The Mithila region on the Nepal-India border in northern Bihar is best-known for its art tradition once solely the work of rural women who decorated their mud walls with images of their Hindu gods and goddesses to bring auspiciousness to their homes. Starting in the late 1960s, the Indian government began encouraging women to paint their deities on paper to be sold in craft markets in Delhi and elsewhere. With the shift to paper came shifts in style and content, along with increased awareness of the world beyond their villages as the women painters traveled to Delhi, Russia, the U.S. and elsewhere to represent India in festivals and exhibitions. In the last twenty years, younger generations of painters have focused their paintings on issues facing women in this largely conservative north Indian rural society. Using paintings and thoughts from two female painters now in their thirties, I examine how they engage with the concept of shakti or ‘female power’ in paintings that seek to highlight this key Hindu concept and its potential meaning for modern Indian women.
After a brief discussion of Mithila painting historically and now, I briefly discuss the Hindu concept of shakti, as found in Hindu writings. Then I turn to two paintings, one by Shalinee Kumari and one by Shalini Karn, to explore how they see shakti as a tool that women use or should use to improve their lives as Hindu women.
The first recognition of Mithila painting came in 1934 after a massive earthquake when a British officer, William A. Archer, was surveying the destruction in the region and found evocative and colorful paintings behind the broken mud walls of village houses. These paintings, usually hidden in private domestic spaces, were made by women to honor their deities for rituals of many kinds. In 1937, Archer returned with a camera to document this art form for the first time for the world beyond northern Bihar. In 1948, he became the first scholar to write about Mithila art (Archer 1949).
The tradition that Archer found and wrote about was the province of women. Two styles of painting dominated: bharni, or colorful ‘filled’ in images of deities made by women of the Brahman (priestly) caste and kachni, line drawings in black and red inks made by women of the Kayastha (accountant) caste. These two castes are the dominant castes in the region and the primary landowners. Little is known of painting traditions by other castes, though a distinct Dalit style emerged in the 1970s under the tutelage of western scholars. During the 1970s, as the income generation possibilities of this art form developed, some males also began to paint and by the 2000s, significant numbers of males began to dominate parts of the market because of their accessibility, mobility, and educational opportunities denied to women. Currently, as best I know, the only two Mithila painters with university degrees in art are male.
From the 1970s on, a few women painters became well known, with several winning the Padma Shri, India’s highest award for contributions to Indian culture. Others were acclaimed by exhibitions at the National Crafts Museum in New Delhi as well as opportunities to represent India abroad (Szanton and Bakhshi 2007). Throughout this period, their painting style became refined, possibly losing some of the exuberance of the colorful early images but attracting interest because of the skills involved.
Even today the markets tend to be flooded by quickly drawn lesser quality paintings that can be sold cheaply in places like folk art markets such as Dilli Haat in Delhi.
In 2003, an American-based non-profit, the Ethnic Arts Foundation, started a free school (entrance via a painting test), the Mithila Art Institute (MAI), in Madhubani town where young artists were trained by master artists in key elements of the tradition. The goal was to train artists whose work might become ‘museum quality.’ Opening in 2003, the MAI trained 25 potential artists for fifteen years, until it closed in 2018. Originally the lead teacher was a college-educated male artist, Santosh Kumar Das, but shortly thereafter the instructors were all women, eventually including one lower caste artist. Several of these instructors, women in their 40s and 50s, had themselves been painting about their lives and challenges. Their students and others pushed this tradition even further and, along with their teachers, have become renowned for their activist stances. Two of these younger artists, Shalinee Kumari and Shalini Karn, recently painted images that focus on the power of women, the concept known as shakti in Hinduism.
The Hindu concept of Shakti
Shakti literally means energy or power, the energy that fills the world and makes the inert active. Most critically, shakti is dependent on women: through correct actions (being obedient, well-behaved, and chaste) women make and embody shakti. They then can (and should, according to Hindu tradition) transmit that power or energy to their male kin, especially their husbands. In fact, it is their duty to transfer shakti so that their husbands or other male kin prosper. If a family fails to prosper, it is blamed on the women, not the men. Hindu mythology and folk stories are filled with stories of women who accrue power that is then transferred to powerful men (or to make men powerful, as in one folk story where the woodcutter gains more power than the king due to his chaste ethical wife). If a male gains too much power and uses it for evil, the gods work to cut his access, that is, they cause his wife to lose her ability to make power. This usually involves making the wife act unfaithfully, as in the myth of Jalandhar and Branda. Here the demon Jalandhar gained enormous power due to the chastity and virtue of his wife Branda. When the gods sought to challenge him, their only avenue was to attack the wife’s virtue, so they transformed a god into a corpse in Jalandhar’s image. When Branda embraced the corpse, the god came to life, and her virtuous powers were destroyed. Even though the wife was tricked into embracing a man who was not her husband, the story supports the traditional Hindu view that a woman’s unfaithfulness, even in ignorance, results in a loss of shakti. In classical Hinduism, a woman has the ability to gain considerable power, but this power should be used only by her husband, and an ‘uncultured’ woman would inevitably use the power inappropriately (Wadley 1977). But in the two paintings discussed here, the focus is on women using their shakti for their own sake and for the benefit of the world. In doing so, these women reject traditional, patriarchal views about women, their power, and how it can be used.
The Two Shalini(ee)s Views of Shakti
The two Shalini(ee)s both grew up in the Mithila region, Shalinee Kumari a few years earlier than Shalini Karn. Both were from relatively poor families.
Shalinee Kumari comes from a rural community. She saw her first Mithila paintings only when she came to Madhubani in her late teens to go to college (she eventually completed both a BA and MA). She had loved art as a child, constantly filling her notebooks with drawings along with her math problems, etc., but no one in her family painted except her grandmother who taught her aripan, ritual drawings made with rice flour on the ground. After a year in Madhubani, she joined the MAI in 2005 where she studied for two years and drew the attention of David Szanton, one of its American directors. In 2009, he arranged for the Frey Norris Gallery in San Francisco to mount an exhibition of her work which drew prices in the $1000-3000 range. Figure 1, Shakti, was in that exhibition and is now part of Syracuse University’s extensive Mithila collection. Shalini’s father had arranged her marriage before the U.S. trip (which fortunately her future father-in-law agreed to), and she was married at age 22, soon after her return. Her marriage was difficult: her husband wished for another woman, and they also moved to Delhi, where she was isolated in a one room South Delhi flat. Notably, Shakti was painted before her marriage.
It was a cousin-sister’s death that drove her to paint Shakti. This cousin-sister was well-educated and older, and Shalinee regarded her as a role model and mentor. Soon after marriage, her cousin-sister had a child. But she was denied opportunities to continue her education, as her in-laws were very conservative. Most of all they desired more grandchildren. At the time of her baby’s birth, the doctor told her family not to let her get pregnant again as a second pregnancy would be very dangerous. This proved true: Shalinee’s cousin-sister died in the second childbirth.
As Shalinee noted in explaining Shakti, Figure 2, to a group at Syracuse University in 2018, “The woman who is uplifting her hand, she is ready to show [her power]. The situation is difficult. You can see the fire. She has power inside that she is ready to show. She has power inside. She should know her power. . .” An observer asked, “but the edges here, the border is jagged. All the others [in different paintings] are not, are very beautiful.” Shalinee responded, “I made the jagged border because of pain. I thought of my sister and what happened to her.” On another day, Shalinee remarked, “It [this painting] represents the power of women, especially a woman’s internal power that others do not see. While on the outside, a woman may not seem powerful, inside she is. Every woman should know the energy/ power that she holds inside.” (text message, Sept. 8. 2018).
Clearly this image captures the energy and the power, inside and outside. The burning energy of the ‘inside woman’ is depicted as very potent as it is transferred to the public woman. The energy, the power, the shakti of the woman is there waiting to be revealed and used.
Shalinee has continued to paint, to teach (since 2020 on-line), and to lecture, including two weeks of talks and workshops at the Asian Art Museum in the fall of 2018. While her topics are diverse, many of her paintings after her marriage in 2010 focused on the inequality of men and women. She also did two powerful pieces on covid and its effects. (See also Kumari and Wadley, in press.)
When Shalini Karn, the second artist, was a child, her parents shifted from a village near Madhubani town to Delhi to earn more for their family. Shalini and her three siblings were raised by relatives in the village of Ranti, a village known for its Mithila painters. She comments that she loved painting from early childhood. When she completed her BA in 2013, Shalini won a Government of India prize for two years of training in Mithila art, studying primarily with a close relative, Santosh Kumar Das, who had been the first teacher at MAI. Her brother, Avinash Karn, was able to attend Banaras Hindu University to study art and later became a leader in running workshops on Mithila art across northern India as well as getting jobs painting murals in hotels and other venues. Shalini was able to participate in some of these events. She married only in 2017-8, by then in her late 20s. In 2018, she was chosen to exhibit at the International Folk Arts Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico, only to be denied a US visa. She has now been chosen to participate in 2022, if Covid-19 allows. Currently she is living with her husband in Ranchi in the eastern state of Jharkhand. In addition to the painting discussed here, she has a second covid-inspired piece in the on-line exhibition in SU Art Museum (see fn 2). That piece is done is a style quite distinct from Shakuntala, discussed here.
Shalini Karn found a different woman’s story to be her inspiration to portray a woman’s power. On March 24, 2020, as Covid-19 began its first round of infections in India, Prime Minister Modi abruptly called for an all-India lockdown, closing schools, markets, industries, banks, buses, trains, etc. A few shops were left open for essentials. The populace was told to stay inside. But this lockdown left millions of rural migrants to India’s cities stranded, with no jobs, no food, no way to pay for housing, and no way to return to their rural homes, many of which were hundreds of miles away. Millions took to the roads, trying to avoid the brutal May and June sun by walking in the early mornings and late afternoons, to reach their villages.
Shakuntala, portrayed in Shalini’s painting, was stranded near Mumbai with her husband and children. Like others, they started walking, even though she was nearing the time to deliver her next child. Some miles into the trip, she gave birth on the side of the road, attended by other women on their own journeys home. An hour or two later, Shakuntula rose, held her newborn to her breast and kept walking (n.a.2020). In Figure 3, Shalini tells this story. Here she uses only black and red inks, drawing in the linear style of her Kayastha community. Shakuntala alone is highlighted in red. Shalini told me “This true story of a daring woman was shocking for everyone and I think only a mother power or a goddess can do this kind of miracle.” She painted in black and red because she wanted to tell two stories: one about the failures of government and the other about the powers of women. The red marking Shakuntala in each portion represents female power. The black represents the failure of the government.
Both Shalinee Kumari and Shalini Karn use their art to focus on the failures of their society and their government. Both use their art to reach audiences across the world and in public life, whether in museums, on-line or in workshops and teaching. Their art gives them a commanding voice to speak their beliefs about the powers of women and the failures of society, In these two paintings, both recall the powers of women as found in Hindu belief and scriptures and both celebrate these powers while recalling them for the world at large. With these paintings, they draw attention to the key concept of shakti in Hindu thought, bringing it to modern audiences across the glove and instigating conversations about women, their roles in society, and their power to change society and right wrongs.
 This goal has certainly succeeded with major Mithila pieces at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, amongst others.
 Mitihla Art in the Time of Covid-19, indd.adobe.com/view/b42ffd50-92eb-4c53-b8be-cad71851cee7, accessed January 27, 2022.
Archer, W.G. “Mithil Paintings.” Marg 3, no. 3 (1949): 24-33.
n.a. May. 13, 2020. “Migrant Worker Delivers Baby On Road, Walks Another 150 KM To Get Help.” Outlook, May 13, 2020. [Accessed February 10, 2021.] www.outlookindia.com/website/story/india-news-migrant-worker-delivers-baby-on-road-walks-another-150-km-to-get-help/352658
Kumari, Shalinee and Susan Snow Wadley, under review. “The Aesthetics of Marriage: A Mithila Artist Ponders Marriage and Female Equality.” In P. Richman and D. Z=Szanton, eds. India’s Mithila Painting: The Work of Art.
Szanton, David and Malini Bakshi. 2007,Mithila Painting: The Evolution of an Art Form. San Francisco: Ethnic Arts Foundation.
Wadley, Susan S. 1977. “Women in the Hindu Tradition.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society: 3 (1) 113-125.
_____ 2014. “Likhiyā: Paintings Women’s Live in Rural Northern India.” In Susan S. Wadley, ed. South Asia in the World. NY: M.S. Sharpe, pp. 241-260.