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Tuesday, September 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 44.0° F  Overcast
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Chazen Museum's Mithila Painting shows how adaptable a traditional Indian art form can be
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Mithila Painting: Bold colors dominate.
Credit:Chazen Museum of Art

It's been a strong year of exhibitions for the UW's Chazen Museum of Art, and there is a little time left to catch one of its most intriguing and unexpected offerings. Mithila Painting: The Evolution of an Art Form (through Dec. 1) features a style of painting that's unfamiliar to many. But even if it's new to you, you'll quickly be drawn in by intricate, stylized works with themes ranging from Hindu deities to contemporary social and political issues.

The name Mithila refers to an ancient cultural region of eastern India, most of which falls within the state of Bihar. For centuries, women in the region created wall and floor paintings in their homes. But in the late 20th century, women were encouraged to paint on paper so their art could become a source of family income. And now, through a free art school that has been operating for the last decade, women (and some men) continue to receive training in this art style, learning its conventions but also adapting it for personal expression and new subject matter.

The Chazen's exhibition of more than 40 paintings is a stunning example of the adaptability and beauty of a traditional art form. While it's easy to see a shared aesthetic among the paintings, one can notice flexibility as well. Near the entrance to the galleries, paintings depict Hindu gods and goddesses like Ganesha, Shiva and Kali. Bold colors dominate: red, marigold yellow, orange, hot pink, deep purple. The artists take a flat, resolutely 2D approach, avoiding realistic perspective. Instead, the focus is on line, color and filling the entire picture space.

Other works on view narrow their color palette and focus on delicate lines and patterns (while still filling the entire sheet of paper). Abha Das' 2003 The Lotus Pond is hypnotically beautiful, presenting a geometric array of blossoms, fish, insects and snails within an elaborate border. In this case, the image's impact is intensified by its limited color range of black, orangey red, and gold.

While deities, animals and nature, and traditional marriage paintings make up a good portion of the show, there are also works depicting difficult subjects like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the devastating 2004 tsunami, HIV/AIDS, and bride burning. One powerful painting, done by an artist who was 17 at the time, shows the evolution of a marriage in six panels, from preparations for the ceremony to the bride's killing by her dissatisfied husband and mother-in-law.

In this varied show, Mithila painting demonstrates how economic empowerment can meet cultural expression. The results -- highly stylized, detailed and visually appealing -- are well worth a look.

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