Tag Archives: Asian Art

An Extraordinary Homecoming

Barbara Kipper’s promised gift of 464 objects from her remarkable collection of Asian jewelry and ritual objects to the new Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) in Bangalore, is exceptional in more ways than one. Besides being a gift, it’s the first time the Chicago art collector’s generosity has extended to an institution based in her collection’s geographic origin.

While most countries strive to repatriate precious cultural artifacts forcibly taken away during oppressive foreign regimes in their varied pasts, what is unusual in this instance is Kipper’s firm belief that these artifacts rightfully belong to the culture of their origin.

“I have had the pleasure of living with these wonderful pieces and sharing their energy, but they’ve never really been mine.”

Barbara Levy Kipper

“Yes, money was exchanged but that was on a superficial level,”  says Kipper, “but are they really mine? No, I’m a caretaker. Now they are going to four institutions that will honor them and care for them. It is a wonderful way to send them on to where they will be shown in proper exhibits, where they will be photographed, digitized and be available online and be used to educate.”

The donation to MAP, founded by philanthropist and art collector Abhishek Poddar in the heart of Bangalore, follows promised gifts to the Art Institute of Chicago, The Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. MAP will be South India’s first major private art museum to exhibit, interpret and preserve India’s rich artistic heritage through its collection.

Kipper is the former chairman of book distributor the Chas Levy Company and a Life Trustee of the Art Institute. As a young woman, she was fascinated by the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kublai Khan and with the Eastern inspired sets and costumes of the Ballet Ruse. “Something certainly reverberated -the colors – it was a world I certainly wasn’t living in. That ignited my imagination.”

On her first overland expedition by Land Rover from London to Afghanistan in 1968 with a group of 24 people, Kipper saw ‘visions’ which left indelible imprints on her memory. She remembers seeing a ‘marvelous rider on a white horse in pistachio robes and turban’, in the swirling dust of the high mountain passes in Afghanistan. She vividly recalls the tiles on front of the Friday mosque in Isfahan and watching a hundred camel caravanserai.

“Watching the camel train, I knew I was witness to an event that had been going on for thousands of years. At some intrinsic level I knew that it was going to end sooner rather than later.” The intoxicating sights, sounds and colors of those travels kindled her fascination for all things Asian and her passion for collecting.

Kipper built her collection over 30 years with her late husband David. They assembled a diverse and thoughtful set of artifacts that offer a panoramic view of the fast-disappearing nomadic and tribal cultures of Asia, as well as refined Tibetan objects and other regional jewelry.

The Barbara and David Kipper Collection now includes over 1300 objects that date from the 7th century to the 1950s, collected from countries bordering the Silk Road.

The unique pieces in the Kipper Collection are significant because they represent local cultures, which even at the time of collecting them were fast disappearing due to social, political and economic changes. Kipper appreciated how these cultures were at risk and wanted to help preserve them, her focus – to find objects of everyday use, each with their unique story to tell.

The collection includes artifacts that are symbols of portable wealth and the religious practices of the time. It includes gaus (portable shrines or protective talismans, which are filled with small statues, tsa tsas, deity images or any other holy, blessed object), women’s ornaments including necklaces, earrings and headdresses, and various ritualistic items.

“What bothers me the most is that these pieces that were so important to families and individuals with deep symbolic and spiritual meaning, become merely pretty objects to be viewed on a shelf,” explains Kipper. “What I trust MAP to do is give these pieces context and understand their relevance within a culture.”

Abhishek Poddar describes how the gift to MAP happened. “Barbara heard about what we were doing at MAP at a presentation I was making to a small group at The Art Institute of Chicago. She said she loved what we were doing, wanted to help and to gift a part of her collection to MAP. I was overjoyed!”

Kipper in turn was struck by Poddar’s belief and appreciation of Indian arts and culture. “I found his authenticity very moving and I respected his vision for MAP.” She invited him to see the collection in situ, and when he asked if there was anything that could go to MAP, Kipper said yes. “I was honored. I wanted to give it to an outstanding institution, even though at that point it was not off the ground yet.”

At MAP, Abhishek Poddar’s mission is to take art and culture to the heart of the community, and make it accessible to diverse audiences. Poddar has conceived a space for initiating ideas and conversations, enabling it to engage with audiences in multiple ways. MAP takes a 360-degree approach to accessibility, with a special focus on people with disabilities making it the most inclusive museum in the country.

Its flagship building will have galleries, an auditorium, an art and research library, an education center, specialized research services and a state-of- the-art conservation facility and a café.

MAP is custodian to an ambitious collection of over 18,000 works of art, predominantly from South Asia, and dating from the 10th century to the present. It will focus on six themes – Modern & Contemporary, Photography, Folk & Tribal, Popular Culture & Textiles, Craft & Design and Pre-Modern Art. A special highlight is its holding of historical and contemporary photography and popular culture, rarely seen in any Indian museum.

“So, you could have a Ravi Varma oleograph or a Bollywood poster next to a Chola bronze or a Tyeb Mehta painting,” says Poddar. The whole point has to do with the artifact’s artistic intent and content, not its value.

“We are trying to remove the distinction between high art and low art. We are putting it all on the same level. If we are going to cater to only the really valuable collections that other museums are showing, which cater to less than 1% of our population, how do we speak to the balance 99% unless we have something that interests them?”

The Poddar Family are prominent collectors of Indian art, and have donated approximately half of the objects currently owned to MAP’s collection. The rest of their family collection is on permanent loan to MAP and can be included in all exhibitions.

The absence of private museums in India with a focus on education, research, conservation and outreach, has worked significantly in MAP’s favor.

“People are looking at MAP as a space in which their collections will be looked after in an appropriate manner, along with the best conservation methods,” says Poddar, adding that, “When someone has collected with such joy and passion, then they are handing over their legacy. It becomes your responsibility to look after it going forward and it becomes an unending commitment.”

That philosophy has drawn the attention of other important collectors who are in the process of joining the MAP collection. The contributions include 73 manuscript paintings and drawings of religious and mythological subjects, animal studies, jewelry sketches and other manuscript illustrations, called The Traveler’s Collection.

Poddar says “We’ve received collections from other countries of Indian textiles and other artworks. I’m glad we’re attracting people, even those whom we don’t know.”

MAP will launch digitally with a week-long celebration from 5-11 December 2020, as each department opens on consecutive days. “By making the museum digital, we are expanding our reach significantly and hope to play the role of a catalyst. Unless we make it attractive to the younger generation, we are going to lose out on a lot.”

MAP is set to become a cutting edge Indian museum at the forefront of exceptional collections, curatorial, research and educational practices.

Kipper calls it, “A museum for the 21st century and beyond, created in the 21st century.”

As collectors like her come forward to donate their precious collections and restore cultural artifacts to the region of origin, gifts from ‘caretakers’ like Kipper are a meaningful sign of things to come.

Shonali Madapa is a brand designer and photographer who runs a design studio Lumos Design. She follows patterns of culture, nature, society and behavior through travel photography and writing.

Edited by Meera Kymal, the Contributing Editor at India Currents.

What is Mithila Art?

There is a distinct nip in the air as the calendar inches towards Christmas and the approaching winter break. After the eggnog has been consumed, gifts unwrapped and holiday visits checked off, there is still the matter of keeping hands and minds busy with indoor activities. Here is a great option for those moments when you hear the dreaded “I’m bored!

San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum is currently home to a wonderful exhibit featuring paintings from the Mithila region of India. Aptly titled ‘Painting is my Everything’ – the exhibit showcases wonderfully detailed, vivid representations created by some of the foremost of Mithila artists. This style, also known as Madhubani painting, has gained in popularity since the 1960s.  Rich in pattern and color, it is not only a feast for the eyes but also inspiring in its content.

Interspersed among the art on the walls, are short video interviews with the artists whose hands shape this rich legacy. The documentaries help put a face to names like Dulari Devi, Dr. Rani Jha and Shalinee Kumari;  women who have taken the art form, made it their own, and are ushering it into the contemporary world of today.

The Artists of Mithila

How is a work of art created? What happens at the moment of creation? How does an apparently everyday scene take on a distinct nuance and magic through the language of art? And how can such a creation shape the world around it?

Art and its expression go beyond stylistic representations and labels. For the artist the process of creating takes precedence over all else. Yes, there is the commercial aspect to the making and selling of work that can be a motivator. But if you ask artists why they create, they will tell you that they do it because they MUST. It is an extension of themselves. It is as much a part of their identity as the color of their eyes. Creating their art is their voice.

Especially when the expression is part of a larger identity – a community spirit. People in the Bihar region of northern India have been creating wall murals since times immemorial. Mythology has named this region ‘Mithila’ and its people continue to identify with it. The Indian epic Ramayana describes the beautiful art covering the walls of the kingdom of Mithila to celebrate the wedding of their Princess Sita with Rama, the Prince of Ayodhya.

Another important feature of this form of art is that traditionally women were its guardians. Female hands created the murals and adorned the walls of their homes to commemorate special occasions. It was up to the women of the villages to keep the art alive, safeguarding their distinct styles marked by caste differences, and passing it on, along with the folklore, mythology and customs inherent in its creation.

Over time, with the popularization of Mithila art, the responsibility of creating these wonderful murals is now being shared by both genders. And, the style is now showcased on paper, fabric and all manner of materials.

Mithila Art Institute

Founded in 2003 in Madhubani, Bihar, the Mithila Art Institute received initial funding from the estate of Raymond Owens and the Ethnic Arts Foundation. The institute’s focus is the to shape the next generation of Mithila artists. Teaching traditional conventions, imagery and techniques, the Institute’s curriculum also allows for personal exploration and stylistic variations. The Mithila Art Institute has successfully trained and launched artists since its inception. It is regarded as a major cultural institution in India. Several graduates have received national and international recognition and many have been featured in exhibitions, books and articles in both in India and across the world.

Dr. Rani Jha is a Master Painter and instructor at the Institute. Her own work often deals with women’s issues and stems from her personal life experiences. She is proud to represent and celebrate women in all aspects of life. In 2015, Rani Jha was a Visiting Artist at Syracuse University. “I am Mithila’s daughter”, she states proudly in her interview documentary.

Contemporary Nuances

Among the many decorative and mythological motifs at the Asian Art Museum exhibit, are some striking pieces with contemporary messages. In an age replete with social and political movements jostling for space on the world’s stage, these colorfully artistic voices seem to speak loudest of all!

Sita Devi was one of the earliest trailblazers of the Mithila art community. She was among the first artists to paint on paper. In 1976 she traveled to Washington D.C to participate in the Smithsonian’s annual Festival of American Folklife’s “Old Ways in the New World” demonstration program series. Included in the exhibit is one of her paintings which documents her visit. Iconic monuments like the Capitol Building, Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool and Arlington National Cemetery have been captured via the lens of her imagination in a painting titled ‘Monuments in Washington, D.C’.

Shalinee Kumari is one of the younger artists who is changing the tradition of Mithila art with her intensely personal narratives of self-expression. She draws from global subjects that also impact her life and community. Topics like gender-equality, women’s rights, terrorism and global warming come alive under her painstaking brush strokes. She was the first graduate of the Mithila Art Institute to have a solo exhibition at the Frey-Norris Gallery in San Francisco in 2009. Shalinee’s painting titled ‘Women’s Power’ is a celebration of the Devi and by extension of womanhood, in its representation of a three-headed, multi-armed goddess standing atop a lotus. In her hands she holds symbolic objects associated with various Hindu deities. The lower half of her body is depicted in the form of ‘Ardhanarishwara’ – a half man – half woman representation of the God Shiva. Beneath this form lie male corpses. It is a symbolic but succinct declaration of the innate power of women.

Gopal Saha is one of many male artists whose work has a distinctive quality to it. A tea stall owner, Gopal took up painting after an injury caused him to be physically challenged. He is known to depict scenes from everyday life around him. Gopal’s painting titled ‘Railway Station’ makes a notable impression. A family of four is shown at a ticket counter purchasing a fare to board a waiting train. Both the locomotive and the subjects are rendered in the stylized manner of the art form. At the same time, attention to details like the cap worn by the driver and guard, and mechanical elements of the train itself are not overlooked. Mr. Saha’s work is considered an important part of the history of Mithila art. 

Artist and teacher, Dulari Devis saga of personal transformation deserves mention. Living a life of servitude in the Ranti area of Bihar, Dulari was inspired by the work of artists in whose homes she served. She received training from Karpoori Devi, an established Master painter. Now, Dulari Devi is a herself Master Painter and Instructor at the Mithila Art Institute. She received the State of Bihar Award for Excellence in Art in 2013, and authored her award winning autobiography ‘Following My Paintbrush’, published by Tara Books in 2010.

Mithila artists often use their work to document life around them, both as it applies to them locally and on the larger world canvas. A wonderful depiction of current affairs is Dulari Devi’s painting documenting Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s campaign visit to Bihar leading up to the 2014 national election. Accompanied by his staff, he is seen flying in a helicopter. The artist has managed to show the helicopter via the lens of her imagination – adorned in traditional patterns and accompanied by a flock of birds flying above it’s stylized form. The gathering of rural womenfolk welcoming his arrival, speaks to the significant percentage of women who make up Bihar’s electorate.

Dulari, Shalinee, Rani and others like them have overcome significant economic and social hardships. Art, as their self-expression has given them legitimacy and a personal identity. Their journey is a testament to the place this art form has acquired in the world today.

Mithila’s children have joined their voices and hands to keep her traditions alive for the times to come.


Painting Is My Everything – Art from India’s Mithila region;  is currently exhibited at the Asian Art Museum.

The exhibit runs from Sept 7th – Dec 30th, 2018.

Asian Art Museum
200 Larkin St
San Francisco, CA 94102
Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.