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Editorial: History-making exhibition series brings art from India to Southwest Virginia

"Weeping Mother Earth Prays to the Sun God to Spare the Earth" by Shalinee Kumari

“Weeping Mother Earth Prays to the Sun God to Spare the Earth,” a 2009 work in acrylic and ink on paper by Shalinee Kumari, an artist born in the Mithila region of India. The art addresses the climate crisis by depicting the Hindu Earth Goddess Bhudevi’s desperate plea as her world burns. The powerful piece is part of the “Mithila Medley” exhibition at Floyd Center for the Arts, itself a part of a larger series of history-making shows throughout the New River Valley showcasing art and artists from India.

Towering tongues of fire wrap the broiling Earth.

A female figure rises into the heavens from the flames, crying blood-red tears, making a beseeching gesture at a male figure swathed in hotter flames, representative of the sun.

Unmistakably addressing global warming and the climate crisis, this powerful artwork by Shalinee Kumari, “Weeping Mother Earth Prays to the Sun God to Spare the Earth,” uses elements of an ancient Indian painting tradition and religious imagery. Specifically, in this instance Kamari uses depictions of Hindu deities, Bhudevi, the Earth goddess, and Surya, the Sun god, to address an urgent environmental issue.

Kumari teaches art at the Indian Institute of Technology in Hyderabad, India, but at the moment her “Weeping Mother Earth” hangs in the Floyd Center for the Arts.

She grew up in the Mithila region of north India, as did all the other artists collected in “Mithila Medley: Contemporary Arts from an Ancient Culture in North India.”

Other artists in the show, also from the Mithila region, similarly blend centuries-old styles of drawing and representation with modern themes and scenes to startling and arresting affect.

One such piece is Naresh Paswan’s “Covid,” in which the coronavirus glares balefully at the viewer from the center of the art like a vengeful demon, surrounded by scenes in hospitals, airports, trains and homes.

Another is Vinita Jha’s “The Responsibilities of Women During Covid-19,” which unfolds stories told in sequential art style (the fancy term for comics) of two women. One woman, from a rural family, starts a business making and selling masks and hand sanitizer to make up for the loss of her husband’s cattle business. The other woman, an IT worker who has to work from home, must balance her professional responsibilities with domestic and child care duties.

Other works comment on issues of women’s rights, gender identity and deforestation in contemporary India.

One might well wonder what brings this international art show to Floyd — although one of the beauties of Southwest Virginia’s robust art scene is that a horizon-expanding exhibition such as “Mithila Medley” is not at all out of place.

Organized by Radford University Art Museum Director Steve Arbury and guest curator John Bowles, “Mithila Medley” (which Bowles co-curated with University of Connecticut art professor Kathryn Myers) is just one petal of a blooming lotus of New River Valley-spanning, history-making exhibitions and events exploring the art of the Mithila region.

A number of those shows focus on the art produced by the Dalit community, the people who under India’s officially abolished yet still existent caste system were known as “untouchables.”

Bowles, a California-born art collector and museum patron who owns property in Radford, has a deep interest in promoting the art of India and Dalit artisans in particular. His connections were essential to bringing these talented masters and the fruits of their labors here.

“Mithila Medley” will be on display at the Floyd Center until Dec. 3. Other parts of this epic scale project include:

The first solo show by emerging Dalit artist Naresh Paswan, creator of the “Covid” drawing mentioned above, whose finely-detailed works have been purchased by Princeton University’s Firestone Library, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. Paswan’s exhibition is being shown at Miller-Off-Main Street Gallery in Blacksburg through Oct. 14.

On Sept. 14, Radford University’s Tyler Gallery will open “Martine Le Coz: A French Homage to the Ancient Myths & Contemporary Artists of Mithila,” a first ever show of Mithila-inspired illustrations by French novelist, poet and Legion of Honour inductie Le Coz.

On Oct. 13, Radford University’s Covington Gallery will debut “Raja Salhesh’s Garden: Contemporary Dalit Arts & Ancient Myths of Mithila,” the premiere international exhibition of Dalit artists from Mithila region. On that opening day, organizers will host “Mithila Musings,” an international scholarly symposium, scheduled for 9:30 a.m. at the Floyd Center and 2:30 p.m. at Covington Center.

All of these events are free.

There are many ways to accomplish cultural exchange, education and friendship. Oour region has provided shining examples, from the growth of the Local Colors Festival celebrating the Roanoke Valley’s multicultural heritage to the aid offered by regional faith and nonprofit organizations to newly-arrived refugees from Afghanistan.

The displays of arts and impending conversations with artists from Mithila demonstrate yet other ways, ones that deserve Southwest Virginia’s open arms.

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