Museum Hours
Thu: 1 PM–8 PM
Fri–Mon: 10 AM–5 PM
Tue–Wed: Closed
200 Larkin Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

Painting is My Everything: Art from India's Mithila Region

Sep 7, 2018 – Dec 30, 2018
With precise skill and bold artistic vision, the 17 contemporary artists included in this exhibition, many of them women, employ a centuries-old regional styles to express personal experiences and viewpoints. They paint traditional subjects such as Hindu gods but also use their brushes to document and comment on everyday life as well as national and global events.
Mithila style painting, characterized by visually striking compositions, stylized images, delicately detailed surfaces and vibrant colors, was originally practiced exclusively by women on the walls of their homes. In the wake of a severe drought in the 1960s, this mural tradition was transferred to paper, a format that could be sold to bring much-needed income to rural villages.
Painting continues to be a catalyst of economic growth and social change in Mithila. For many women, artistic success has translated into financial independence and community respect. Dulari Devi, a woman from a lower caste community who had been a housemaid before earning her living as an artist, declares, “Ever since I started painting, I do it like worship . . . painting is my everything.”

History and Background

Mithila, an ancient cultural region of India, lies primarily with the northeastern state of Bihar. While economically impoverished and provincial — its 40 million residents live primarily in small towns and rural villages — it has become a center of artistic production, in large part due to the establishment of the Mithila Art Institute in 2003.

In 1934, while surveying the damage caused by an 8.2 magnitude earthquake in Bihar state, a British civil servant spotted wall paintings inside the cracked-open marriage chambers and home shrines of the devastated houses and “discovered” what was a centuries-old tradition. What he saw were lush, colorful, intimate scenes: images of wedding rituals, a profusion of flowers and animals as symbols of fecundity and depictions of god and goddesses. A traditional domestic artistic tradition, one that had been passed down from mother to daughter and confined to the interior walls of the most intimate rooms of the home, suddenly became public.

Over the years, word of this dynamic tradition spread beyond the Mithila region. During a severe drought in 1966, Pupul Jayakar, director of the All India Handicrafts Board, conceived a plan to empower village women to use their artistic skills to earn money. She arranged for the women to be trained in painting on paper, shifting the mural tradition to a portable format that could be sold to tourists and at handicraft shops in India’s major cities.

Painting continues to be a catalyst for economic growth and social change, helping to break down boundaries of gender and caste. In 2003, the U.S.-based Ethnic Arts Foundation established the Mithila Art Institute. The free art school has a blind entrance competition, and applicants from across the region vie for a spot. By training students from all backgrounds, the institute enables the broader society to participate in a tradition that had once been confined to the upper castes. For many women, artistic success has translated into financial independence and community respect, enabling them to make life decisions for themselves and their families for the first time.

Meet Mithila Artists and Hear Their Personal Stories

Dulari Devi

Dulari Devi, a woman from the lower castes who had been a housemaid before learning to paint, is now a master painter and instructor at the Mithila Art Institute. She received the State of Bihar Award for Excellence in Art in 2013 and is the author of an award-winning autobiography, “Following My Paintbrush.”

Rani Jha

Rani Jha is a master painter and teacher at the Mithila Art Institute. A PhD in Mithila studies from Darbhanga University, she wrote a dissertation on women in Mithila’s history, society and culture. An ardent feminist, her paintings frequently deal with gender and women’s issues.

Organizers & Sponsors

Painting Is My Everything: Art from India’s Mithila Region is organized by the Asian Art Museum. Presentation is made possible with the generous support of The Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Fund for Excellence in Exhibitions and Presentations; Joan L. Danforth; Warren Felson and Lucy Sun; John Maa, M.D.; and Society for Art and Cultural Heritage of India (SACHI).