Mani Shekhar Singh (Delhi): “Picturing Law, Violence and Justice in Maithil Art in Times of Globalization”


"In this presentation, I make a modest attempt at examining the ways in which justice in visualized or rather finds its voice, as it were, in pictorial language deployed by artists from the Mithila region of India. Although traditionally a domestic-ritual wall art form, since the late 1960s, Maithil artists have also painted on portable surfaces (like paper) depicting themes related to dowry deaths, the war on terror, communal violence, murder and corruption. These pictorial renderings undoubtedly demonstrate an engagement with issues of violence, law and justice. However, the existing literature on the subject has seldom scrutinised such pictorial representations of violence and justice, which belong to the "folk" or vernacular cultural expressions. Taking examples from paintings of the younger generation of women artists, I will explore how justice is pictured in their artwork, especially foregrounding issues related to dowry violence. In many ways, for these young painters, the motivation and urgency to depict themes related to dowry (and more generally violence against women) is intimately tied to their biographies and their life-worlds. Further, I will also analyze a series of compositions depicting the violence that resulted in loss of life and property of thousands of Muslim families residing in the Gujarat province of India in 2002. Although primarily based on the "global flows" of images and reportage, the Gujarat Series of Santosh Kumar Das, a young Maithil artist, resists the "eye-witness principle" so essential to the working of the "mediascape" or in the making of history painting. In these two sets of paintings, the artists narrate their painterly tales of violence and justice by temporalizing the different sections of the picture field in what are sometimes extremely complex and sophisticated techniques. Even though the "micro-themes" in these paintings mostly derive from real life stories and events, they are often placed within a mixture of other time frames. In the process constructing a sort of montage that has the potentiality of generating a semantic charge, which neither section of the image-field taken in isolation possesses. Taking recourse to Hindu mythology and ritual iconography these paintings create alternative formulations around motifs and icons to mount a powerful critique of the violence produced, and indeed celebrated in the name of tradition."

Dr. Mani Shekhar Singh

Curriculum Vitae

Mani Shekhar Singh studied Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi, obtaining his doctorate degree with a thesis entitled "Folk Art, Identity and Performance: A Sociological Study of Maithil Painting". Next to teaching obligations at the University of Delhi, he taught, inter alia, at the New School for Social Research in New Yorkand was Directeurd'EtudesAssocié at the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme (MSH) in Paris. Since November 2012, Dr. Mani Shekhar Singh is Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Center for Advanced Study in the Humanities "Law as Culture". During his fellowship, he was appointed Associate Professor and Executive Director at the Centre for Law and Humanities at the Jindal Global Law School (O.P. Jindal Global University in Sonipat, India) and will assume the position as of August 2013.

Selected Publications

  • "Making Claims to Tradition: Poetics and Politics in the Works of Young Maithil Painters", in: Roma Chatterji (Ed.): Wording the World: Veena Das and her Interlocutors, Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press (forthcoming).
  • Religious Iconography, Pictorial Convention, and Personal Trait: Composing Paintings in Mithila, in: Alexander Henn, Klaus-Peter Koepping (Eds.): Ritual in an Unstable World: Contingency, Hybridity, Embodiment, Frankfurt: Peter Lang 2007.
  • Religious Iconography, Violence, and Making of a Series, in: Domains 3, 2007, 41-68.
  • Folk Art, Identity and Performance: A Sociological Study of Maithil Painting. Diss., Delhi 1999.