The Giving TreeThe art that originated out of the centuries old Mithila Kingdom, while often charming, can sometimes be dismissed as mere “folky” decoration.
The art that originated out of the centuries old Mithila Kingdom, while often charming, can sometimes be dismissed as mere “folky” decoration. The bright colours, repetitive patterns, exaggerated side profiles, florals, stylised birds and animals, and a frolicking Krishna at play spying on bathing gopinis do not elide into people’s preconceived notions of “fine” drawing. While the art of the Mithila Cosmos does not aspire towards these lofty standards, it has the capacity to transcend its origins, utilising all of its formal constrictions in creating playful, truly lovely works that can make the heart soar. Today, in Nepal in India, the tradition of Mithila painting is able to boast a striking, collective body of works—drawn by gifted women and men who have taken this originally modest art to another level of sophistication.
The Mithila Cosmos is a term that describes the iconographic world depicted in the paintings that have come out of the vast Mithila region. Spanning the eastern Tarai region in Nepal, and extending through Bihar in Northern India, the ancient Mithila or Videha Kingdom is a geographical definition that changed hands through history, starting with the Pal Dynasty in the 6th century, passing through the hands of the Sen, Deva, and Oinwar rulers and ending finally in 1947 with the Khandavala Kings.
During this immense span of time the style of Mithila painting evolved to combine both decorative and ritualistic practices, traditionally painted either on walls as bhittichitras or on floors as bhumichittras. These line drawings were made with devotion by women, with twigs dipped in natural pigments extracted from flower dye, turmeric, and saffron. The subject matter ranged from abstractions of mandala forms known as aripana to classical themes such as the Krishna Leela, depictions of gods and goddesses from the Hindu pantheon, as well as repeated stylised iterations of auspicious Mithila iconography from the natural world such as fish, peacocks etc that symbolise fertility, beauty, and good luck.
Over the past century, the Mithila style waned and waxed again, both in India and in Nepal, with a shift into painting on paper, with many women returning to the form, incorporating traditional and modern techniques, such as using a pen for the line drawings instead of the initial, rudimentary tools at hand.
In 1990, the Janakpur Women’s Development Centre, under the guidance of Claire Burkert, staged the first exhibition of Mithila Art, cementing a revival of a style that is now ubiquitous in Nepal, identifiable on textiles and pottery, as well as in the fine art tradition—an incredibly charting of a form that was said to have started when King Janaka, of Janakpur, the ancient capital of the Mithila Kingdom, asked his palace and city walls to be decorated on the occasion of his daughter Sita’s wedding to Rama.
Today, one of the most revered painters in the Mithila tradition, SC Suman, is from the Kayastha family, a man who uses a whimsical pseudonym instead of his full name Subodh Chandra Das, to underscore the poesy behind his chosen form, since “Suman” means flower—a choice which is apt considering how connected the tradition of Mithila painting is to the forms and rhythms of nature.
Suman learned his craft from his grandmother, Sita Devi, a talented painter from whom he imbibed the knowledge of Mithila iconography, and tricks such as collecting certain parts from the Paarijaata flower while they are in season to produce saffron yellow, and how to create just the right hue of crimson from a bougainvillea plant of the same shade. Breaking from the tradition of women who draw these deeply personal and yet sacred pictures, Suman’s commitment to Mithila painting has resulted, over the years, in a very particular style that he has honed from exhibition to exhibition, always pushing himself further with each show.
Since his first exhibition in Biratnagar, in 1991, Suman, trained as a textile designer in Bombay, has displayed his works at 15 solo shows, four of which have been on at the Siddhartha Art Gallery (SAG). Over the years, having had the privilege of seeing three of his shows, including the current one ‘Mithila Cosmos IV: Kalpavriksha’ at SAG, I have been astounded by the beauty, creativity, and idiosyncrasies that are original to his Mithila paintings, adding seminal works to an already rich tradition.
Having committed and mastered a form that is deeply rooted in its own formal artistic semantics, Suman has both absorbed and transcended his chosen craft, turning it into a labour of love that is both obviously and subliminally beautiful to the eye, and uplifting to the heart.
Yamuna Devi’s work is an example of a traditional piece of folk art from an Indian Madhubani painter.(Madhuban was one of the districts within the Mithila Kingdom and Mithila paintings are sometimes referred to as Madhubani.) This is a classical, formal Mithila painting, albeit on paper and using goache instead of vegetable pigments, complete with a stunning red flower border with a repeating floral motif. Within the border is Krishna playing his flute, depicted in side profile in keeping with the Mithila tradition, flanked by his gopinis on either side, sitting on the branches of a blossoming tree, and with the shining sun to augment the auspicious, holy subject.
‘Kalpavriksha’ the show, taken from the title of the mythic wish granting tree in Hindu mythology that emerged during the churning of the sea of milk (Samudra manthan) is an education to the trained and untrained eyes because of the combination of classical and diverging works.
The complementary ‘Village Story I & II’ are enclosed prettily in their orthodox borders, depicting folky rural life. They are charming in their breadth and detail, yet they depart from the norm in their panoramic size, with ‘Village Story I’ painted in a complex, unusual, luminous deep blue to evoke a breath-taking, dusky twilit sky.
Mithila paintings are defined by their kor or border, a phenomenon necessitated by the need to define often vast wall spaces that the bhittichitras were traditionally drawn upon. Suman’s poetic imaginings, his originality, and his virtuosity as an artist are encapsulated in ‘Kalpavriksha with Peacock’, a stunning work that depicts the sacred Paarijata tree (one of the five central wish granting trees in Indra’s five paradise gardens: Harichandana, Kalpa, Paarijaata, Mandana, and Santana)—a tree so sacred that even the petals that have fallen to the ground may be offered to the gods, unlike those of the other blossoms that must be plucked from their branches before they reach the earth. In this work, the Paarijaata tree’s branches are full of peacocks; the blossoms fall and break through the traditional kor in an artist’s sophisticated and graceful visual offering to the gods in celebration of this heavenly tree.
‘Kalpavriksha III’, which is on the front cover of the show’s catalogue, too, does away with its top border—this particular wish granting tree is populated with butterflies, and painted in a deceptively subdued palate of blues, ochres, and greens that enhance rather than undermine the brimming joyfulness that the image elicits in the viewer.
Mithila painting has numerous rules as a practice, one of which is to fill empty space. All of the paintings in the exhibition showcase Suman’s mastery of line; he does not draft any studies for his works. In between his shows, Suman works furiously, contemplating each piece in his mind’s eye, composing lines in his head, and deciding and collecting pigments for each piece’s palette, before he puts brush and pen to paper. Since the space around each central subject, Kalpavriksha or Krishna, must be filled in keeping with the Mithila tradition, the artist must be able to use the symbols and forms of the Mithila cosmos iconography to exact measure, creating harmony and balance around each subject, enhancing each work with his or her whimsical use of imperfect but visually exquisite lines.
‘Aambo Bibha’ is another charming work in this series, a deeply traditional subject made lyrical and playfully euphoric by the depiction of a luscious mango tree laden with fruit, the tree taking a central place, in a detailed ritual scene where the Kayastha men and women are married to the mango tree before they wed their bride or groom.
Each of the works in this splendid show are particular and enchanting in their extraordinary, thoughtful detail, and while most allude to or are classical themes and subjects, the overarching idea of drawing the Kalpavriksha itself (which quite literally means the tree that gives wishes) comes from the artist’s contemplation of his country’s political situation, contextualising the modern subtext inherent in the art. Suman believes that as we rely on the constitution to grant all of our wishes, perhaps we ourselves are shirking a certain civic responsibility to act, transposing the blame on politics, or onto a piece of paper that we hope will fulfil all our needs—the Kalpavriksha is a glowing reminder of our apathy.
Three of Suman’s works are directly about the destruction wrought by the earthquake of April 25, 2015. These works, hanging on the third floor of the gallery, take from the Mithila art traditions in the use of lines, but they depict cracked facades, peeling plaster, and once again a broken kor that is meant to represent our conflicts over federal boundaries. Pigeons, symbolising peace, fly out of this damaged border. Within these paintings are codes representing Mithila tradition standing in for the Madhes, an essential part of our country where the origins of the Mithila tradition lie; a region that continues to inform our perception of our national identity.
Year after year, Suman’s works have ceaselessly evolved, becoming ever more refined in form, line, conception, and execution. The variety in this show is wonderful to behold, lovingly made by a deeply attentive, humble artist, at a time when the entire country needs to be reflecting on what it means to be Nepali, Maithali, Madhesi, a man, a woman or just an artist with a will to use his imagination and self-taught skills to transcend his constrictions.