Most of the traditional art forms we’ve known and talked about possess deep meanings apart from being a visual treat. India is a hub of such brilliant and diverse arts and crafts. Often developed as a mark of celebrations and rituals, many Indian art forms boast of a rich cultural heritage. One such art form is the Madhubani art, also referred to as Mithila art. The Madhubani paintings have a very distinct look and charm, the legacy of which has been contemporarily carried forward in the present generations.
The exceptionally beautiful Madhubani art has an interesting story behind its origin. It hails back to the very famous time of the Ramayana, the popular Hindu epic. The legendary Lord Rama and Sita, the daughter of King Janaka from the Mithila state were married in the reign of Janaka. As a part of the preparations of the wedding, Raja Janak had ordered local artists in his kingdom to decorate the palace for the wedding. As a result, the Madhubani paintings were born.
The Mithila region of Nepal and the northern Bihar was the area to where the origins of the stunning art form can be traced. ‘Madhubani’, literally meaning forest of honey (‘Madhu’ refers to honey while ‘Ban’ refers to forest), is a district in the area. The area has a distinct regional identity and language that reportedly spans 2500 years. It was here that the art came into existence and hence, named Madhubani or Mithila.
Striking Features of the Madhubani art
The themes of the Madhubani paintings revolve around the Hindu deities such as Krishna, Rama, Lakshmi, Shiva, Durga and Saraswati. Apart from these, many natural themes that are used which include the Sun, the Moon and religious plants like tulsi. Often, many scenes of royal courts and social events might be depicted. These include events such as festivals and weddings, particularly the wedding of Lord Rama and Sita. Essentially, the central theme of the Madhubani art is love, valor, devotion and fertility.
The exclusion of empty spaces
Interestingly, if any empty space is left after painting the main theme in a Madhubani art, it is filled up. The filling is often done with natural motifs such as that of flowers, animals and birds or even geometric designs.
The Madhubani paintings are done with fingers, twigs, brushes, nib-pens, and matchsticks.
Traditionally, natural vegetable dyes and pigments were used for the paintings, which are now replicated with synthetic colors. A lot of bright vibrant hues have been incorporated since yesteryears.
Black color is made by adding soot to cow dung; white from rice powder; yellow from combining turmeric or pollen or lime with the milk of banyan leaves; red from the kusam flower juice or red sandalwood; blue from indigo; green from the leaves of the wood apple tree and orange from palasha flowers. Occasionally, ochre and lampblack were also used for reddish brown and black respectively.
Interesting facts about the Madhubani art
Originally done on mud walls
The Madhubani paintings were originally made on the mud walls of freshly plastered houses/ huts (Warli and Mandana are other such arts). However, they’ve been now incorporated largely on paper, canvas, fabrics and other materials such as on bangles.
From tradition to source of income
Traditionally, the Madhubani art form was a community art that used to be transferred from mother to daughter. It was practiced as a part of religious or ceremonial decorations on the walls of the houses. Mostly, the artist making the painting would not mention a signature on the art. While the early artists are not known, many contemporary artists have taken up the art form. The modern artists majorly started practicing it in order to earn their bread and butter, while accolades began floating in recently.
The discovery of the ‘hidden’ Madhubani art
The Mithila paintings were typically a domestic ritual. Reportedly, the paintings with the theme of fertility and proliferation of life were made on the walls of kohbar ghar or the nuptial chamber, where the bride and groom would spend the first few nights. Moreover, in case of other remarkable events and festivals, just the interior walls were painted. As a result, the Madhubani art was unknown to the outside world.
It was in 1934, after the mighty Bihar-Nepal earthquake, that the houses collapsed exposing the interior walls and the hidden Madhubani paintings were thus “discovered”. The British colonial officer in Madhubani District, William G. Archer had come across them while inspecting the damage. He was stunned by their beauty and was amazed to observe similarities between the work of modern Western artists like Klee, Miro, and Picasso and the Madhubani paintings. He took black and white pictures of them, and these are the earliest visual evidences of Madhubani art available.
Geographical Indication (GI) status
The Madhubani art has remained confined to a compact geographical region with the painting skills being passed on to the future generations, through centuries. The content and styles of the paintings have predominantly remained the same. Consequently, the Madhubani painting has been given the coveted GI (Geographical Indication) status.
The styles of Madhubani painting and the communities involved
The Madhubani art has been a community art. The paintings were created traditionally by the women of the Brahman, Dusadh and Kayastha communities in Mithila region in Nepal and India. Based on the different castes, particularly the upper ones namely Brahman and Kayastha, the Madhubani paintings have different styles viz. Bharni, Kachni and Tantrik style. However, the lower castes like Dusadhs (and later, Harijans) also had their own styles of the Mithila paintings, like godhna (or tattoo) and gobar (or geru).
The popularly known styles
The upper castes namely Brahmins and Kayasthas, generally represented divinity in their art, deities being the objects of the paintings. However, the lower castes were not allowed to do so.
The Brahmin communities have been practicing this style of Madhubani paintings. A rich mix of bright colors is used to fill the objects in the paintings. The themes of these paintings are largely adopted from Hindu mythologies and God incarnation stories.
The Kayastha communities of the region have been making the Kachni paintings. The paintings are generally monochromatic, or employ two colors or muted hues. Fine lines are used for filling the figures and paintings. The subjects of the paintings are similar to Bharni style of paintings.
Godhana or the Tattoo paintings
The Dusadhs were a lower caste and their themes were inspired from day to day life. Their paintings included natural motifs such as the flora and fauna. Apart from that, they were also based on the legend of Raja Salhesh- a Dusadh cultural hero. These symbolic paintings were done with the use of a few colors in addition to black.
Geru or Gobar paintings
This style is the one adopted by the Harizans (lower class) of the society, in the later years. They use paper washed with cow dung (i.e. gobar) and the paintings are done with earth colors.
The present scenario
The Madhubani art has been existent since ages but got the much-deserved attention and recognition in about the last 40 years only. The art form has retained its old world charm since it has been preserved in its very nascent and untouched form. Although the use of synthetic colors, paper, canvas, fabrics and other materials has been into common practice in the recent years, the paintings have conserved the original styles and content of the native land of Mithila. Though sadly, some very old styles have been now extinct due to no practitioners of the same.
On the brighter side, many NGOs and art galleries have come up to preserve the impressive art from. The MITHILAsmita, is an organization with an art gallery located in Bengaluru, India. Japan has shown tremendous interest in the Mithila paintings and it hosts ‘Mithila Museum’, which has over 850 Madhubani paintings. Moreover, in the town of Madhubani itself, there is ‘Mithila Art Institute’. It works for the development of Madhubani paintings and also for the training of young and budding artists.
The recent developments and accolades have brought the Madhubani art to a greater level of popularity and appreciation. Talking about fashion, many designers have launched Madhubani designs collection. Stoles, sarees, salwar kameez, long skirts, palazzo pants etc. are beautifully designed in Madhubani art. Many lifestyle products painted in Mithila art are also prevalent. The art with its good-luck charm is definitely gaining recognition and will go a long way.