Artist not known, Mithila Region
30 in. X 22 in.
Anonymous gift, 1992.490
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.
About the Artist
Mithila paintings are traditionally made by women of the Mithila region, an ancient cultural region that sits between the lower ranges of the Himalayas and the Ganges River, covering areas of both India and Nepal. This art is also sometimes known as Madhubani art. Madhubani is an Indian town in the Mithila region. Mithila women are trained in painting as children. Once they start their own families, they teach their daughters to paint as well, passing the tradition from one generation of women to the next. The paintings mark a life transition and pay service to their gods. Traditionally, these images were painted onto walls and floors, and all of the women in the family would join in. Due to famines and economic pressures in the 1960s, women were encouraged to transfer their paintings from walls to paper to be sold. The painting in the Denver Art Museum collection was created on paper. While the paintings on paper do not hold the same religious purity and power as those on walls, they do help maintain an indigenous tradition. Both the Indian and Nepali governments have been encouraging art as a means of livelihood and expression for the people of the Mithila region. Men even began to create paintings on paper when they learned how much they fetched.
What Inspired It
The majority of Mithila paintings portray one or more gods, and illustrate religious epics and common beliefs among the people of Mithila. They depict legends to which the folk turn to pray in their daily ritual. A painting became a sacred space that the god could inhabit briefly, after which the image could be stepped on or painted over for the next painting. This particular painting portrays the monkey-god Hanuman, who was the son of the wind god. Because air sustains all living beings, he was also called “Pranadeva,” or “God of Life.” Hanuman is a central figure in the great Hindu epic, the Ramayana. One well-known story of Hanuman tells of how he helped Rama, one of the most popular Hindu deities, recover his wife from a demon. In his devotion to Rama, Hanuman is upheld as a model for human devotion to the gods. His image reminds the viewer to humbly and devotedly serve god.
Distinct lines are used to outline colored forms and create abstract patterns that fill the background. Crosshatch lines cross over one another forming a pattern that looks like a grid. Curvilinear lines are smooth and round, bending in all different directions. Parallel lines all run in the same direction, never crossing each other.
Artists use watercolors that are usually made from commercially available colored powders. Lines are used to fill many of the spaces where watercolor is not used.
The background is filled with flowers and abstract patterns that are painted in bright colors. Every available space is filled so that demons can’t find a space to hide within the painting.
Hanuman’s cloak is open and we can see that the inside is decorated with a pattern composed of small flowers.
Patterns are created by repeating a line, shape, or color over and over again.
Hanuman’s legs are shown in profile and his chest is shown from the front. Mithila painters often position the figures in this way so that the viewer is able to see the body from more than one vantage point.
During one of his heroic exploits, Hanuman took a trip to the Himalayas and carried back an entire mountain of medicinal herbs to restore Rama's wounded army. It is likely that the object he carries in this painting is the mountain of herbs.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- The artists who created this work filled every available space with patterns. Have students outline their hand and fill the space within and around the hand with contrasting patterns (i.e. geometric shapes outside, organic/natural shapes inside). Make sure every empty space is filled with a pattern.
- Redesign elements of Hanuman’s costume. Trace the shape of his cloak and hat and fill them with new designs or colors. Have students cut out their cloak and hat and paste them on top of the image of Hanuman.
- Have students make a list of five nouns based on what they see in the painting. Add an adjective to each noun. Use each adjective-noun pair to form a simple poem.
- Read stories about Hanuman: Life of Hanuman, Sri Hanuman, KidsGen: Story of Hanuman) and look for all the ways in which he helped others. Write a letter to Hanuman asking him for help. Think about the problems that he helped with in the stories, and the strengths that he demonstrated in each situation.