Also known as Mithila or Maithil painting, Madhubani painting is a ritual and decorative art form primarily practised by women of the Madhubani region to make impermanent murals on the mud walls. Floor and wall paintings, known locally as aipanas and bhitti chitras respectively, were traditionally painted to mark occasions such as births, marriages and religious events, while the more elaborate paintings, called kohabars, were reserved for marriage ceremonies. Since the 1960s and 1970s, the district town of Madhubani in northern Bihar has come to be considered a centre for the art form.
The Madhubani region has historically been known as Mithila, Videha and Tirhut. Today, it spans the districts of Darbhanga, Madhubani, Bhagalpur, Saharsa and Purnea in North Bihar as well as parts of the Terai region of Nepal. Considered to be the birthplace of Sita, as well as the Buddha and Mahavira, it was an important centre of Sanskrit tradition and learning. While the historical origins of Madhubani painting are unknown, it is believed to have been developed in the eighth century BCE, when King Janaka asked that mode of painting be created to commemorate the wedding of his daughter Sita to Ram. Indirect references to the Madhubani painting have been observed in regional texts dating as far back as the fourteenth century.
Madhubani painting is characterised by a simple and direct style, with colours applied in a flat, solid manner without gradations. The paintings have heavily patterned borders coupled with lines and crosses, resulting in an intricately decorated background that lacks empty spaces or gaps. The imagery is vivid and depicts local flora and fauna, geometrical patterns and everyday life in the village, as well as mythological and religious iconography, including deities such as Rama, Krishna, Shiva and Durga. The paintings were originally made on mud walls washed with cow dung or plastered with lime, but are now rendered on a series of surfaces, including cement walls, paper and cloth. The traditional tools were locally sourced and processed by the women. A cotton rag tied to a twig was used as a brush and pigments were obtained from plants such as palash, jowar and kusum.
Each family of Madhubani artists has its own style, which is usually handed down through the generations and retained within the family. For this reason, Mithila paintings remained confined to the inner walls of homes and were largely unknown until the Bihar earthquake of 1934, when WG Archer, a British colonial officer stationed in the Madhubani district, encountered the paintings in the wreckage of the houses destroyed by the event. Over the years that followed, Archer published his findings and research, bringing Madhubani painting into the public eye.
In 1966, most of the districts in the Madhubani region were hit by severe drought. In order to provide a source of non-agricultural income to the affected communities, then-chairperson of the Handloom Handicrafts Export Corporation Pupul Jayakar developed a drought relief program which encouraged the women of the region to make their paintings on handmade paper for commercial purposes. Jayakar also documented and outlined the various styles of Madhubani painting as well as unique motifs such as the kohabar, a lotus leaf pierced by a bamboo shoot considered symbolic of fertility. The ensuing popularity of these paintings on paper attracted scholars to the region, who began to study the art form in depth. Early scholarly interpretations of the Madhubani style and motifs – including those by Archer – tended to be Orientalist in nature, with the paintings being considered “primitive” or child-like on the one hand and democratic and diverse on the other. These interpretations also positioned the tradition as a caste-based form championed solely by Brahmin and Kayastha women, when historically Madhubani paintings had been made and practised by diverse groups, including lower caste communities.
With inputs from Indian scholars, distinct styles began to be recognised within the larger framework of Madhubani paintings, such as bharni, which is marked by vivid colours and fewer lines. Kachni or line painting comprises patterns filled with intricate line strokes, made with fine-nibbed pens, and marked by clear outlines. The gobar and godna traditions developed by the Dalit Chamar and Dusadh communities respectively were also documented. The use of these techniques and styles, however, has been fluid, with artists learning from and adopting the techniques of their peers. Thematically, while religious subjects remain a central part of the Madhubani painting vocabulary, Dalit groups have also made paintings featuring figures from local oral epics, such as Raja Salesha, Rahu and Govinda.
Today, Madhubani painting is practised by men and women across communities, and while the work of upper caste artists such as Ganga Devi have gained renown, Dalit artists have also been recognised. This includes Jamuna Devi, who received a National Award from the Government of India, and Seewan Paswan and Shanti Devi, who painted a series of stories about Raja Salhesa between 1978 and 1982.
Several international scholars also have contributed to the documentation and development of Madhubani painting, including Erika Moser from Germany, whose films document the godana tattoo art practised by Dalit artists Chano Devi and Palti Devi; American anthropologist Raymond Lee Owens, whose Ethnic Arts Foundation (EAF) trains young artists in Madhubani painting; and Tokio Hasegawa, who set up the Mithila Museum in Japan in 1989, focussing on the acquisition, display and research of Mithila painting.
Over the last few decades, the subject matter of Madhubani painting has expanded considerably, with artists tackling themes such as gender justice, environmental conservation and contemporary politics. The art form has also seen increasing commodification, with Madhubani paintings and motifs appearing on clothing, home decor and other goods. Noteworthy Madhubani artists include Mahasundari Devi, Sita Devi, Jagdamba Devi, Baua Devi, Dulari Devi and Godavari Datta among others.
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