“This is a revised version of the original draft of the article review. We thank our readers for spurring the improvement.”
Dr. Carolyn Henning Brown, a scholar from California State University, Chico was funded by the National Endowment of Humanities in 1984 to study the Mithila art. Her study titled “Contested Meanings: Tantra and the Poetics of Mithila Art” was published in 1996 by “American Ethnologist”.
In her article, she quotes one of her Maithil consultants saying,”…foreigners go away and write whatever they want about us…”. If I was him, my reaction would have dittoed his, having looked at the descriptions of earlier studies in this paper. Henning does a great job of providing a review of earlier interpretations of the symbolism of Mithila art. A lot of them could also be categorized as ‘severe mis-interpretations’.
In general, the awareness about Mithila art is dangerously low among the maithil ‘intelligentia’. Moreover, as the old saying goes “ghar ki murgi…” (no one cares about domestic preciousness). Moreover, the ‘progressive’ Maithil society would find it trendier to talk about Picassos and Van Goghs than what the rural ladies in the villages of Mithila are doing. That leaves sufficient room for western researchers to grab the opportunity. Some, like Dr. Brown, adopt a more careful approach while others do “what ever they want” in interpreting the art.
For those Maithil who are less educated about their own culture, Mithila art is a matter of family traditions at the very least. The art is almost owned by ladies of the house. The specification of ‘parichaya’ by ‘panjikars’ as a documentation of ‘patri-lineage’ is a horribly flawed mis-specification. In fact, parichaya reflects as much of matri-lineage as it does of patrilineage. Moreover, this art is a rather unifying factor in Maithil villages. I see no reason why studies on Maithil art should be overwhelmed by caste and gender based interpretations. Also, what, after all, motivated researchers to find a “Tantrik” angle to this art form? Some other interpretations are equally bizarre. In one of the studies the vertical element in Kohvar has been compared to “phallus” congruent with Freudian theories. Dr. Brown questions such interpretations. She is also critical of W. G. Archer, the subdivisional British officer (1933-34) for his ‘blunt’ and ‘simple motifs’. Was not he the Christopher Columbus of Maithil art? Dr. Brown further describes the depiction of various animal forms in a Kayastha-style “Kohbar” painting which have been compared to “horror vacui” (an art form, literally meaning ‘fear of empty space’). Such interpretations, seems to ignore the aesthetics of the colorful patterns, content-richness and the harmony of geometrical shapes.
In all, her work is a bold one. While several contemporaries comfortably based their hypotheses on earlier studies (some of which have been criticized for mis-interpretations), she takes an independent, objective look. The article is, of course worth a read.
Here is the citation:
Brown, Carolyn Henning, “Contested Meanings: Tantra and the Poetics of Mithila Art,” American Ethnologist 23, 4 (November 1996), 717-37.
Also available at: http://freeuniversity-gh.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Heinz-Tantra-and-the-Poetics-of-Mithila-Art.pdf