Mithila painting, as a domestic ritual activity, was unknown to the outside world until the massive Bihar earthquake of 1934. House walls had tumbled down, and the British colonial officer in Madhubani District, William G. Archer, inspecting the damage “discovered” the paintings on the newly exposed interior walls of homes. Archer – later to become the South Asia Curator at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum – was stunned by the beauty of the paintings and similarities to the work of modern Western artists like Klee, Miro, and Picasso. During the 1930s he took black and white photos of some of these paintings, the earliest images we have of them. Then in a 1949 article in the Indian art journal, Marg, he brought the wall paintings to public attention.
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Then a second natural disaster, a severe draught in the late 1960s, prompted the All India Handicrafts Board to encourage a few upper caste women in villages around Madhubani town to transfer their ritual wall paintings to paper as an income generating project.
Folklore traces the origin of Mithila painting to a decree by Raja Janak that families in Mithila were to paint their homes in celebration of the wedding of his adopted daughter, Sita (actually a goddess), to Lord Rama of Ayodhya. While not that ancient, there are 14th century literary references to women of Mithila painting images of gods and goddesses on the walls of their homes for domestic rituals, using colors made from vegetable and mineral dyes, and most elaborately for marriages.
Only in the late 1960s were the paintings transferred from walls to paper, and soon thereafter a few men also began painting. Over the following decades the paintings expanded to include episodes from the great epics, local tales, village life, autobiographical paintings, and most recently local, national, and even international events, as well as many issues of particular concern to women.
Madhubani painting, also referred to as Mithila Art (as it flourishes in the Mithila region of Bihar), is characterized by line drawings filled in by bright colours and contrasts or patterns. This style of painting has been traditionally done by the women of the region, though today men are also involved to meet the demand. These paintings are popular because of their tribal motifs and use of bright earthy colours. These paintings are done with mineral pigments prepared by the artists. The work is done on freshly plastered or a mud wall.
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For commercial purposes, the work is now being done on paper, cloth, canvas etc. Cotton wrapped around a bamboo stick forms the brush. Black colour is obtained by mixing soot with cow dung; yellow from turmeric or pollen or lime and the milk of banyan leaves; blue from indigo; red from the kusam flower juice or red sandalwood; green from the leaves of the wood apple tree; white from rice powder; orange from palasha flowers. The colours are applied flat with no shading and no empty space is left.
Madhubani paintings were initially practiced by different sects of people and hence the paintings were categorized into five different styles, such as Tantrik, Kohbar, Bharni, Godna, Katchni. But today, these five different styles have been merged by contemporary artists.
Figures from nature & mythology are adapted to suit their style. The themes & designs widely painted are of Hindu deities such as Krishna, Rama, Siva, Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Sun and Moon, Tulasi plant, court scenes, wedding scenes, social happenings etc. Floral, animal and bird motifs, geometrical designs are used to fill up all the gaps. The skill is handed down the generations, and hence the traditional designs and patterns are widely maintained.
Notable Madhubani Artists
Sita Devi – Though Madhubani paintings were being practiced many years ago by the womenfolk of Mithila, it was Sita Devi who brought this art form under the limelight. Sita Devi was honored with the State Award by the government of Bihar in the year 1969 and that is when this art form received national recognition. The government of Bihar then honored her with the prestigious Bihar Ratna in 1984. In 2006, the government of India conferred on her the title, Shilp Guru.
Ganga Devi – Ganga Devi is another artist who is credited for popularizing Madhubani painting. Not just in India, but Ganga Devi popularized this ancient art form in foreign countries as well. Like Sita Devi, Ganga Devi too was exposed to Madhubani painting right from her childhood as she was born in Mithila, Bihar.
She travelled to various countries in an attempt to popularize the art form all over the world. She even participated in ‘Festival of India,’ an event organized in the United States of America.
For her efforts, the government of India honored her with the National Award for Crafts. In the year 1984, Ganga Devi was awarded Padma Shri by the President of India.
Mahasundari Devi – Also born in Madhubani, Bihar, Mahasundari Devi was a renowned Madhubani artist. Mahasundari Devi played a key role in supporting and developing not just Madhubani painting but also various other art forms of Bihar by creating a cooperative society.
Bharti Dayal – Born in Samastipur, Bihar, Bharti Dayal learnt the traditional art form from her mother and her grandmother. Bharti strived to take the art form to the world stage and played a key role in the popularization of these paintings. In order to popularize the art form and propagate it throughout the world, she started using present day techniques and thereby contemporized 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. The director of MOSA, Martin Gurvich, appreciated her works and called her the ambassador of Madhubani painting in the modern world.
Madhubani Painting in Modern Times
Madhubani art is an important part of the life of people in a village called Ranti in present day Bihar. The women who practice this art form in the village use it as an opportunity to create awareness on social issues and to empower women. Artists like Karpuri Devi, Mahalaxmi and Dulari are playing key roles in teaching other women the importance of Madhubani painting. Their works are displayed in a museum in Japan. Also, there are several institutions near Mithila that teach Madhubani paintings to young artists. Some of the major centers that teach this art form are Benipatti in Madhubani district, Gram Vikas Parishad in Ranti and Vaidehi in Madhubani. Artist Bharti Dayal owns a studio in New Delhi