Hues of magnificence
Relevance of Madhubani paintings, originated in Mithila region of Bihar, extends far beyond decorative functions — providing practising women a medium for expression of their “dreams, hopes and aspirations”
In 2007, the Directorate of Industries, Bihar, applied for and received the GI tag for Madhubani paintings including three formats — wall paintings, line paintings and Godna paintings. The traditional form is that of wall painting – an unbroken tradition of centuries passed on from mothers to daughters. In fact, the art form gets strengthened and emboldened when the daughter moves to her in-laws' village, thereby making the art form both inclusive and immersive. Apart from their decorative purpose, these murals also constitute a form of visual education, like picture books from which one learns of one's heritage. The latter two are variants which draw from the tradition of wall paintings, but examine more modern and contemporary themes.
The credit for giving global recognition to this art form goes to WG Archer of the ICS, who was posted in Madhubani in 1934 at the time of the Bihar earthquake. During his tour of inspection, he came across this art form on the broken walls of practically every household in the district. He was fascinated with the quality of the frescoes and went on to write an illustrated article on the Mithila paintings in Marg, a journal of the arts founded and edited by Mulk Raj Anand which drew the attention of connoisseurs and collectors alike – not just in India, but also in the salons across the world where Marg had its eclectic readership. In fact, had Archer not toured his district extensively after the earthquake, the recognition may have been delayed. After his death, his wife Mildred Archer, and scholars like JC Mathur, Mulk Raj Anand and Pupul Jayakar took up the mantle of transforming this art form into a programme of sustainable livelihood for the women of the district.
Madhubani paintings originated in the Mithila region of Bihar. The first references to the Madhubani paintings can be found in the Hindu epic Ramayana when King Janaka, Sita's father, asks his painters to create Madhubani paintings for his daughter's wedding. The knowledge was passed down from generation to generation and the paintings began to adorn the houses of the region. The women of the village practiced these paintings on the walls of their respective homes. Their paintings often illustrated their thoughts, hopes, aspirations and dreams. As stated in the citation submitted to the GI registry, "Mithila art is never purely decorative, it is a wealth of blessings and protection against destructive evil forces, the anger of the gods and their jealousy". The epic story of Ramayana, as well as Krishna's life are favourite themes with the artists of Mithila. They see the ecstatic circle in which Krishna plays the flute and leads the Gopis as the wheel of life, the slaying of the Kamsa, the legend of Govardhan and the sermon on the chariot to Arjuna in the midst of the battle of Kurukshetra. In the story of Ramayana, they see the love between Rama and Sita, the filial devotion of the brothers Laxman and Bharat with Rama, the unflinching faith of Hanuman and the annihilation of Ravan who regarded himself as invincible. Other popular themes include Shiva, Durga, Kali, Saraswati, Lakshmi and the many avatars of Vishnu. The many oral narratives are amenable to so many interpretations, and many artists give vent to their creative expressions in myriad forms.
As they were initially practiced by different sections of society, the paintings were categorised into five different styles — Tantric, Kohbar, Bharni, Godna, Katchni. But today, these five different styles have been merged by contemporary artists.
Over time, Madhubani paintings became a part of festivities and special events like weddings and nuptials. Decorating the room of the bride and groom for their first night is a special occasion. Pictures of Nayna-Jogin are painted on the four corners of the wall and the Alpana adorns the floor. In addition to images of the Navgrahs: sun (Surya), moon (Chandra),
Mars (Mangala), Mercury (Budha), Jupiter (Brihaspati), Venus (Shukra), Saturn (Shani), Rahu (north node of the moon), and Ketu (south node of the moon), the fish and the tortoise, snakes, frogs, betel leaves, Kabamba trees, parrots, gods and goddesses are all beautifully depicted in the room of the newlyweds – called kohbar. The parrot, also known as the "love bird", signifies love and the fish, which is Vishnu's first incarnation, is drawn for the advent of children. The rat that often creeps in is indicative of the presence of Ganesh. Images of various protective deities are also painted on the courtyard walls when a marriage is to take place in the family.
Before closing, the column must acknowledge the works of the leading exponents like Sita Devi, Ganga Devi, Mahasundari Devi, and Bharti Dayal. Though Madhubani paintings had been practised for many years ago by the womenfolk of Mithila, it was Sita Devi who brought this art form to limelight. Born in the Jitwarpur village in the Madhubani district of Bihar, Sita Devi was exposed to this age-old painting right from her childhood and she received the State Award in 1969, the National Award in 1975 and finally the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award of India, in 1981.
Ganga Devi was born into the Kayastha community and practiced the Katchni style of painting from her early childhood. She then travelled to various countries to popularise the art form all over the world, and participated in 'Festival of India,' in the United States of America. She too was awarded the Padma Shri in 1984.
Mahasundari Devi's contribution lies in the fact that she nudged the women practising Madhubani to form a co-operative, explore other styles, and introduce contemporary themes and motifs in this art form. She also held training workshops for women in MP to teach them this art form and was honoured not just by the Government of Bihar and India, but also by the Government of MP, which accorded her the prestigious Tulsi Samman.
Bharti Dayal learnt the traditional art form from her mother and her grandmother but in order to popularise the art form and propagate it throughout the world, she started using modern techniques and thereby contemporised the art form. She then displayed her works in various exhibitions throughout the world. In June 2016, her paintings were displayed at the Museum of Sacred Art (MOSA), Belgium, and the Museum Director Martin Gurvich called her the ambassador of Madhubani paintings in the modern world, and a documentary on her work was aired on a French television channel.
Thanks to the intrepid practitioners of this art, they have not only made their district and the state, but also the nation proud.
Madhubani paintings are now available online at the websites of the Central Cottage Emporium as well as Ambapali, the Bihar government's outlet. Go ahead, decorate your home and work space and also contribute to the economic and social empowerment of the women behind this art!
Views expressed are personal
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