Practised primarily in Bhagalpur, Bihar, Manjusha painting includes narrative scrolls, murals as well as painted temple-shaped boxes or pots called manjusha, from which the tradition derives its name.
The painted boxes, along with the narrative scrolls, are of cultural and ceremonial significance during the Bishari Puja, an important local festival honouring the Bishari goddesses, while murals of Bihula, also known as bhitti chitra, were typically painted on the walls of a newlywed couple’s home as bearers of good fortune. Traditionally, members of the Kumbhakar community made the manjusha boxes, which were then painted by the Malakar community, who also painted the scrolls and murals.
Scholars believe Manjusha painting originated in the seventh century when the Bhagalpur region was known as Ang Pradesh and was an important centre of trade and commerce. Manjusha paintings typically depict the folk story of Bihula and the five Bisharis or manasputris. The Bisharis are believed to be the adopted daughters of Shiva and Parvati, and are closely associated with snakes in the region’s mythology.
Manjusha painting is done using only three colours: green, pink and yellow. The outlines and intricate details are drawn in green, after which sections are filled in with pink and yellow. The style has a flat perspective, and the characters are typically rendered in profile with their limbs spread in an “X” shape unless they are shown engaged in an activity that requires the use of their arms. The motifs that make up the borders of a Manjusha painting incorporate the significant features of the Bihula-Bishari story. It is believed that Shiva is fond of bel, or the wood apple tree and motifs of its leaves are often used to signify his favour in Manjusha paintings. Leheriya, or waves, represent Bihula’s journey on the river. Other significant motifs include sarp ladi, or a group of snakes, and the champa or frangipani flower. The five Bisharis, each of whom holds at least one snake, can be further identified by their weapons: Jaya wields a bow, an arrow and an amrut kalash, possibly referencing the Bisharis’ ability to cure snakebites; Dhotila holds the rising sun; Padmavathi carries a lotus; Mynah holds a mynah bird; and Maya holds snakes in both her hands.
Following the excavation of the Vikramshila monastery in the 1930s and the discovery of artefacts that placed the origin of Bishari Puja as early as the seventh century, Manjusha painting received steady patronage from the colonial British government. An exhibition of Manjusha paintings on canvas was also organised at the India Office Library in London, UK. However, after India gained independence, public interest in Manjusha painting declined significantly. It was revived once again in the 1980s due to the efforts of the Bihar government’s Department of Information and Public Relations, which worked with local Manjusha artists such as Chakravarty Devi, Jyoti Chand Sharma and Shrimati Nirmala Devi to promote and popularise the art form.
In 2007, a not-for-profit organisation called Disha Gramin Vikas Manch collaborated with the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development to re-establish Manjusha paintings as a viable source of livelihood by holding training and awareness programmes. The two organisations provided incentives in the form of marketing campaigns and exhibitions as well as financial support for businesses that sold the paintings.
Today, Manjusha paintings feature on a variety of commercial products, such as upholstery and masks, as well as on the exterior of the Vikramshila Express train, which connects Bhagalpur with New Delhi.
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