Madhubani painting, also called Mithila Painting, is a traditional folk art of Bihar which has succeeded in creating a place globally. Madhubani painting has been done traditionally by the women of villages around the present town of Madhubani and other areas of Mithila region of Bihar. The painting was traditionally done on freshly plastered mud wall of huts, but now it is also done on cloth, hand-made paper and canvas. The colors used are derived from plants.
Generally no space is left empty; the gaps are filled by paintings of flowers, animals, birds, and even geometric designs.
Madhubani painting is a traditional Indian art form mostly done by women. Madhubani paintings mostly depict nature and Hindu religious motifs, and the themes generally revolve around Hindu deities like Krishna, Ram, Shiva, Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswati. Natural objects like the sun, the moon, and religious plants like tulsi are also widely painted, along with scenes from the royal court and social events like weddings.
These paintings were usually made on the eve of important dates, to mark the ceremonies to be performed, like a wedding, festivals, religious events etc. Traditionally, rice ground into paste was used to create these works of art.
Upendra Maharathi Shilp Anusandhan Sansthan is able to mobilise and maintain interest in Madhubani paintings, thus keeping alive a centuries old art form. Today, not only women but also men are learning the Madhubani art of painting.
As expected of any ancient civilization, Bihar has a very rich tradition of folk art and craft which feature as an extremely rich tradition of artistry and innovation. The handicrafts of Bihar are appreciated all over the world because of their great aesthetic value and their adherence to tradition.
The exact time when Mithila art originated is not known. It is believed that during the time of the Ramayana, when King Janak ordered his kingdom to decorate the town for the wedding of his daughter, Sita, to Lord Rama. The ancient tradition of elaborate wall paintings or Bhitti-Chitra in Bihar played a major role in the emergence of this new art form. The original inspiration for Madhubani art emerged out of women’s craving for religiousness and an intense desire to be one with God. With the belief that painting something divine would achieve that desire, women began to paint pictures of gods and goddesses with an interpretation so divine that captured the hearts of many.
Madhubani, which by one account means Forest of Honey, (‘Madhu’-honey, ‘Ban’-forest or woods) is a region in the northern part of Bihar. A region that has a distinct regional identity and language that reportedly spans 2500 years.
The women painters of Mithila lived in a closed society. It is locally believed that Madhubani painting tradition started when Raja Janak commissioned local artists to paint murals in his palace in preparations for the marriage of his daughter Sita to Lord Ram. The paintings were originally done on walls coated with mud and cow dung. The kohbar ghar or the nuptial chamber was the room in which the paintings were traditionally done. Originally the paintings depicted an assembly of symbolic images of the lotus plant, the bamboo grove, fishes, birds and snakes in union. These images represented fertility and proliferation of life. There used to be a tradition that the newly married bride and groom would spend three nights in the kohbar ghar without cohabiting. On the fourth night they would consummate the marriage surrounded with the colourful painting. The Mithila paintings were done only by women of the house, the village and the caste and only on occasion of marriages.
Mithila painting, as a domestic ritual activity, was unknown to the outside world until the massive Bihar earthquake of 1934 when the houses and walls tumbled down. Then British colonial officer in Madhubani District, William G. Archer, while inspecting the damage “discovered” the paintings on the newly exposed interior walls of Mithila homes. He was struck by reported similarities to the work of modern Western artists like Miro and Picasso. During the 1930s he took black and white photos of some of these paintings, which today are the earliest images of the art. He also wrote about the painting in a 1949 article in ‘Marg’ an Indian Art Journal.
The drought from 1966 to 1968 crippled the agricultural economy of the region. As part of a larger initiative to bring economic relief to the region, Ms. Pupul Jayakar, the then Director of the All India Handicrafts Board, sent the Bombay based artist Mr. Bhaskar Kulkarni to Mithila to encourage women there to replicate their mural paintings on paper which, to facilitate sales, as a source of income to ensure survival.
The contribution of foreign scholars in promoting the art form internationally has also been immense. Yves Vequad, a French novelist and journalist, in the early 1970s wrote a book on the basis of his research on Mithila painting and produced a film ‘The Women Painters of Mithila’. The German anthropologist film-maker and social activist Erika Moser persuaded the impoverished Dusadh Dalit community to paint as well. The result was the Dalit captured their oral history (such as the adventures of Raja Salhesh, and depictions of their primary deity, Rahu) — typified by bold compositions and figures based on traditional tattoo patterns called Goidna locally. This added another distinctive new style to the region’s flourishing art scene.
With financial support of Moser and Raymond Lee Owens (a Fulbright Scholar then), along with land in Jitbarpur donated by Anthropologist Erika Moser likes of Dr. Gauri Mishra spearheaded the setting up of the Master Craftsmen Association of Mithila in 1977. This association was very active during the life time of Owens working in tandem with Ethnic Arts Foundation a non-profit 501(c) 3 of USA. Master Craftsmen Association is reported to have later merged with SEWA Mithila which unlike its namesake in Ahemdabad is registered under Society’s Act and not under the Trade Union Act. It endeavours to uphold similar mission of providing the artists of the region with a regular source of income through exhibitions, and sales to collectors and art galleries. Ford Foundation has a long history of association with Madhubani painting. Ms. Viji Srinivasan, then a programme officer with Ford Foundation, and who later set up an NGO Adithi headquartered in Bihar and worked on women’s issues including livelihood through handicrafts too played a role in nurturing the cluster. Since the 1990s, Japan has also shown a keen interest in Madhubani paintings, mainly because of the initiatives of Tokyo Hasegawa, who set up the Mithila Museum in Tokamachi, where around 850 Madhubani paintings are exhibited on a regular basis.
Belonging to no orthodox or conventional school of art, Madhubani paintings stand out for their raw originality. The women of the region had neither education nor formal training in painting. The art form was handed down from one generation to the next. In the process, there have been changes and embellishments, but the basic style has remained largely unaltered.
The differences between the works of Brahmin and Kayasth women and women of lower castes were apparent. “The Harijan Madhubani paintings appeared simpler and less sophisticated. They were closer to the Geru tradition of painting, with emphasis on volume and depth rather than ornamentation, whereas the Brahmins and the Kayasth stuck to mythological and religious themes. The Scheduled Caste artists allowed themselves greater freedom of expression by depicting day-to-day life with ‘secular’ motifs. Yamuna Devi belonged to the Chamar community and made a portrait of a Chamar disposing the carcass of a cow which is a famous example of this.
The Harijan paintings broadly come under two styles – Gobar, or cowdung – painting, and Goidana, or tattoo painting. The former is attributed to Chamar artists and the latter to the artists of the Dusadh community. These two communities, unlike other schedule castes of the region, took up professional painting and evolved their own unique style of painting. The artists from these communities incorporated their own mythologies into their works. For example, Salhesa is an important divinity in the Dusadh community. This god of strength and his legends feature prominently in the works of Dusadh artists.
Kulkarni encouraged a Dalit lady Yamuna Devi, who at that point of time used to make mud frescos, and encouraged her to experiment on coated paper. She would paint using Holi colours, a tradition earlier used exclusively by the Brahmins and the Kayasth. Her mud paintings exhibited in Japan won her wide appreciation and she became the first Scheduled Caste woman to gain recognition for her Madhubani style. Gradually more dalits began working on paper.
An interesting outcome of commercialization was the emergence of different styles of painting, which can be broadly categorised as Geru, Bharni, Kachni, Tantric, Gobar, and Goidana. The most popular among them are the Bharni and Kachni styles. The former came from Jitbarpur and the latter from Ranti. The Bharni style is identified by the use of vibrant colours and minimal use of lines, while beautiful patterns through the intricate use of lines mark the Kachni style. Most of the early paintings were in the Geru style, which is very close to the folk art tradition. Lack of ornamentation and a very prominent black line were the identifying features of this style.
Jitbarpur is a sleepy village with latitude-26.34 and longitude- 86.07 has approximate population of 8000-9000 persons. Jitbarpur is located near the northern border of Nepalese Himalayas which forms boarder between India and Nepal. The lanes and bi-lanes are narrow flanked by both mud and now few concrete dwellings. Jitbarpur is one of the 79 villages of Madhubani Tehsil and block of Madhubani district headquarter. It is one of the five villages of Najirpur Panchayat namely Jitbarpur, Kanail, Najirpur, Srichandrapur, and Baharban.
Some of the other prominent Madhubani painting clusters other than Jitbarpur are Ranti, Rashidpur, Simri, Rayam, Bhachhi, Samalia etc.
Jitbarpur is about 4 kms from Madhubani district headquarter. It is estimated there are about 400 houses consisting of 10 prominent castes residing in three localities (tola), namely Dakshin Bari Tola, Mahapatra Tola and Pichwari Paswan Tola. The key castes residing in Jitbarpur are Ram, Paswan, Brahmin, Das (Kayasth), Rai, Yadav, Kumhar, Thakur, Mandal and Mahapatra. It was mentioned, from the 400 houses of Jitbarpur, about 250 houses have members making Madhubani paintings and about 90 houses have trained and skill hands.
A broad caste wise break-up of Madhubani artists: Mahapatra- 20 per cent, Paswan 20 per cent, Kayasth 20 per cent, Ram 20 per cent and others constitute 30 per cent.
Mithila painting has been a domestic ritual activity in Jitbarpur village which was unknown to the outside world until the massive Bihar earthquake of 1934. The Jitbarpur women were painting on the walls of their huts and this art form. Traditionally these paintings were passed down over generations from mother to daughter. In the year 1960-61 monsoon season, Bihar experienced serious draught resulting in wide spread scarcity of food and the government launched relief projects to help mainly illiterate and rural population. These projects varied according to the local customs and needs. Bihar government awarded Bombay based artist Bhaskar Kulkarni, erstwhile member of the Indian Handicrafts Federation, with a grant of Rs 50,000 to launch a relief enterprise.
Kulkarni travelled to various regions of Bihar including Jitbarpur, a village southeast of Madhubani district and observed wall relief made from mixtures of cow dung and mud depicting religious festivals and folklore. Recognizing the potential he encouraged their creators, the village women, to execute their designs on paper and provided the women with commercial colours, ink, brush and other art supplies. Kulkarni, whose atypical hippie-like appearance perhaps being the stumbling block only succeeded in initially cajoling a few Mahapatra Brahmin and Kayasth women to experiment with the new medium he proposed. They later transferred their images to cloth as well. Kulkarni displayed the initial paintings at the Government Industrial exhibition in New Delhi in 1962 where they were sold between Rs 5 and Rs 10. He organized the first exhibition of Maithili or Madhubani School of paintings at New Delhi in 1967. By early 1970s, the paintings had become widely known, and two of the artists — Ganga Devi and Sita Devi — were recognised as artists in their own rights both in India and abroad. Later, Dalit women were also persuaded to take up painting on paper under the drought relief programme.
The traditional artists were not adept at promotion of their work. They also lacked entrepreneurship. They did not capitalise on the commercial potential of these crafts for a long time. After independence, apart from Kulkarni, Shri Upendra Maharathi, a gifted artist originally hailing from Orissa, also worked extensively to revive and popularize arts and crafts of Bihar with support from the first Chief-minister of Bihar, Shri Krishna Sinha. The result was the formation of the Bihar State Cottage Industries and Handicrafts Board. This organization supported the artisans and sold their products through their own outlets. This art owes a huge debt to persons such as Pupul Jayakar, Bhaskar Kulkarni, Upendra Marathi, Raymond Lee Owens and Lalit Narayan Mishra etc., who worked to popularize it, both in the country and abroad.
The success of Ganga Devi and Sita Devi further encouraged other local women to try their hand at this new art form. So it was that outstanding painters were discovered and Mithila folk paintings came to be popularly known as Madhubani paintings. Thus Jitbarpur was officially recognized in 1970, when the President of India gave an award to Jagdamba Devi, the first recipient from Jitbarpur. Other painters also were similarly decorated later; Mahasundari Devi, Sita Devi, Ookha Devi, Godavari Dutt, Bua Devi were also given this national award.
The distinct but overlap of styles of art was then practiced by the women from two distinct castes- the upper and the scheduled castes in Jitbarpur. The religious form was produced by Brahmin and few of the other upper castes and the ‘secular’ forms drawn from daily life were depicted by the Harijan women. Both styles used religious motifs, folklore images and the flat patterns of vibrant colour. This art of the Jitbarpur women since then is known as Madhubani art because Jitbarpur village is proximate to Madhubani town.
Later the paintings were made with natural colours on paper previously treated with cow dung. The painting techniques are simple and the raw materials are taken directly from nature. Outlines were done with kalams and cotton wrapped on bamboo sticks. A bamboo stick, with its end being slightly frayed, served as brushes which are dipped in colours and applied to the medium.
This same technique is still followed by a few artists on mediums such as cloth, handmade paper and canvas to give an authentic look. Today these paintings are done on canvas, cloth and hand-made paper with readymade bottled fabric colours with nib and fine brushes. Madhubani paintings are characterized by use of bold colours along with geometrical patterns, which give them a vibrant and a symbolic appearance.
Madhubani painting has remained confined to a compact geographical area and the skills have been passed on through centuries, the content and the style have largely remained the same. And that is the reason for Madhubani painting being accorded the coveted GI (Geographical Indication) status.
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