It’s no new finding that paintings and art often reflect the culture and tradition of the place from which they originate. They tend to be a reflection of the times in which the art was created. Rarely does an ancient art form become a reflection of modern times and issues. Yet a drive on Highway 52 of the Madhubani district or Ranti village in Bihar will tell you how Madhubani art that originated about 2500 years ago is still very much thriving. Not only that, it has managed to save an entire forest and put the spotlight on some very pressing women’s issues! Take a look at the history of Madhubani paintings and how they have evolved over the years.
The history of Madhubani paintings
A 2500-year-old folk art, the history of Madhubani paintings is said to date back to the time of Ramayana, when king Janaka asked an artist to capture his daughter Sita’s wedding to prince Rama. These paintings were usually created by women on walls and floors of homes during festivals, ceremonies or special occasions. Having originated in the Mithila region in Bihar, this form of painting, also known as Mithila art, has been in practice in areas around Bihar and Nepal.
Mithila painting or Bhitti Chitra was discovered in 1934 when a massive earthquake hit Bihar. The British Colonial officer of Madhubani district, William G. Archer chanced upon these paintings in the interior walls of the homes while he was examining the damage caused by the quake.
What’s so special about Madhubani?
So how are these paintings made? Interestingly, Mithila or Madhubani paintings are done using fingers and twigs as well as matchsticks and pen nibs in the modern day. Usually bright colours are used in these paintings with an outline made from rice paste as its framework. There are rarely any blank spaces in these paintings. If there’s a border, it is embellished with geometric and floral patterns. Natural dyes are used for the paintings. For example, charcoal and soot for black, turmeric extract for yellow, red from sandalwood, blue from indigo and so on.
Madhubani paintings are charactersied by figures that have prominently outlined, bulging fish-like eyes and pointed noses. The themes of these paintings usually include natural elements like fish, parrot, elephant, turtle, sun, moon, bamboo tree and lotus. Geometric patterns can also be seen in these pictures that often symbolize love, valour, devotion, fertility and prosperity. This ancient art form has also been known to depict scenes of wedding rituals, religious rituals and different cultural events such as festivals, from mythology like Ramayana.
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Madhubani art in present times
Madhubani painting is still practiced by many women in Ranti village of Bihar. In fact, Karpuri Devi, sister-in-law of known artist Mahasundari Devi, Dulari, and Mahalaxmi are women from three generations of the village who have made extensive efforts to keep the art form alive by educating other women in the village and teaching them how to make Mithila painting a way of life and take the legacy forward. Works of the three women have been commissioned by the government of India and also found a place in the Mithila museum of Japan.
These women aim to empower other women through painting and creating awareness on issues like education and eve-teasing. They are encouraging their students to paint on topics that are closer to their hearts – anything from folk tales they might have heard during their childhood to the status of women in the society today. It is interesting to note how paintings that were done by women to depict religion, traditions and social norms are now being used by them to make their voices heard.
How Madhubani paintings saved a forest
In 2012, more than 100 trees were decorated using Madhubani painting. Shashthi Nath Jha, who runs the Gram Vikas Parishad, an NGO, started the initiative as an attempt to protect trees that were being cut down in the name of expanding roads and development. This proved to be an effective way to make the villagers aware of its consequences like climate change and global warming.
Interesting, isn’t it? More intriguing is, while the campaign was an expensive one (the villagers used synthetic paint to make the artwork last longer), not a single tree was cut down. The main reason behind this was the trees being adorned with forms of gods and other religious and spiritual symbols like Radha-Krishna, Rama-Sita, scenes from Ramayana and Mahabarata and other mythologies. This instilled reverence and prevented the trees from being cut.
Literally translated as honey from the forest, Madhubani got recognition when Sita Devi, a painter received the state award in 1969 and Jagdamba Devi was given a Padma Shri in 1975. The government also awarded Sita Devi the National Award that year.
Another noted Madhubani painter is Bharati Dayal. Her work finds a place of pride among many collections, like the Ministry of External Affairs; India, Minister of Commerce, US Embassy, First Secretary, US Embassy; Seba Musharraf, wife of former Pakistan President, Parvez Musharraf and Museum of Eminence, Norway to name a few. Dayal was awarded the National Award in 2006 and the Indira Gandhi Priyadarshini Award in 2013.
Her works have also been displayed at Craft Exchange Program of SAARC Countries Meet at Delhi Hatt, Pritampura in 2008; Indiart Gallery, Belgium in 2013 and at the Nehru Centre, London in February 2011 among many others.
Madhubani beyond paintings
Today, Madhubani art piques interest in art lovers from different countries like USA, Australia, UK and Russia. Patterns from this art form have also found their way onto various items like bags, cushion covers, coasters, mugs, crockery and mouse pads.
So, how exactly did an art form from rural India get noticed around the world? In 1960’s when draught hit Bihar, the All India Handicrafts Board encouraged upper caste women in villages around Madhubani town to make the ritualistic paintings on paper to generate income. Slowly the style of painting found its way onto many articles from greeting cards to salwar kameez materials.
Madhubani remains ever popular on the home décor front in the form of prints for table linens, napkin rings, and lamps and most importantly on wall hangings. Mostly because Mithila art was originally used for decorating walls and floors of homes.
The beautiful patterns of these paintings don’t seem to have been used by Indian designers. But they have found their way onto silk sari borders, dupattas, kurtis and more. Here’s to making our lives a bit richer by paying tribute to our nation’s heritage and buying some authentic Madhubani art.
Enthralled by this art? Visit the Madhubani store on Craftsvilla.