MITHILA PAINTING  

  THE EVOLUTION OF AN ART FORM




 

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THE MITHILA ART INSTITUTE

The Mithila Art Institute (MAI), a free art school in Madhubani town, was founded by the EAF in January 2003 as a modest effort that might last two or three years. Given that few young women were learning to paint in the traditional way, from the older women in their families, the hope was that the MAI would encourage the development of a new generation of Mithila painters. Now eight years later it has graduated some 180 students, many having received national and even international recognition. Every year students are selected by leading local artists in a "blind" competition that regularly draws some 300 applicant s from the surrounding communities for the 25-30 available places. The students - 95% women, 18 to 25 years old - come from all across the caste spectrum. The academic year runs from March to February, four hours a day, five days a week. At the end of each year the six to eight most talented students are encouraged to continue for a second year of advanced training and special projects.

The MAI provides free instruction, working space and materials, occasional workshops with visiting artists, trips to nearby cultural sites, and a supportive community within which to develop the students' talents. Those who must travel daily from distant communities receive travel allowances, and second year students receive modest scholarships.

The MAI curriculum was developed by an Advisory Board of local artists, teachers, and members of the EAF. The instructors are all major Mithila painters. For the first six months the curriculum focuses on expanding the students' painterly skills and imaginations and enriching their knowledge of Mithila's cultural traditions and aesthetics. During the next six months the students are free to explore both traditional subjects and the uses of traditional imagery for dealing with new subjects based on their personal experience, imagination, or contemporary concerns. Drawing on Mithila's rich visual culture, the students' paintings are often quite stunning. Twenty-one of the 40 paintings in the current exhibit are by MAI students or graduates.

More broadly, the MAI and EAF are together re-energizing the painting tradition in the surrounding communities through their institutional presence, the students' and graduates' paintings, the painting classes and workshops many graduates now run, and the recognition and income they and others are generating for their work. In the process they are also challenging gender relations and empowering women in this historically conservative patriarchal society.