About Mithila Painting

Mithila Painting:
    A Brief History

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The Ethnic Arts Foundation

The Mithila Art Institute


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In 1977, while conducting research in Madhubani, the American anthropologist, Raymond Owens, was stunned by the beauty of some of the paintings on paper. Aware that commercial dealers were grossly underpaying the artists for mass produced paintings he encouraged artists to take their time, do paintings they truly cared about, and offered to buy them for 5 to 10 times the dealers' prices. When Owens returned to the US he showed the paintings to fellow anthropologist, David Szanton, who was equally entranced by them.

Together they agreed that when Owens returned to India he would continue to purchase the best paintings he could find for well over the dealers' prices, bring them to the US, mount exhibitions and sales, and return the profits to the painters, a second payment to encourage them to do their best work. Then in 1980, with several colleagues they established the Ethnic Arts Foundation (EAF), a non-profit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to sustaining the Mithila painting tradition, and most immediately, to hold the funds from sales until Owens could redistribute them to the artists on his next trip to India.

After numerous trips to Madhubani, Owens died in 2000, but this system continues today. Over the years the EAF has purchased some 1800 paintings from more than 150 artists. It has organized numerous (even prize winning) exhibitions and sales in the US, South Africa, India, and even Iceland, in the process creating an international audience and market for the artists. It has sold some 900 paintings to individuals, collectors, and museums, and returned the profits - tens of thousands of dollars in rupees - to the painters whose paintings had sold.

In the early 1980s, Owens also made two documentary films, "Five Painters" and the award winning "Munni," about the lives of the painters, and available from the University of Wisconsin South Asia Film Center. And in 2000, it obtained and subsidized large quantities of hand-made acid-free paper for the paintings.

During a two-week visit to the region by members of the EAF in 2001/02, it became obvious that the continuation of the painting tradition was threatened by a growing generation gap. A number of middle aged and elderly painters were still active. However, most of the younger generation had new interests - computers, commerce, and urban employment - and had lost all interest in traditional activities like painting. However, intensive discussions with the artists suggested that a serious art school in Madhubani might reignite interest and train a new generation of young Mithila painters. With that in mind, and drawing on a small bequest left by Owens, the EAF established a free Mithila Art Institute (MIA) in Madhubani in 2003 to help develop the next generation of Mithila painters.