An art called Mithila painting depicting hindu god and goddess~ Radha and Krishna.

Madhubani paintings: From walls to cardboard

Once done on walls and roofs, limited to festivals or weddings, the Mithila painting, or Madhubani, changed drastically down the years. Now, it is seen not only on paper but has got a place on clothes and home furnishing

A few years back when Indian Railways painted a few Bihar-bound trains with Madhubani paintings ~ a traditional art form of Bihar ~ it rightly earned applauds from all corners. Not only art connoisseurs but people from all over the world expressed their appreciation. United Nations India lauded the efforts of Indian Railway and artists by sharing an image of Indian Railway coaches painted with Madhubani art on Twitter. Of course, this was a proud moment for not only the artists, but the entire country, as the traditional art form of Bihar was getting visible globally. However, this is not the first time that Mithila art, or Madhubani painting, is getting acknowledgment worldwide. The art form, which was once limited to a part of Madhubani, and was only used to decorate the walls of village homes, has now been showcased in several landmark museums in the US, Japan and several other countries. The latest feather in its cap was when Godavari Dutt from Ratti village Bihar was bestowed the Padma Shri award by the President for her immense contribution to Mithila painting. The big question is: What led this Madhubani art, in which women have been painting the floors and walls of their homes with folk stories, deity’s figures and animal figures, to catch the international eye? How has this journey been?

Madhubani Paintings Origin 

The exact origin of this art is still unconfirmed but it has been part and parcel of women in this region for centuries. Mithila is said to be the birth place of Sita. Legend has it that when King Janaka, Sita’s father, asked the painters to decorate the place for his daughter’s wedding, the Mithila art took birth. Since then, it has been passed down from generation to generation among the women. They adorned their houses. Their paintings often illustrated their thoughts, hopes and dreams. However, it was a natural disaster ~ a massive earthquake in 1934, which gave this art visibility. Before this, it was unknown to the outside world, limited to certain parts of the state. The earthquake devastated the whole Bihar. This led the British colonial officer in Madhubani District, William G Archer to inspect the place. Then he discovered the paintings on the now-exposed interior walls of homes.

“For centuries, women have decorated the walls of their houses with intricate, linear designs on the occasion of weddings and other ceremonies. Mainly, it was done in kohbar ghar (nuptial chamber) on the occasion of a wedding. They paint mythological and folk themes and tantric symbolism,” said Sumati Jha, a resident of Madhubani and teacher by profession. For the local people, this art is an asset. Women in this region pass on this art to their daughter. Another natural disaster made this art contemporary. During the terrible famine in Bihar in 1960s, the women of the region were asked by the All India Handicrafts Board to transfer their ritual wall paintings to paper as an income-generating project. Once it become portable, it becomes more visible and noticeable. After walls it was replaced by handmade paper, cloth and canvas. Their work was enthusiastically purchased by tourists and art connoisseurs. Since then, the art has never looked back and is recognised globally. Many women represented India in cultural fairs in Europe, Russia, and the US. It is reported that the art helped save more than 100 trees in 2012. An NGO, Gram Vikas Parishad, has started the initiative to protect trees that were being cut down in the name of expanding roads and development. What they did was paint these trees with the Mithila art, mostly with pictures of gods. This step prevented the trees from being cut.

Madhubani Painting: How it works? 

The whole Madhubani region, including some parts of Nepal, is considered the hub of Mithila Painting. The art form was divided into five different styles ~ Tantrik, Kohbar, Bharni, Godna, Katchni. But today, these five different styles have been merged by contemporary artists. The themes used in these paintings are around deities like Krishna, Rama, Lakshmi, Shiva, Durga and Saraswati. One can also find the Sun and the Moon often forming the centerpiece of the paintings. Most of the characters are complex geometrical patterns. The colours used in the paintings are natural and are derived from plants and other sources. It is largely made using powdered rice, colours from turmeric, pollen, pigments, indigo, various flowers, sandalwood and leaves of various plants and trees. It is the artists themselves, who prepare the colours.

Madhubani Paintings: Types of Art 

Incidentally, this art form is also dominated by the caste system. The first comes Brahmins ~ their paintings have vibrant colours and religious motifs of various gods. The Kayasthas are second in the hierarchy of caste. Their style of painting symbolises fertility ~ they include motifs symbolising procreation. Other motifs used by them are lotus plant, sacred symbols, fish, tortoise, parrot and other birds. The last one is Dusadhs. They fall in the lower strata of the caste and are not allowed to paint gods. Therefore, they use tattoo or Godhana painting. Their motifs are flora and fauna. However, down the years, the art form has seen drastic change and now everybody is printing whatever they want. Now one can find this art on fashion weeks, in which designers have been showcasing a colourfilled collection of Madhubani designs, including sarees, salwar kameez, long skirts and palazzo pants. These clothes are painted with Lord Krishna, Ram-Sita marriage, Krishna Raas-Leela, invocation of goddess Durga, Lord Ram’s departure to the forest and many others. In Japan, there is a museum called Mithila Museum, which has over 850 Madhubani artworks on display.

Noted Madhubani Painting Artists

There are a few artists who have made this popular all over the world.

Sita Devi: She is considered as the artist who brought this art form into limelight. Born in Jitwarpur village in the Madhubani district of Bihar, she was conferred the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award of India, in 1981.

Ganga Devi: She also gets credit for popularising the art. Born in Mithila in the Kayastha community and practising the Katchni style of painting, she popularised the art across the country by participating in various art festivals. In the year 1984, Ganga Devi was awarded Padma Shri by the President of India.

Mahasundari Devi: Also from Madhubani, Mahasundari Devi was renowned for developing not just Madhubani painting but also various other art forms of Bihar by creating a cooperative society. In 2011, she was honoured with the Padma Shri.

Bharati Dayal: Another noted Madhubani painter, her work finds a place of pride among many collections, like the Ministry of External Affairs; Minister of Commerce, US Embassy; First Secretary, US Embassy; and Seba Musharraf, wife of former Pakistan President, Parvez Musharraf.

 This article first appeared in The Statesman on 9 February 9.

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