Professors analyze changing Asian art

On Feb. 17, the Women’s Center sponsored a special presentation during College Hour called "Transformations in South Asian Folk Art." The event was hosted by the Ford-Maxwell Professor of South Asian Studies at Syracuse University, Susan S. Wadley. Her lecture was part of a series connected with the "Picture Scrolls From India: Bengali Narrative Paintings," which is currently on display in the Tyler Hall Art Gallery.

Wadley showed the audience a slide-show of various art from the Madhubani district in Nepal, India. Like most artwork around the world, Mithila Art has been adapted over the years to hold its place in society. Artists in this field learn to adapt their work to attract new kinds of markets.

She went on to explain that the themes and designs in Mithila art vary depending on class structure. Those people at the bottom, called untouchables, often create artwork that is less colorful and vibrant than the upper-class nobility. Furthermore, the upper-class artists often incorporate more traditional Hindu deities, while the untouchables depict less traditional gods and goddesses or focus on other subject matter.
In the past, much of the artwork in this style was done by lower-class women, who painted on mud walls. Brilliant colors and styles were used to promote fertility and prosperity. Years later, however, these paintings were adapted and sold off.

One thing that has remained consistent throughout the history of Mithila art is its social commentary, though some of the issues it reflects have changed, Wadley said. Today, the changing social climate has brought about a number of changes that artwork critiques. Though the literacy rate in India is still only around 50 percent, it has increased in recent years, and females are becoming more aware of the world around them, and thus more aware of social problems. The Mithila Art Institute in Madhubani has become a significant catalyst for the art and has produced many modern south Asian artists.

One major focus of some of the artists is the concept of arranged marriage in their society. A piece that Wadley showed during the presentation depicted the crime of "bride burning." For an arranged marriage, the family of the bride is expected to pay a large dowry to the male’s family, and if gifts are not presented to that same family, the bride is sometimes threatened with being burned to death, and some unfortunate ones actually are.

In an interview after the presentation, Wadley revealed that south Asian folk art is adapting much like our own society.

The most important thing to learn from this art, however, is, "how folklore adapts to keep itself alive, as it does in any society," she said. "Everyone has a lore."