by Samannaz Rohanimanesh
As the cool breeze of October swipes the bumpy face of the Golden City in California; Asia Week San Francisco Bay Area wraps up yet another bustling week of diverse cultural programs including art exhibitions, performances, screenings, lectures, talks, open studios, auctions, workshops, panel discussions and a featured annual symposium with 35 museums, galleries, auction houses and other art and cultural institutions.
The Annual exposition – taking place in the first week of every October since 2015 – aims to promote Asian arts and culture, along with ‘fostering appreciation for cultural diversity.’ Among the significant line up of participants from various Asian countries such as China, India, Philippines, and The Middle East, one exhibition made a groundbreaking debut with its centuries-old regional style and traditional subject matters.
Painting Is My Everything: Art from India’s Mithila Region, introduces a contemporary female- majority group exhibition, whose artistic background comes from experience rather than academia. Exclusively practiced by women on the walls of their homes in Mithila region, northeast India, this painting method is characterized by stylized imagery and detailed vibrant compositions often referencing quotidian life, rituals, and folk stories regarding major Hindu deities. But there’s actually more to this exhibition than meets the eye. Behind every curve of ink, every picturesque scenery, every colorful sari and turban, lies the life story of a woman from a low caste in the impoverished Mithial region; financially responsible for her entire family.
The story begins back in 1934 with a discovery by a British civil servant after an 8.2 earthquake in Mithial region. He spotted the wall paintings and murals inside the ruined houses and chambers; the word began to spread and this domestic painting tradition which was primarily passed down from mother to daughter, became known to the world. In 1966, after a year-long drought which left many villages in the region depleted, Pupul Jayakar, the director of All India Handicrafts Board, encouraged and trained the village women to create paintings on paper instead of murals, and sell it to tourists and art lovers across the country. In this way, women could both earn an income thought their skills and have a say in their households as guardians.
Following this incident, in 2003, the U.S.-based Ethnic Arts Foundation inaugurated the Mithial Art Institute in the region; a free art foundation who receives applicants from across the region through a blind entrance exam; disregarding the social background and teaching the age-old techniques to all which was once an upper class privilege. The art institute has numerous life-changing stories to it’s credit and continues to be a pioneer in women empowerment, and social change throughout the country.
Dulari Devi’s biography is one of those unbelievable success stories. She was born into a lower caste and served as a housemaid, washing pots and pans while wishing she could learn painting. Her life took a drastic turn when she met a painter and asked her for guidance. The teacher took her under her wings and now Dulari Devi is a master painter and instructor at the Mithial Art Institute. She is also the winner of the State of Bihar Award for Excellence in Art in 2013 and the award winner author of the autobiography “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. So I somehow or other make time to do at least one sketch… Painting is my everything,” says the humble Dulari Devi in a short video screened as part of the exhibition.
Rani Jha is another master painter and instructor at the art institute with a Ph.D. in Mithial studies and a dissertation on Mithial women’s history, society and culture. Her paintings often reflect the hardships women encounter in the society and questions the validity of these societal principles in the 21st century.
“When I used to see how women were treated in the society… [and] how they are oppressed more and more… I had seen all this. I had also experienced it myself. I have come from right there… I don’t curse people, [instead] I have this perfect medium to speak…to write with my paintings,” says Rani Jha in another video screening.
The art institute is located in a humble building in the state of Bihar, not so very different from a shop next door at a glance, but it continues to make history by opening doors to those who dare to dream big; by liberating the creativity of the underprivileged – young and old.