Last week, the Radford University Art Museum opened a major exhibition titled The Garden of Raja Salhesh: Contemporary Dalit Art and Ancient Myths of Mithila, India, the first international exhibition devoted entirely to the Dalit art of Mithila.
For centuries, India’s Dalits (now numbering over 200 million) were considered by Hindus to be “achhut” (untouchables) – traditionally at birth they were assigned to occupations considered “unclean” or “polluting” (sweeping roads and toilets , handling human corpses, disposing of animal corpses, tanning leather, etc.) — and are considered incapable of culture or art.
As a professor emeritus of anthropology at Syracuse University specializing in India, I approached the Radford exhibition with an informed eye. After about five years of fieldwork in an Indian village, I organized an exhibition of Indian folk art (titled Beneath the Banyan Tree) for my university’s museum and traveled repeatedly to Mithila—where I spent weeks meeting with artists. But almost all of them were upper caste women who painted traditional images and/or innovative images of their personal concerns about social injustices (such as femicide, dowry-related bride burning, social marginalization and isolation). Even in 2011, when my fellow filmmaker Thula Goenka and I did video interviews with five artistes from Mithila, none were Dalits. In this we were hardly unique in our unwitting bias.
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But the Radford University Art Museum’s Rajah Salhesh Garden and its three associated satellite exhibitions fundamentally changed my views. Although two of the three parallel exhibitions also featured upper caste art, it was the Dalit paintings that surprised me the most.
For example, the centerpiece of the Raja Salhesh exhibition is a triptych by Naresh Paswan, a rising young Dalit artist (whose paintings are now also in a solo show at the Miller-Off-Main Street Gallery in Blacksburg).
This incredible work — meticulously depicting the history and associated rituals of the cultural hero Raja Salhesh (widely revered as a deity by the Dalits of Mithila) — was commissioned for this exhibition by RU Art Museum Guest Curator John H. Bowles.
In this triptych of twenty-one paintings on paper, Naresh shows – in astonishing detail – a Salhesh festival and various rituals, including the spiritual possession of Salhesh by a bhagat (shaman priest).
But what I found most fascinating is Naresh’s own explanation of the triptych’s central, highly detailed ritual setting. As translated by Kaushik Kumar Jha: “King Salhesh’s holy place – where he is worshiped – is not made of brick or stone, but an open space in the middle of the forest – where four banana trees form a kind of large natural marwa [ritual site].”
Through this and many other paintings in the exhibition, I realized that the Dalit art of Mithila is basically about nature and people’s attitude towards it. This contrasts with high caste Mithila art, which focused on deities and people’s relationships with them. (Until the 1980s, trees rarely appeared in upper-caste paintings.)
While upper caste artists typically use bright commercial paints, most Dalit artists prefer more natural, earthy colors (various greens, browns, muted yellows and oranges); one of their leading artists—the late Jamuna Devi (a member of the Chamar/tanner community)—often used diluted cow dung as primer and pigment—an innovation subsequently adopted by other Dalit artists (and even some upper caste artists).
Dalit paintings are full of elephants, horses, camels, tigers, monkeys, birds and insects. Deities often appear as small figures surrounded by concentric bands of plants and animals. Many paintings feature trees, both as the symbolic “tree of life” and in their more natural forms.
Dalit artists use tattoo motifs to depict condensed landscapes – such as a temple area under a pipal (sacred fig) or palm harvest scenes.
You can easily compare paintings by Dalit and upper caste artists by visiting the museum’s satellite exhibition titled ‘Mithila Medley’ (at the Floyd Art Centre).
Another satellite exhibition — at RU’s Tyler Gallery, titled “Martine Le Coz: A French Tribute to the Ancient Myths and Contemporary Artists of Mithila” — showcases their paintings alongside illustrations by one of France’s most treasured authors.
Although Le Coz was inducted into the Legion of Honor for her many publications, this is the first public exhibition of her original illustrations. These include eleven intimate portraits of Mithila artists and nineteen exquisite paintings – inspired by both Mithila paintings and Mughal miniatures – created to illustrate her recently translated novel The Mountain King, based on the mythology of Raja Salhesh.
I found these exhibitions to be extremely innovative and challenging – and heartily encourage anyone interested in art and/or India to take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity to explore the wonders of Mithala painting – as displayed throughout the New River Valley in four separate but related exhibitions.
Wadley, professor emeritus of anthropology at Syracuse University, went to India as a student in 1963 and began doctoral work in a village in Uttar Pradesh. She has previously written on rural social change, women’s rights, oral traditions and popular Hindus. In 2019, she co-curated an exhibition of Mithila art in Syracuse, New York.