Mithila Painting

Rani Jha: Feminist Perspectives in Mithila Art

This post is a collaborative effort between Rani Jha, Cheyenne Bsaies, and myself.  As I’m in Jersey City and Rani Jha is in Madhubani, it soon became clear that our e-mail exchanges for this post were not going smoothly.  We turned for help to Cheyenne Bsaies, a graduate student in Museum Studies at Syracuse University who was spending the summer teaching photography and computer skills at the Mithila Art Institute in Madhubani.  I would e-mail the questions, Rani Jha would discuss them with Cheyenne, and Cheyenne would send back a summary of the conversation.  As I hope you will agree, it worked beautifully.  My comments are in normal type while Rani Jha’s answers are in italics.     

imageTogether Tearing the Veil   22”x 30”  2011             Click here to enlarge.

The painting above, the struggle against centuries of purdah, the social system that essentially confines a woman to her home, encapsulates the painter Rani Jha’s concerns both in her life and in her art.  Born into a conservative Brahmin family where girls traditionally received little eduction, she fought against tradition, went to school, received an education and a few years ago earned her PhD at Darbhanga University with her thesis Women and Art in Mithila History.  She is also the first women in her family to work outside the home, earlier with an NGO and now as a Master Painter/Teacher at the Mithila Art Institute.  

As a painter, her work and passionate commitment come from what she saw and experienced while with the NGO at a government Short Stay Home.  These homes offer shelter to women abandoned by families or escaping abuse from intolerable family situations.  Rani Jha’s job was to record their stories, and the many horrific tales of lost lives and dreams that came to nothing compelled her to also record these situations in paint.  She not only wants to tell their stories but also hopes that her paintings may have some small effect in changing  the social conditions for  all Indian women.

Gazing at the Moon still represents the reality for most women in India says Rani Jha.   imageGazing a the Moon   22”x30”    2011                                   Click here to enlarge.

Though Indian society has begun the slow shift towards women’s rights and inclusion, most women still face a very restricted lifestyle. The woman in Gazing at the Moon has all the riches any person could want: fine clothes, a beautiful home and jewellery. However, this wealth mean little to her in the absence of freedom. From inside her gilded cage, she sees the moon, shining in a limitless sky, and desires the same.

Not only do centuries of social constraint stand in the way of women acquiring freedom but so do economic conditions.  Men are often forced to leave and look for work in other towns or even states.  

imageHusband Leaving     22”x30”  2010                                   Click here to enlarge.

Work migration is not a new problem, nor is it limited to the poorer states in India, such as Bihar. Whatever the cause, high unemployment leads to work migration. Although this used to be exclusively a lower caste issue, upper castes are now experiencing the same pressures created by under or unemployment. The wives of migrant workers in India face certain social constraints that add further complications to a difficult situation. While working with an NGO called ACTED, Rani Jha witnessed the fallout of work migration on the wives and families left behind. In this piece, the wife bids goodbye to her departing husband with the requisite pot of water in her hand. She prays that flowers will be at his feet, that no troubles will befall him while he is away. But there is no guarantee of his return. She may grow old waiting, and she will never be allowed to remarry.

One of the dangers faced by women in India comes even before they are born.  The abortion of female fetuses is all too common.  In Abortion Clinic (below) Rani Jha notes that the doctor is “more dangerous than a cobra”.  Here an abortion can be had for 5000 rupees (about $100) and young wives are often forced to abort female babies by their in-laws.   

imageAbortion Clinic    22”x30”    2010.                             Click here to enlarge.

In Female Infanticide (below)  the top two panels show the abortion of female fetuses that leads to a population imbalance of males to females.  In the lower panels, Rani Jha depicts the resulting competition for mates that leads to violence against women.

imageFemale Infanticide  22”x30”  2010.                            Click here to enlarge.

This painting is a follow up to the painting titled Abortion Clinic, and depicts the ripple effect of female infanticide in India. In 2006, an article appeared in a Delhi paper which told of the discovery of a half dozen female foetuses found in a dry well. After reading this article, Rani Jha responded by creating this tableau. In it, she describes the opportunities given to boys (shown on a ladder) and the oppression and obstacles faced by girls (represented by the cobra coiled beneath her). She goes on to demonstrate the long-term effects of gender imbalance on a society such as aggressive behaviour, human trafficking and rape. The implication of the lack of potential mates for so many men cannot be understated. It is a natural impulse for most people to desire sex, companionship and family. Subversion of these desires leads to abnormal behaviour.

In Changing Women  Rani Jha uses women’s dress to illustrate the change in societal norms over the last half century resulting in greater freedom for women.  

imageChanging Women   22”x30”      2011                                Click here to enlarge.

Marking the generational changes from 1940-2010, the piece Changing Women shows the easing of restrictions traditionally placed on Indian women. Moving from right to left, the traditional Indian woman is shown with her face veiled, surrounded by eight children, and wearing lots of jewellery. The next generation of women did not shroud their faces, though her hair is still mostly covered; she is also still heavily adorned, but only bore four children. In the next panel, the woman wears her sari over her shoulder and her hair in a bun; again, this generation produced fewer children. In the last panel, the contemporary Indian woman is not wearing sleeves, and her hair and face are uncovered. She carries a mobile, and can be seen out in the world. Also, she wears a wristwatch in the place of many bangles. This woman has only one child and, significantly, it is a girl. Gender selectivity is often a prominent social issue in Rani Jha’s work, and this piece is no exception.

With change however also come problems.  As young married couples seek their own space, both physically and emotionally, elder parents are forced from the home.

imageParents Forced from the Home   22”x30”    2012      Click here to enlarge.

This piece depicts the burgeoning plight of senior citizens in modern day India, who face the collapse of the traditional joint family model. Young couples, seeking what they believe is more freedom and space, are increasingly forcing out their elders from their homes. Due to a lack of retirement homes, many such seniors end up homeless. In the joint family model, the grandparents fulfil several roles, including providing care and companionship for their grandchildren. They teach them life lessons, and develop their creativity and morality through storytelling. Children raised this way are more apt to become well-adjusted and productive citizens. However, the lack of multi-generational influence erodes the values of the next generation. In her piece Parents Forced From Home, Rani Jha depicts an elderly couple being ejected from their son and daughter-in-law’s house. The retirement home is full, so they wind up on the streets. In the absence of the grandparents, the children develop bad habits like smoking and go unsupervised in their play.

We complete this post on the paintings of Rani Jha with Two Women which depicts a quiet and necessary moment away from the stress of daily life.

imageTwo Women   22”x30”     2011.                             Click here to enlarge.

Companionship is an essential part of a healthy life; the trust and intimacy found between two female friends is different between a man and wife. Sometimes, a confidante is needed: someone to listen and care without judgement or fear of gossip. Without this type of respite, humans may manifest all kinds of physical or psychological maladies.  In Two Women, the friends sit within a closed and quiet space, surrounded by vegetation, far from all other society. It is their space alone.

Rani Jha, Cheyenne Bsaies, and Peter Zirnis     Madhubani, India and Jersey City, NJ 


Mithila Art: A Group Exhibition at Tachair

If you missed the Mithila art exhibition at Tachair Bookshoppe in Jersey City  in June, this is your chance to visit it here.

imageGauri Devi   Krishna Kalliya   30"x 22" acrylic on handmade paper  2010.

A charming  rendering of the Krishna Kalliya story with the painting divided into three horizontal panels.  The sun and white mountains against a blue sky serve as the backdrop to Krishna subduing the great snake as the excited villagers watch in the center.                                      

imageBibha Das   Chait Festival    22”x 30”, acrylic on paper, 2010.  Click to enlarge.

This is a finely drawn work of the two day festival to the Sun god.  At the end of the first day, women with trays of offerings stand in the water facing the setting sun, and again, before dawn the next day, they repeat the ceremony to the rising sun.

imagePriyanshu        Rama, Sita and Lakshman in Exile   22”x 30”,  acrylic on handmade paper,  2011.  Click to enlarge. 

In Priyanshu’s idealized exile of Rama, Sita and Lakshman in the forest Rama with his bow sits next to Sita while Lakshman, a quiver over his shoulder, remains in the back .  The work is so delicately drawn it  appears almost like lace on paper.

imagePratik Prabhakar   Tiger   22”x 30”, acrylic on handmade paper, 2006. Click to enlarge.

In this early work by Pratik, the Tiger turns back to snarl at the snake while making  a prudent retreat.  Note the wonderfully decorated tree trunk with its aquatic animals from the ponds of Madhubani.  One visitor to the exhibition wondered if the snake was a Biblical reference -  a cross cultural interpretation of standard imagery.                                               

imagePinki Jha            Marriage Kohbar    22”x 30”, acrylic on paper, 2008.   Click to enlarge. 

Pinki’s talent to take a standard motif and make it seem fresh is clear here in her combining the auspicious fish and turtle images in the center of the lotus pond to create the customary female face that the lotus represents.

imageSudha Devi       Harvest      22”x 30”,  acrylic on handmade paper, 2011,  Click to enlarge. 

 Sudha Devi is part of the Ranti Village Women’s Cooperative which not only makes commercial products on order but also turns out some beautiful unique pieces. This work appears to show both the planting and the harvesting in the one painting.


Arti Kumari      Rama and Sita Welcome Hanuman  22”x 30”, acrylic on handmade paper, 2012.   Click to enlarge.

 A highly decorative and colorful painting from the Ramayana story - perhaps the moment when Rama has won the battle against Ravanna and sends Hanuman to fetch Sita.   

imageSwati Kashyap  Women Grinding Corn  22”x30”, acrylic on handmade paper  2010. Click to enlarge. 

A striking composition in black and white in which the women look like dancers on stage.  They grind corn by stepping on one end of a long pestle and then letting it drop into the mortar filled with corn.

imageRani Jha               Two Women     22”x 30”,  acrylic on handmade paper, 2011.   Click to enlarge.

Rani Jha’s paintings depict the daily life of women in the patriarchal society of Bihar.  Here two women have a quiet exchange away from the pressures of their everyday lives.                   

imageUrmila Devi    The Tree Goddess    30”x 22”  acrylic on paper   2011.  Click to enlarge.

Urmila Devi paints this work in the repetitive ‘tattoo’ style adopted by the early lower caste painters. As a child she enjoyed working in the fields with her mother and took special delight when the wind rustled the leaves in the trees.  Her mother told her that was the goddess of the tree singing and here Urmila Devi paints the goddess against the trunk of this Tree of Life.                                                                                                           

image Attributed to the late Lalita Devi of Jitwarpur but the various signatures on the back make this improbable.  Night Scene  30”x 22”, acrylic on paper, purchased 2012 in Jitwarpur.  Click to enlarge.

The painting, an adaption of the tattoo style, is representative of a motif popular among village  painters.  

imageAnonymous    Ardhanarishwara ( Shiva and his consort Parvati share one body),  no date, purchased 2011 in Madhubani.   30”x 22”, acrylic on paper.  Click to enlarge.

The sexual duality of the Shiva/Parvati figure reflects the feminine philosophical concept that the male (matter) is powerless without the female (energy), thus the great god Shiva is powerless without Parvati, his shakti (energy) . 

imageArti Kumari     Woman in the Role of Mother Nature   30”x 22”, acrylic on handmade paper 2011.  Click to enlarge.

Arti Kumari painted this piece to depict the importance of the feminine both in daily life and in the cosmos.  Despite the patriarchal and conservative nature of Bihar society there is a powerful undercurrent of feminism in the work of many of these artists. 

This was the exhibition at Tachair.  There was great interest in the exhibition and despite a rainy and stormy night for the opening we had  good attendance and all stayed late.  If you have any questions on the work feel free to contact me at 


The Tantric Gods of Krishnanand Jha

imageKrishnanand Jha (right) with the Mithila painter Amrita Jha at Arpana Caur Academy of Fine Arts and Literature in New Delhi, Feb1, 2013.

Krishnanand Jha’s art is like that of no other Mithila painter.  Perhaps that’s not surprising for someone who didn’t set out to be a painter.  When he couldn’t find a job after graduating college, he decided his diploma was worthless, tossed it into the Ganges and turned to painting.  

Krishnanad Jha’s grandfather was a Tantric priest and his father practiced Tantra.  Although he himself is somewhat ambiguous about his Tantra practices, much of his work consists of paintings of individual Tantric gods, and his family goddess Chinnmasta, a powerful shakti (feminine power) goddess, is worshipped according to Tantra rituals.

Here is an excellent example of his work from the 1980’s : the eighteen armed Anand Bhairav , 22”x30”,a fierce aspect of Shiva as Lord of Destruction. 


An absolutely stunning composition that exhibits Krishnanad Jha’s unique style at its best: the imposing figure of Bhairav is barely contained by the picture space.  Our attention immediately centers on the white angular faces, in profile, with their large Mithila eyes, and then the arms, branching out from the body, nine on each side, white like the faces, the whole forming a circle against the pastel green of the background. The effect created by these faces and wide open arms is captivating and dominates the rest of the painting decorated with repetetive designs and pastel coloring. 

Krishnanand Jha’s representation of gods and humans in these early 1980’s paintings is very particular: his figures are elongated, large, with much too small, almost stunted legs and feet, as in this painting where a child-like leg appears at the bottom of Bhairava’s robe.  Note also Bhairava’s profile, forehead through nose drawn as half a triangle, a characteristic of Krishnanand Jha representation of the face. 

Next, The Tantric Guru  ”22x30”.   A guru, not a god, but painted in the same style.    Krishnanand Jha said that while working on this painting he had in mind the Tantric gurus who guided him when he was younger.   


With upraised arms marked with the sign of Shiva, a Tantric guru of Kundalini yoga sits in lotus posture on a tiger skin, his begging bowl beside him. His upper torso with sacred thread and prayer beads is white, as are his face and arms while his robe decorated with small red flowers sets itself off from the dark repetitive markings of the tiger skin.  The tiger’s head and protruding tongue are at the bottom of the painting  while the tiger’s feet and claws, characteristically dwarfed as are the legs of the guru, extend into the four corners.  

The Tantric Goddess Dakini whose assistance is sought in Kundalini yoga.  22”x30”.


The goddess Dakini is always portrayed with three heads and four hands according to Krishnanand Jha.  With a lotus, a manuscript, and a  weapon in three of her hands while the fourth is empty,  the goddess stands on the prone figure of the great Lord Shiva.  We are in the world of shakti, female power, where it is the feminine not the masculine that is worshipped.  At the bottom of the painting, the coiled snake in the lotus tells us we are dealing with a Tantric goddess of Kundalini yoga.  The snake represents dormant psychic, spiritual energy, that can be awakend through meditation and other practices with the help of the goddess.  Once awakened, the energy uncoils and travels upward from the base of the spine through various spiritual and meditative stages untill it reaches the crown of the head to produce a mystical relevatory experience of self-realization, sometimes thought of as the union of the goddess with Shiva.  

In this painting Krishnanand Jha abandons his practice of leaving the figure white to stand out against the color and decoration of the rest of the painting.   Both goddess and god are important here so both are equally painted in color though Dakini with her blue color and position at the top of the painting is given prominence as befits the narrative.

The goddess Durga without her lion mount. 22”x30”.


This painting is quite different from the previous single figure paintings. The goddess Durga with colored dress, wrist bands and starred halo is here set against a white background. Two vines with black and white leaves, their thin parallel lines drawn with a very fine nib, descend from the top, one on each side.  The piece is striking with the eight armed goddess, weapon in each hand, filling the entire frame, yet it is also oddly peaceful perhaps because of the white background and simple decoration. 

The very fine lines of the leaves bring to mind a conversation with the artist Rambharos about his studies with Krihsnanand Jha.  He mentioned that the older artist was never satisfied with the line made by the nib pens he bought commercially but would always whittle the nibs down to achieve varied thicknesses of line. 

Another example of Krishnanand Jha’s  ’white background’ style - this time in a three figure Ramayana painting, Rama, Sita and Lakshmana  22”x30”. 


The force of this painting comes from the simple, pared down figures, and repetition, either of decorative elements or of the figure itself.  The faces are the same except for Sita’s nose ring.  And though both Rama and Lakshmana have halos and Sita doesn’t, her sari with its large curve over the top of her head serves the same visual purpose.  Allowing a slight difference for Sita’s feminine dress, their clothing is also similar.  The repetitive figures draw our attention to the decoration -  particularly the play of the various designs and colors on the wide border at the bottom of their dress.  There is enough difference for the eye to take enjoyment but not so much that we have to strain to make sense of what we are seeing.

The repetition also makes certain variations significant, even dramatic, as in the gesture by Sita, her arm thrown forward as if indicating the direction these travellers should take.

The Trimurti - Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva - responsible for the creation, maintenance and destruction of the world. 22”x30”


A very effective composition.  The three gods present an imposing scene as rulers of the universe.  The repetion of the simple geometric form despite differences in decoration, despite Brhahma’s four faces, creates a powerfull impression on the viewer.  As if onstage, curtain drawn back, these almost totem-like figures exhibit their power as they reveal themselves to their worshippers.  

I would like to finish with a painting that holds special meaning for Krishnanand Jha:  Chinnamasta and Baglamuki,  22”x30”.   


These are two of the ten Mahavidya (great wisdom) goddesses who are manifestations of the Great Goddess envisioned and worshipped as the Supreme Being of all existence.

Chinnamasta is shown holding her severed head in one hand while standing on a copulating couple.  Three streams of blood spout from her neck, one into her own mouth and the other two into the mouths of her two followers.  In simplest terms, Krishnanand Jha says she represents the destructive and generative principle of the world. The other goddess, Baglamuki, is the goddess who releases individuals from their spiritual misconceptions and also defeats their enemies.  She is shown pulling the tongue of a demon with one hand while preparing to crush him with the club she holds in the other.  The yantra diagram painted below each goddess is necessary for the proper execution of their worship ritual.

Chinnamasta is special for Krishnanand Jha.  She has been his family’s goddess for hundreds of years and he continues the tradition.  There is a special room in the house for her and  she is consulted before any important decision.  On those occasions Tantric prayers are said, a he-goat is sacrificed, and the entire family eats this sacred meal.  He says he often paints the Mahavidyas because these paintings bring him peace and help him deal with spiritual and mundane problems in his own life.  

Krishnanand Jha has suffered from Parkinson’s disease for over a decade and now no longer paints.  At the Ethnic Arts Foundation’s exhibition of Mithila Art: the New Generation in New Delhi this February, 2013 he was honored for his life’s work and there is a celebratory volume of his paintings in preparation.