painters such as Karpuri Devi faced the added obstacle of unsupportive or downright discouraging family members. Karpuri told us that she painted in secret for nearly two years, until her mother-in-law finally rescinded her disapproval and allowed her to sell her work.

Godawari Dutta’s story varies a bit due to some special circumstances. She’s a national awardee, like Mahasundri Devi, but she is the only painter to have been invited multiple times for residences at the only Mithila painting museum in the world in Tokamachi, Niigata Prefecture Japan. When the director of the Crafts office finally met her, he gave her a stack of 100 pieces of playing-card sized papers and told her to paint whatever she liked. Once she completed those and he collected them, he began ordering large paintings from her.

When I asked about whether or not her husband was supportive of her art career, she told me the story of how he abandoned her and their son. Apparently he didn’t score well when he sat for some state exams, which meant that he wasn’t able to secure a good job. Like many Maithil families, his family had some ancestral connections in Nepal.

His relations there found him a job, and so he migrated for work and left his wife and son behind. For a while, he would return regularly. Later on, however, he remarried in Nepal and stopped coming. His new wife was a member of the Rana (royal) family. Godawari mentioned something about family politics regarding his remarriage, suggesting that his family pressured him to take a new wife while saying that she thought he was a good man. Kaushik speculated that the family politics may have had something to do with the worsening of her “skin condition.” Godawari has vitiligo, which causes her skin to lose pigmentation over time. In the albums of newspaper clippings & photos & facsimiles of her work, I saw many pictures of her in years past. They showed the progressive loss of melanin which has left her, in her advanced years, uniformly pale. Indeed, I misjudged her condition as albininism, when we met. Regardless of the precise circumstances, she said quite plainly that if it weren’t for the fact that he left her she probably would never have been able to leave her household for her residencies in Japan.Cheyenne Bsaies looks at the students' artwork at the Mithila Art Institute

Cheyenne Bsaies , a graduate student in the Museum Studies program, spent the summer of 2013 working as a technology instructor at the Mithila Art Institute (MAI) in Madhubani, Bihar.