Mani Shekar Singh

Arts Research and Documentation

Grant Period: Over two years

Mani Shekar Singh has a Master’s in Sociology from the Delhi School of Economics and an M. Phil. in Sociology from the University of Delhi.

Mani Shekhar Singh’s research into the Dalit painting of Mithila combines a variety of unusual perspectives on this celebrated ceremonial art form. By focusing on the execution and reception of these paintings within the domestic ritual space and their journey to the market as objects of art, Mani Shekar, supported by this grant, drew attention to the significance of Dalit paintings and thereby broadened the scope of what is commonly understood as Mithila painting.

The basis of the project was Mani Shekar’s view that Dalit paintings had not been given due importance in studies on Mithila paintings. His starting point was a 1949 essay by the art historian and bureaucrat W.G. Archer who documented different traditions of Maithil paintings including those by Dalits. His own Ph.D. thesis on Maithil painting, he says, touches upon the living tradition of wall painting among the Dalits and how it departs both compositionally and technically from the Brahman and Kayastha wall paintings.

Mani Shekar mapped the journey of Dalit paintings from “being a sacred diagram within domestic space to an object of art produced exclusively for the market.” Starting with the paintings that are produced within the domestic space and in association with various rituals, he explored the nature of such rituals and the way they affect the subject matter and iconography of the paintings. He then went on to look at the execution of the paintings, taking into account the way the pictorial surface is prepared prior to painting and the nature of colours and brushes used by the artists.

Mani Shekar also went beyond the merely symbolic value in these paintings.  He was interested in how Dalit artists organise the pictorial surface.  At the same time, he placed emphasis on sociological details concerning the context in which these paintings were made and viewed like the composition of the group that paints on a particular occasion, the way knowledge about the paintings is passed on, and the manner in which the diagrams and motifs are received and understood by their audiences within the ritual space.  Finally, he explored how Dalit paintings, as part of a living tradition, participate in the market and the museum, and the continuities and disjunction between ritual and commodity painting.

With a focus on ethnographic research into these paintings, Mani Shekar did an extended period of fieldwork in two sets of villages. This was complemented with research at more recently developed sites of Maithil painting like SEWA Mithila in Madhubani, and the Crafts Museum and Dilli Haat in Delhi. Looking at both traditional and non-traditional sites enabled him to explore the dynamic between paintings originating from both these sites, which raised “important questions of tradition, innovation and authenticity in folk art.”