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The power of women and art

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Daughters Are for Others, 2006, by Shalinee Kumari (Indian, b. 1985). Ink and colors on paper. Asian Art Museum, Museum purchase, 2018.7. © Shalinee Kumari. Photograph © Asian Art Museum.

As a child, Shalinee Kumari loved art. Her grandma would draw with rice flour on the mud floor of their house, aripan designs meant to purify and beautify. Kumari would watch and try to draw them as well. Later, she wanted to draw on paper, but she says with four daughters, her family didn’t have a lot of money for crayons and drawing paper. Her grandmother showed her how to get natural colors from leaves, and she drew on her math book until it fell apart.

In the rural northeast of India, Bihar state, where Kumari grew up, there is a tradition of Mithila painting, done on the floors and walls of the home. The style is characterized by bold, vivid colors and intricate designs, and for hundreds of years the subject matter has been Hindu gods and goddesses as well as icons of fertility and protection such as animals and flowers.

After a drought in the late 1960s economically devastated the region, Pupul Jayakar, director of the All India Handicrafts Board, came up with a plan for women to earn money from their art. She arranged for them to be trained in painting on paper so they could sell their work. Many of the women who participated in the program began to make money from their art, which led to them having a bigger voice, more independence and respect.

Painting Is My Everything, a show at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum through December 30, brings 17 of the artists’ work to the museum, including Kumari’s. The style is that of traditional Mithila painting, and some of the work still shows Hindu deities such as Krishna and Ganesha. But some paintings are of more contemporary subjects such as “Prime Minister Modi arriving in a village via helicopter,” and “Japanese Hippies.”

When she was a teenager, Kumari wanted to go to the Mithila Art Institute, a free training school with blind admissions, and learn that painting style. She says people told her she was too young, but she went anyway, riding the bus with strangers every day. Sometimes she was the recipient of unwanted contact from men, but when she spoke up and told the driver, he threw a man off the bus who had grabbed her.

In school, Kumari decided she could make paintings about whatever she wanted to.   

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Shalinee Kumari demonstrates her work during her recent visit to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Photo by Justin Yee/Asian Art Museum.

“I wanted to do something different, and I wanted to express whatever I want with new themes related to my life and mother’s life,” she said in an interview at the Asian Art Museum, where she had come for a couple weeks to do painting demonstrations and workshops. “I painted about women’s empowerment and global warming. Ganga Devi was my favorite artist and she painted trains, so I thought I can also paint about whatever I want. My teacher told me yes, you have a medium and modern tools, and you can paint your own art form.”

Kumari’s paintings included “Women Can Do Everything Now,” “Global Warming,” and “Too Often a Woman's Fate,” which were included in a solo show in San Francisco in 2009. Some people in her village thought she shouldn’t go to America alone, but they changed their minds when the show got positive attention in the media.

“They used to say it’s not possible, and tell my parents, How can you be responsible for your daughter? But my father told them, She needs her freedom, and I don’t want to create any struggle — it’s a proud thing in her life, and she’s very happy,” Kumari said. “Then the media wrote about me, and the same people who had criticized my parents for letting me go said it was good.”

Kumari wants her paintings to help create social change. And she’s positive art can do that because it happened in her life. When her mother needed brain surgery, Kumari wanted to use the money she had made from art to bring her mother to Hyderabad, where Kumari had moved with her husband, and pay for her treatment. But in her village, daughters aren’t the ones to help their parents. Kumari painted “Daughters Are for Others,” which now hangs in the show at the Asian. She says the painting helped convince her father-in-law and husband to let her pay for her mom’s treatment.

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Women's Power, 2017, by Shalinee Kumari (Indian, b. 1985). Ink and colors on paper. Asian Art Museum, Museum purchase, Mortimer-Harvey Fund, 2018.8. © Shalinee Kumari. Photograph © Asian Art Museum.

What Kumari is doing is helping to change ideas about a woman’s place, says Qamar Adamjee, the curator of the show.

“When she went back to the village after her mother’s brain surgery went well, other mothers were telling their daughters, ‘Be like Shalinee,’ and ‘You don’t need sons if you have a daughter like Shalinee,’” Adamjee said. 

Along with bringing them money, Adamjee says painting can bring women more say in their lives when they can buy their own house, add to their families’ farmland, or send their daughters to school.

“It’s a potent and powerful way to change what they and their families can do and get,” she said. “Education for women in the area has become greater as women are starting to say, ‘I can pay for my daughter’s education.’”

Adamjee says she appreciates Kumari’s passion for equity for women and her commitment to changing how people think. But beyond passion, Kumari has talent, Adamjee says, with a command over her materials and medium.

“She’s a voice coming from a small village in the middle of nowhere, and I admire her courage and her articulate expression,” she said. “More than anything else, I like the tension in her paintings. They’re beautiful and finely done, but there’s layers of content, so you go back and forth between the aesthetic visual pleasure and her skill and you start paying attention to what they’re about. They’re not just eye candy.”

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