On the ground in India from 1977 to 2000, the Ethnic Arts Foundation consisted largely of one person, the American anthropologist Raymond Owens. After completing his doctoral studies and teaching at the University of Texas, in late 1976 Owens went to India on a Fulbright Fellowship to conduct research on flood control and irrigation issues. The Indian states of Bihar and Bengal were especially vulnerable to floods, and Owens decided to conduct his research in the Mithila region of Bihar that historically extended into Nepal. At the time he was unaware of the Mithila painting tradition. However, on reaching the town and district of Madhubani he was completely entranced by the beauty and vitality of the paintings he saw by the early masters of painting on paper: Sita Devi, Ganga Devi, Jagadamba Devi, Jumuna Devi, and others.
At the same time he was deeply troubled by the exploitation of the artists by Delhi-based dealers demanding forty or fifty paintings, often repetitive in style and design to suit urban market demands, and who only offered to pay three to five rupees per painting. The painters and Owens recognized that this would destroy the creativity of the artists and assure the rapid decline of the tradition. Fortunately, just before his arrival in Madhubani, Owens had heard the famous anthropologist, M.N. Srinivas, lecture on how anthroplogists should not just study villages, but also be of use to them.
Taking Srinivas' words to heart, he abandoned his water research and began working with numerous painters in the nearby villages of Jitwarpur and Ranti. There, he encouraged the artists to paint subjects they really cared about, to produce their best work, and offered to pay them fifty to seventy-five rupees for the paintings. Owens returned to the US in 1977 with 35 of those paintings. And together with several friends who were equally entranced by them, they founded the Ethnic Arts Foundation (EAF) in 1980. These key friends were Joseph Elder, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Parmeshwar Jha, an economist at Rutgers University and originally from Madhubani, and David Szanton, an anthropologist at the Social Science Research Council, in New York City and later at the University of California, Berkeley.
Since then the EAF has mounted some 50 exhibitions and sales of Mithila paintings, the proceeds from which have gone as second payments to the artists. The goal is simple: to make producing aesthetically powerful paintings an economically viable option for the artists. Thus it was a terrible shock when Owens suddenly passed away in 2000. The painters were dismayed at having lost a constant source of support and motivation. And his friends in the US thought it would be the end of the Ethnic Arts Foundation.
However, when in late 2002 it was learned that Owens had left a bequest in his will to continue what he had been doing, Elder, Jha, and Szanton traveled to Madhubani to consult with the painters about the current situation. They quickly agreed to continue doing what Owens had pioneered. And on being told that few young women were still interested in learning to paint from their mothers, they proposed using Owens' funds to establish a free art school in Madhubani in the hope of encouraging and training new generations of Mithila painters. With the artists' agreement, in February 2003 the MAI opened its doors for talented applicants who wished to learn their historic tradition and to produce original paintings on subjects close to their hearts.
Co-Founder of the Mithila Art Institute, along with David Szanton and Joseph Elder, Parmeshwar Jha is a retired professor of economics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Born and raised in Madhubani, he became engaged with the art and artists and Raymond Owens in 1991 and in innumerable ways has supported the artists, and the Institute, and helped the EAF to mount exhibitions to promote the art in the US, India, Europe, and South Africa.
Kaushik Kumar Jha has been the Chief Administrator and General Manager of Mithila Art Institute since its founding in 2003. He oversees the day-to-day operation of the school including class and events scheduling, student registration, personnel staffing, accounting and payroll, and the maintenance of the physical plant. Importantly, as fine painter himself, Kaushik also acts as an academic adviser to coordinate tutoring opportunities and help students plan for their future career while they are enrolled at the MAI.
Dulari Devi is a Master Painter and Instructor at the Mithila Art Institute. A resident of Ranti, she received the State of Bihar Award for Excellence in Art in 2013, and authored the first autobiography by a Mithila painter, the award winning, 'Following My Paintbrush,' Tara books, 2010. She learned to paint from Karpoori Devi one of the early Masters. She is now in great demand for her murals, closely observed village scenes, and paintings of Ganesh and Durga.
Rani Jha is a Master Painter and Instructor at the Mithila Art Institute, and lives in Madhubani. A PhD in Mithila Studies from Darbhanga University, she wrote her dissertation on the role of Women in Mithila’s History, Society and Culture. An ardent feminist, she has worked for women’s organizations and a French environmental NGO, and in 2014 spent 3 weeks as a Visiting Artist and Workshop Leader during a major exhibition of Mithila paintings at Syracuse University. Her daughter, Monalisa, is also a fine artist.
Anamika Kumari is from nearby Rampatti village and finished her bachelor's degree at Lalit Narayan Mithila University, in Darbhanga. After two years at the Institute to learn Mithila painting, at only 23, thanks to the quality and variety of her paintings, she was hired as Teaching Assistant. Her favourite subjects are Radha/Krishna and Global Warming. She has sold many paintings in India and abroad.
A social anthropologist, in 1976 Owens intended to research water issues in Bihar but on seeing the stunning paintings and economic problems of the Mithila painters he shifted his focus and during multiple extended visits to Madhubani he developed an array of means to encourage the artists, and make painting economically viable. Funds in his will enabled the Ethnic Arts Foundation to establish the Mithila Art Institute in Madhubani and thus assure the training and creativity of future generations of Mithila artists.
The Doyen of Mithila Painting, Godaveri Dutta, lives in Ranti Village, is on the Board of Directors of the Mithila Art Institute, and is one of the great Masters of Mithila Painting. Her deep knowledge of the tradition, her willingness to teach others, and her extraordinarily fine, detailed, and often extremely large paintings of ritual objects and classical images in the Hindu tradition have led to numerous national and state awards. Her paintings have been exhibited in Europe, and she has at least nine extended residences at the Mithila Museum and Studio in Japan.
A co-founder of the EAF and the Mithila Art Institute, and a professor of sociology, languages and cultures of Asia, he has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1961. One of the leading scholars on South Asia in the USA, he has produced 25 documentary films on the region including two films on the Mithila painters. Though retired from the University in 2014, among other commitments, he continues to be actively involved in the EAF and the Mithila Art Institute.
She is a filmmaker, author, and human rights activist, and currently teaches film and multimedia production. She has created award winning documentaries for Public Television in the US, and recently produced "Likhiya: Writing Stories With Mithila Art," a series of short profiles of five Mithila artists: Rani Jha, Dulari Devi, Rambharos Jha, Amrita Jha, and Shalinee Kumari, as well as a short film on a Day in the Life of the Mithila Art Institute.
Manish Jha is founder and Chairman of Silvermine Group, an E-commerce company with offices in Los Angeles and Bangalore. Previously, Manish held senior positions in both large and startup companies in the US, including ESPN, the National Football League, Vantrix, SkyWeaver and Tremor Video. He has been recognized as an industry leader by prominent media industry publications such as The Hollywood Reporter, CableFax and Sports Business Journal. For the Mithila Art Institute, Manish has organized a collaborative effort between the Institute staff, Board of Directors and Advisors and volunteers to raise funds and to enhance the Institute's digital presence.
A painter, novelist, writer, and poet, she recently received the French Legion of Honor for her extraordinary artistic career. She has published one book on the senior painters, a second book on the Institute's teachers and students, and is now starting a third book on Raja Salhesh, the culture hero of the Paswans, one of the major painting communities. A frequent visitor to Madhubani she is an ardent admirer of Mithila art, donated her own paintings to support the Institute, and has curated numerous Mithila painting exhibitions in France.
Kathryn Myers is an artist and professor of painting at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. Most of her paintings, videos, and curatorial projects have been inspired by her extended engagement with India. On her website, Regarding India, she has mounted 23 video–interviews with major Indian artists, including the master Mithila painter Santosh Kumar Das. She will soon be adding a unique set of videos on a three generation family of artists: Urmila Devi, her son, Shravan, and grand daughter, Abhilasha residing in Jitwarpur village.
Lina Vincent Sunish is a Goa-based artist, art historian critic, and curator. She is highly regarded as a wide ranging innovative arts professional, researcher, and designer of public art programming. She writes for Art & Deal (Delhi) and Nigaah Arts and Culture (Karachi/UAE). She is a curator with the Artist Pension Trust (APT Global), and worked on the Kochi Muziris Students Biennale (2014-15). Currently she is curatorial associate on the 'Medicine Corner' India project, and the Museum of Goa (MOG).
David Szanton is a social anthropologist with a long standing interest in Art and Society. A co-founder of the Ethnic Arts Foundation, and its President since 2002, he has published extensively in India on Mithila painting, curated many exhibitions, and helped found the Mithila Art Institute in an effort to gain recognition and appreciation for the painting tradition, and art and life sustaining income for the artists in rural Bihar.
Professor of Anthropology, Syracuse University, an invaluable advisor to the Institute, she is a senior scholar of language, culture and society in India and has published widely on folk arts, oral traditions and gender issues. She has curated Mithila painting exhibitions, run workshops on gender, art, and family at the Institute, helped build a major collection of Mithila paintings at Syracuse University, and hosted Rani Jha at the university in 2014.
Born in Latvia and raised in Brooklyn, Zirnis was educated at New York University and the International Center for Photography. Teacher, computer programmer, photographer, and curator, his interest in Mithila Art began with the purchase of some vibrant, energetic paintings in New Delhi some years ago. He makes frequent visits to Madhubani and the Institute, advises painters, curates exhibitions, produces a blog on the painters, and assists with the Institute's IT issues.
As the Mithila Art Institute's first instructor and Director, the master artist, Santosh Kumar Das (BFA MS University Of Baroda), designed the institute's curriculum along with Parmeshwar Jha, President of the Institute, and the Institute's Board of Directors composed of local educators and senior artists from different castes and communities working in the several Mithila styles. From the beginning all the Instructors have been leading Mithila artists.
First year students do not receive stipends as they are expected to be motivated to learn to paint full time, for the love of the art, not for immediate financial considerations. Nevertheless, as many students must travel daily some distance between their homes and the Institute, fares are expensive, and many could not afford it, they are reimbursed for their daily travel costs.
Pammi Kumari Mithila Art Institute student 2016 The first six months focuses on control of materials, figure drawing, Maithil culture and command of the traditional iconography. In the last six months, students are free to paint traditional or contemporary subjects. Most do both.
The Institute's curriculum focuses on classic Maithil aesthetics, care of execution, and on encouraging students to think of themselves as artists. The goal is to develop the students' skills and to use the distinctive Mithila aesthetics and iconography to create paintings that are rooted in the tradition but that also express the artist's interests, experiences, and concerns.
The students are asked to write brief descriptions of their paintings in Hindi or English
Rani Jha (with bangles) discussing student work, Mithila Art Institute 2016. on the back of their work to facilitate discussions with visitors and potential buyers. They are also encouraged to visit local cultural sites, meet with established artists, and participate in the Institute's professionalization workshops. Run by visiting artists, these teach the use cameras and computers, and how to document one's work, improve presentation skills, and combine art and family life.
The Institute has been extremely successful in breathing new energy and ideas into Mithila painting as an ancient, but new-found and growing alternative art form. Many of the Institute’s graduates have returned to their communities and begun teaching Mithila painting in local schools or small workshops. Graduates and older established painters are engaging and stimulating each other with both old and new ideas. Wall paintings and murals are coming back. Several of the graduates have moved to major urban centers and are establishing themselves as artists and teachers working in this distinctive alternative Indian aesthetic tradition. The Institute actively facilitates this reawakening of the tradition by giving the most talented artists a global platform through its exhibitions in India, Europe and the USA. By returning 70% of sales to the painters the Institute is providing the economic incentive for talented young artists to draw on their inherited culture, join the growing community of artists and produce their best work.