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Art teacher shares his personal collection of Mithila art in his latest exhibition at the Benton

Kathryn Myers has made nearly two dozen trips over as many years to India, where her heart found Mithila’s art by accident in 1999, and where she found a second home when she wasn’t looking for one. necessarily one.

“When I first went to India I was already 40 and you think you’re old and you don’t think anything new is happening,” says the painting teacher at the School of Fine Arts. arts. “You do the same thing and there is a nice feeling of stability. But when I went to the Handicrafts and Handloom Museum in New Delhi and saw Mithila and other indigenous and tribal art forms, I felt like I was going to pass out, I been so touched by this work.

Kathryn Myers, professor of painting at the School of Fine Arts, talks about the importance of every element in this painting of Mithila by Nisha Jha Chhath, “The Incredible Festival of India.” Myers curated Tradition and Transformation: Mithila Art of India, the final exhibition at the William Benton Museum of Art. It runs until July 31. (Kimberly Phillips/UConn Photo)

She bought her first pieces at a craft fair where standard depictions of Hindu gods and goddesses were marketed primarily to tourists. Over the years, her collection grew and Myers says she just couldn’t satisfy the desire to see more.

She returned home after that first trip and studied the three main styles of Mithila art and learned the stories of deities, as well as the different castes in Hindu culture that determine some of the style differentiations of Mithila art. Later, she returned to India in the small town of Madhubani to observe the artists’ freehand technique of drawing in ink on paper and their process of starting with the creation of a border and working upwards. interior to the center.

She created the UConn class “Indian Art and Popular Culture: Independence to the Present” from scratch in 2005 and curated two exhibitions in 2004 and 2013 at the William Benton Museum of Art centering on Indian art.

Her third, “Tradition and Transformation: Mithila Art of India,” is exhibiting her collection of now 40 pieces of Mithila art at the Benton until July 31.

No one knows how long Mithila art has been around, says Myers, but most guesses point to at least 700 years. It originates in a part of India that is remote – five hours from the nearest town in the northeastern part of the country and in villages dotted with thatched roof huts and cinder block structures. There, women paint Mithila murals on the walls of their homes to celebrate weddings and other events.

British colonial officer William Archer is generally credited with raising awareness of Mithila art, having been in the area on a humanitarian mission following an earthquake in 1934 and finding the murals in the rubble of houses, she said. Years later, with the help of Indian craft agencies and non-governmental organizations, Mithila artists were encouraged to create works on paper to sell in tourist markets to earn a living and preserve the tradition. .

“No one outside of the immediate area had ever seen this artwork before,” Myers says of Archer’s find. “He was described as hidden from history.”

Today, in addition to continuing to depict images of Hindu deities, many Mithila artists also draw inspiration from current events.

"Krishna stealing the saris of the gopies" by Naresh Kumar Paswan.
“Krishna Stealing the Gopies’ Sarees” by Naresh Kumar Paswan (photo provided).

In the Benton exhibit, visitors can see Leela Devi’s ‘9-11’ painting, which depicts the Twin Towers and two planes, as well as Vinita Jha’s ‘Women’s Responsibilities During Covid’ and its masked figures performing household chores at home. .

But there are plenty of traditional paintings of agrarian life in the exhibition, with fish, trees and plants, as Myers says, many artists have become adept at fluctuating between styles once defined by caste and traditional and contemporary subjects.

“The Poor Girl and the Squirrel” by Arti Kumari tells the story of a young girl who falls in love with a squirrel and marries him. People ridicule her for this act, says Myers, the squirrel is killed and the girl burns herself at the funeral pyre, in a now forbidden practice called sati in which a widow would burn herself to ashes on her husband’s funeral pyre .

“Those are the traditions of certain places, and the art reflects that,” Myers says.

She says she likes Dulari Devi’s painting, “Krishna Stealing the Saris of the Gopis”, which shows the god Krishna playing the flute and bewitching the Gopis who fall in love despite his teenage prank of taking their clothes.

What is unusual about this work, says Myers, is that whereas in other pictorial traditions, women are often depicted naked – in various states of contortion as they try to cover their bodies – in these images. , only women’s legs are bare. She suggests it’s because Mithila’s art is so much about obsessively detailed patterns and without clothes, there’s nothing on bare skin to model.

“These themes have been painted over and over again by artists,” she says. “It always impresses me, that you can take an old theme or a deity that’s been painted thousands of times and find something new in it, find something to make it fresh.”

There are at least four paintings in the Benton exhibit that depict Krishna.

She also loves Dulari Devi’s “Marriage Preparations” and how it shows all the ceremonies leading up to a wedding, from the henna tattoos to the feast: “I love the density and joy of this one.”

The Benton exhibit, which was postponed during the pandemic, took advantage of the delay, Myers says.

Originally, she planned to showcase a variety of indigenous art, in addition to her personal collection of around 20 Mithila pieces. But that changed when David Szanton of the Ethnic Arts Foundation approached her to offer 20 more. The organization is closing after 42 years and distributing its collection to artists, historians and curators with the caveat that it be accessible to the public.

"Earthquake in Nepal" by Rani Jha.
“Earthquake in Nepal” by Rani Jha (contribution photo).

Myers says after the Benton exhibit, she plans to be part of the collection at the Floyd Art Center in Virginia for a co-curated exhibit on Mithila art, then back to Connecticut where she will be exhibited in 2023 at UConn AveryPoint.

But this may be Myers’ last gig at the Benton.

After three Fulbright fellowships in India in 2002, 2011 and 2020 and a video cataloging project including interviews with contemporary Mithila artists, Myers says she plans to retire at some point in the next two years and jokes saying she’ll get an RV and take the show on the road.

What is certain is that she plans to return to India next winter, where she has changed the course of her academic research and the direction of her own art.

This first trip to India for an artist residency in 1999 took her from the work she was doing on life-size Baroque imagery with a contemporary twist to small-scale watercolors of Indian architecture.

She says she “was so energized by the surroundings that I started painting what I saw. Before, it was figures and spaces, but after a while I realized that I was like a foreigner looking at Indians and their spaces.

“Over the years, I spent so much time there that I thought, ‘This is my home too,'” she continues, “so the characters disappeared, and it became a question of space and architecture and these interesting arrangements of buildings around me in my world.”

There will be three April events in conjunction with ‘Tradition and Transformation: Mithila Art of India’. A panel discussion, “Tradition and Transformation of Indigenous Arts in South Asia,” will take place at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 6 at the museum; an interactive workshop, “The Magic of Mithila’s Art,” will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 12, via Zoom; and an art discussion, “Changing Times, Changing Art: A Conversation,” will take place at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 13 at the Art Building.