Dulari Devi’s 2015 “Prime Minister Modi arriving in a village via helicopter” is among the eye-catching works in “Painting Is My Everything: Art from India’s Mithila Region.” (Courtesy Asian Art Museum)

Lively Mithila village art graces museum walls

Qamar Adamjee laughed when asked how much travel was involved in her curating the exhibit “Painting Is My Everything: Art from India’s Mithila Region” at the Asian Art Museum.

“Many elevator rides to our storage at the lower level,” said Adamjee, the Asian Art Museum Malavalli Family Foundation associate curator. She adds, “The exhibition title is a quote from Dulari Devi, a featured artist whose personal life experience, from hardship to global recognition through her art, mirrors the changes in the practice of painting.”

All 30 works on view come from what Adamjee calls “a somewhat impoverished region in Bihar state, the subcontinent’s rural northeast,” and all are owned by the museum.

Unusually, a number of the paintings and ink on paper works in the show are copies of village wall decorations, striking compositions in vibrant colors that originally were created by women for the walls of their homes. (A British civil servant doing inspections in the region in 1934 after a big earthquake discovered them.)

More recently, as this art became famous and sought by collectors, murals were copied to paper to be sold.

Mithila regional art developed in many directions, from abstract to semi- or fully representational, such as Shanti Devi’s “Pregnant Cow,” Gopal Saha’s “Japanese Hippies” and “Snakes Praying.” Among the more recent works is Devi’s 2015 “Prime Minister Modi arriving in a village via helicopter.”

Both wall decorations and new works have a wide range of subjects and styles, most focusing on everyday life, but also including traditional subjects such as Hindu gods and mythology.

Depicting the combination of the ceremonial and the workaday is the show’s largest piece, Baua Devil’s 1983 “Chhath festival scene with anthropologist and camera” at the exit from the exhibit. Included in the vibrant image is the picture of the late American anthropologist Raymond Owens, who devoted his life to working with artists in the region, and left a bequest that helped establish the Mithila Arts Institute.

Painting in the region, says Adamjee, has served economic growth and social change, allowing women to use art to achieve financial independence and community respect. Devi, for example, a woman from a lower caste community, had been a housemaid before earning her living as an artist. She has said, “Ever since I started painting, I do it like worship… painting is my everything.”

Opening at the same time as the Mithila show is “Haroon Mirza: The Night Journey,” a darkened room in which an electronic system’s buzzing, humming, droning and hissing sounds correspond with colored LED lights.

The light and sound installation is based on an Indian miniature painting in the museum’s collection, “The night journey of the Prophet Muhammad on the heavenly creature Buraq” (circa 1800) and is a pixelated version of the image converted into a score, or source code.

IF YOU GO

Painting Is My Everything
Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; closes Dec. 30
Tickets: $20 to $25; $10 first Sunday of the month
Contact: (415) 581-3624, www.asianart.org

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