First published: Summer 2000
Far away from Indian big cities and the modern world lies a beautiful region once known as the Kingdom of Mithila. In this mythical region, Ramayana god-hero Rama married princess Sita. The founders of Buddhism and Jainism were born close by. Yet, if you ask any Indian about Bihar, he will advise you not to go there:
'Bihar is the most backward state in India: it is corrupt, widely illiterate and full of daccoyts, gangsters who highjack trains or buses to rob the people of whatever they have. Why should you go there?'
For the paintings, of course! There, in a few tiny farming villages, women have been painting on the mud walls of their houses for centuries. Their works keep recurring with each new marriage, religious ceremony or adorning mood. They had a small audience in the Sixties when the ritual was fixed on paper, once and for all, for the eyes of the world to see.
The stylised figures, fierce lions with electrified manes, the human profiles reminiscent of ancient Cretan pottery, the bright naive colours or the 'pre-Columbian' earthy tones, appealed to the public.
You may think Mithila paintings are full of cultural references, yet none of the painters is aware of them! Deciphering them is like following the traces of numerous foreign influences: past invasions or trading routes coming together at a crossroad which is art itself.