Venue: Siddhartha Art Gallery
Organised By: Siddhartha Art Gallery
Mithila Cosmos : Circumambulating the Tree of Life
The ancient and vast Mithila Kingdom was surrounded by the Ganges River to the South, the Himalayas to the North, and the now non-existent Koshi and Gandaki Rivers to the East and West, whose territory extends to present day Bihar, India. The Nepali city Janakpur was the capital of this ancient Kingdom. The epic Ramayana makes mention of this area as King Janak and his daughter Sita the consort of Lord Rama, hailed from this great kingdom. Today Janakpur is still the epicenter of Maithili culture in Nepal.
For over three thousand years, the genre of Mithila painting has remained within the bastion of its womenfolk, who inherited their traditions, skills, technical knowledge and expertise from their mothers or grandmothers. Their art was an integral part their domestic day to day ritual. Mithila women have drawn on the walls of their humble abodes and on their mud floors to avert these natural disasters, protect their crop, and pray for the well being of their husband and children. Housewives fashioned images out of clay, mud and cow dung of Hindu Gods for worship on diverse occasions, when they observed fasts for the prosperity and longevity of their family members. Dr.Ram Dayal Rakesh , an expert on Mithila Art of Nepal writes that Mithila art is inseparable from religion, and that the Mithila artist still ‘dedicates her talent and skill to God, meditating long before transforming a spiritual aesthetic vision on to a mud wall’. However these wall paintings have always been impermanent, as the annual monsoon torpor destroys the painted images and fresh mixture of mud and cow dung is applied over the old images to provide a fresh surface for new paintings, which are in keeping with the festivities.
Today the winds of change have brought about transformation in the lifestyle of rural and indigenous folk. This change has challenged the artistic and cultural moorings of the Mithila cosmos. However, it is interesting to note that the mud walls, courtyards, textiles, household objects, paintings and handicrafts, still rest upon the age-old repertoire for ornamental patterns and designs, motifs, symbols and themes. For most Mithila women, the practice of painting on paper is a recent phenomenon, which was introduced by Claire Burkert of the Janak Women’s Development Center in 1990. From this historic moment, the artistic motifs used by Mithila women were transferred on to paper. The Janakpur Women’s Development Center was established to promote the inherent skills of these women, uplift their lives through the sales of their beautiful artworks and to introduce Mithila expression to the rest of the world. Today Maithili art in Nepal has taken a direction of its own and is a source of inspiration for national and international artists.
Traditionally three castes are associated Mithila art: Brahmin, Kayastha and Dusadha. Though Mithila art forms vary from caste to caste, the art forms that emanate from this region are associated with religious ceremony and local rituals. The artist S.C. Suman, who hails from Siraha, is a Kayastha. The Kayastha women of the Mithila region have traditionally been engaged with this art form since time in memorial. S.C. Suman learnt to make make ritual aripans for the various festivals and pujas from his grandmother in their family home. Suman recalls that his grandmother would grind rice with some water into a paste called ‘pithar’ and use this mixture to make the delicate patterns on the mud floor and in the ‘goshai ghar’ or prayer room each day. These intricate ornamental but profoundly symbolic patterns would be incomplete without adding the final touches with abir, sindoor and kesari powder. Suman also remembers helping his grandmother make wall paintings or ‘Bhitti Chitras’ and waiting for the right season to gather flowers, creepers, herbs and leaves that would be ground and distilled to make the natural pigments for the paintings. The stem of the parijat flower, bougainvillea, the pulp of the bel fruit, oil, milk and turmeric would be used to make organic pigments. Mud, cow dung and certain grasses were used as earth tones for the paintings. Kajol and soot would be coated on to fine hand hewn bamboo sticks with which his grandmother would draw the fine images of their spiritual and natural cosmos. No other art form in Nepal shares such a close affinity to nature and celebrates the holistic involvement of all the senses: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.
Inspired by the artworks created at the Jankapur Women’s Development Center, the fine Madhubani paintings of Bihar, the Worli paintings of Madhya Pradesh along with the local Tharu and Rajbanshi imagery, S.C Suman is both an oddity and an icon, as he has gone against the tide and established his name as one of the finest painters in this genre. Though he trained as a textile designer in Bombay, he returned to his roots and began to paint in the Mithila tradition, stating that he did not believe that the issue of gender should restrict the innate creativity of an artist. S.C. Suman, crafts his own painting tools and prepares his own colors. He also uses poster paints, watercolors, acrylic and oils with equipoise on Nepali paper, linen and silk.
In 2007, S.C. Suman held a successful exhibition at the Siddhartha Art Gallery. Entitled ‘Mithila Cosmos’, this exhibition brought attention to the enduring iconograhpy of the Mithila Kingdom. In 2011, his exhibition Mithila Cosmos – New Narratives, included both traditional forms and a body of work which were socio- political in content, thus demonstrating how the Mithila gaze reads the world today. Suman believes that traditional art can becomes dynamic and robust when it embraces contemporary issues. His latest series is inspired by the tree of life – a recurring motif in Mithila art poetry and folk songs. A 700 year old folk song written by celebrated Mithila poet Kokilkavi Vidyapati which is sung at weddings elucidates this deep connection to nature and ecology:
Father Dasrath plants a mango-mahua sapling
Mother Kaushalya waters the sapling
Oh hail the auspicious occasion
Our son is going to get married,
Before he marries his betrothed
He will marry a mango-mahua sapling
After which he will marry his betrothed
Oh hail the auspicious occasion
This sapling will give him blessings
the dhol and mridhanga reverberate in all four directions
Oh hail the auspicious occasion
The Tree of Life concept is sacred to most cultures. Jasleen Dhamija, an Indian wirter and expert on the arts and crafts of India elaborates that the significance of the tree of llife “transcends conscious reality, touching the subconscious and beyond. Even if the original meaning is obscured, the symbol retains an unconscious link with our primeval memory and becomes a source of strength. Its roots plunge deep into the three worlds: its branches reach upwards towards heaven and support it. The trunk is the means of ascending upwards and reaching beyond, thereby connecting three worlds. The presence of a tree signifies water, growth, and fecundity ” — specific trees and flowers are objects of worship. In Hindu culture the kadamaba, pipal, bar, mahua, banyan , sandalwood, rudrakshya, parijat, mango and mahua “tree are sacred and it is a taboo to cut these trees, as their very being is associated with myths and gods; hence the custom of offering libations to them”. The cultural, artistic and literary tradition of the Mithila genre is deeply rooted in nature. Young men and women get married to a mango-mahua tree before they get married to their betrothed.
Verses from the sacred Ramayana and the Mahabharatha are replete with texts that pay homage to sacred trees, plants, flowers and nature. Taking its cue from these sacred texts Mithila imagery captures the exile of Rama and Sita in exile in the forest, Sita sitting under the Ashoka tree, Radha and Krishna exchanging garlands with a kadamba tree in the backdrop, the cheer haran story where a gleeful Krishna sits on a sturdy branch of the kadamba tree overlooking a pond where 108 naked gopinis are bathing –little do they know that the mischievous Krishna has taken a way all their clothes and rehung it on the branches of the tree.
Even today married women conduct the Batsavitra puja , or the tulsi hom as it is believed that these pujas add longevity to the lives of their husbands. Rural art forms are an indelible link between the artistic output and nature. Suman’s paintings reflect images of a myriad plants and life forms of the Terai which encapsulate a host of meanings: lotus (seat of the unblemished and pure feminine form), bamboo (lineage, roots, male form), kadamba tree (love) fishes and crocodiles (fertility), turtles (lover’s reunion and stability), parrots (teacher, intelligence), peacocks (beauty), elephants (wealth and prosperity), tigers (power associated with the Goddess), snakes (associated with Shiva for protection and the ultimate union), fishes and crocodiles (fertility), sun, moon and the nine planets (power of nature). Ravindra Kumar and Anupama Sirivastav write that Mithila women believed the Sun had the power to fertilize and impregnate, while the Moon was regarded as the heavenly source of amrit or nectar, thus symbolizing life and giving qualities.
In this exhibiton S.C. Suman incorporates the images from Mushahar, Jhaangar, Dhimal, Sataar and Tharu indigenous communities of the Tarai into his paintings. The “Bhitti Chitra” or “Mokha” (mul-dwaar or main gate) paintings that embellish the façade of a Tharu home with decorative elements around the main gate and windows also find expression in this series. “Salhesh Lok-katha” is another example of how the artist has deftly used Mushahar elements in his recent work. In another important step he has collaborated with the eminent traditional paubha artist Lok Chitrakar to gild specific areas of his Mithila paintings thereby merging two sacred art forms in a creative union.
The artist also portrays the ‘Kobhar’ or ‘kobhar ghar’ (nuptial or bridal chamber) paintings in this series. The tradition of the Kobhar harks back to a time when child marriages flourished and the sex education was non – existent. Mithila women would prepare a separate nuptial house or ‘kobhar ghar’ for the newlyweds replete with instructive paintings – the intimate love stories of Shiva and Parvati, Krishna and Radhika, Ram and Sita, which were consecrated to celebrate the spiritual and physical union between the newlyweds. Every element in Mithila painting has a deeply rooted symbolism in it focusing around passion, sex, fertility and tantric ritual, especially in aripana and paintings related to marriage ceremonies. In their essay from Maithil to Madhubani -a tradition of continuity and change, the Indian writers Ravindra Kumar and Anupama Sirivastav highlight that the depiction is the Kobhar ghar is symbolically replete with the ring of the lotus, the kamalabhan or puraina and the forest of bamboo or bansa: “The ring of lotus symbolized the female organ and the forest of bamboo represents the male organ or lingam. The meeting of these two symbolizes the union of purusha and prakriti, male and female”. During the wedding ceremony, special suggestive love songs would be sung to celebrate the marriage.
The pantheon of the Hindu Gods: Ganesha, Durga, Shakti and Saraswati are also depicted in S.C Suman’s new series. Apart from these sacrosanct visual narratives, the cycle of the seasons, fairs and dances, fertility rites, folk and tribal lore, marriage, other ritual ceremonies and cultural activities associated with the annual festivals based on the cycles of the moon and sun are themes that Mithila women immortalized in their paintings. Some of the enduring images of Mithila art include agrarian village scenes and village activities. Suman is well versed in these visual narratives. The artist also pays attention to jewelry of the women, the tattoos that Mithila women receive on their bodies, in some instances the embroidered motifs and the needlework and quilting stitches which are used to make blankets, becomes an integral decorative motif in his works.
Cicumambulating the Tree of Life- drives home the point that the very passage of life in the Mithial Cosmos is very deeply rooted in rituals that pay obeisance to nature. This reverence can be interpreted as the collective wisdom of the Mithila people who understood the importance of establishing an ecological balance and harmony in their very cosmos or world. This ecological balance is a source of inspiration for Mithila and traditional Paubha artists. The paintings in this exhibition are marked by unbelievable spontaneity, imaginative use of space, lucid lines, a flat naïve sense of proportion anatomy, dynamism and the intuitive use of color. It is this ‘untutored’ aspect of Mithila painting that gives it a distinctive edge and indescribable charm.
Art Curator/Director – Siddhartha Art Gallery