Museum  November 14, 2018  Caterina Bellinetti

"Painting is My Everything:" Transformative Indian Art

Shalinee Kumari (Indian, b. 1985), Women's Power (detail), 2017. Ink and colors on paper. Asian Art Museum.

The exceptionally surprising and thought-provoking exhibition Painting Is My Everything—Art from India’s Mithila Region is on view at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco until December 30, 2018. Thirty large-scale works from various artists, predominantly women, transport the visitors into a colorful and deeply meaningful world.

Mithila, a geographical and cultural region in the state of Bihar in north-eastern India, has recently attracted attention for its pictorial art. Mithila painting, or Madhubani art, has been created for centuries using fingers, sticks, and brushes with natural dyes and pigments. The subjects depicted range from deities to common women, from family celebrations, such as weddings, to contemporary events. The result is a series of intricate and hypnotizing compositions in which the background is filled with geometrical patterns as well as natural, symbolic elements.
 

© Shalinee Kumari. Photograph © Asian Art Museum.

Shalinee Kumari (Indian, b. 1985), Daughters Are for Others, 2006. Ink and colors on paper. Asian Art Museum.

Aside from its undeniable artistic value, Mithila painting demonstrates art’s empowering potential for artists and viewers alike. The paintings, traditionally created by women on house walls, were a domestic tradition passed down from mothers to daughters along the centuries. They caught the attention of British colonial officials in 1934 after an earthquake that destroyed many homes revealed these artistic treasures. Thirty years later, because of a strong drought that crippled the economy of the region, women decided to transport their art on paper as this allowed them to sell their creations and increase the family income.

© Shanti Devi. Photograph © Asian Art Museum.

Shanti Devi (Indian, b. 1926), A pregnant cow, 1981. Ink and colors on paper. Asian Art Museum.

The subject of this art is strongly centered around the power and resilience that female deities, common women, and even female animals have. For instance, in Pregnant Cow, the artist Shanti Devi depicts a brightly colored pregnant cow surrounded by blooming flowers, bees, and sprouting plants in order to convey the great power of nature and its female essence. In Women’s Power by Shalinee Kumari, the Great Goddess Devi is portrayed emerging from a lotus while she holds objects symbolizing her multiple powers. She stands on Ardhanarishvara, the androgynous deity formed by Shiva and the goddess Parvati, that represents the inseparable and equally fundamental male and female forms of God.

© Shalinee Kumari. Photograph © Asian Art Museum.

Shalinee Kumari (Indian, b. 1985), Women's Power, 2017. Ink and colors on paper. Asian Art Museum.

An unmissable exhibition for those interested in Indian culture and in the power of art as an empowering tool for women across the globe, Painting is My Everything is on view until December 30th, 2018, at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. 

About the Author

Caterina Bellinetti

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.