The art of a country or a region reflects its culture and traditions. They are a reflection of the times at which that art originated.
A drive down Highway 52 of the Madhubani district or Ranti Vilaage in particular, in Bihar would leave you awestruck. It will tell you how the world renowned Madhubani paintings originated about 2500 years ago and thrive till date. Moreover, the Madhubani paintings saved an entire forest and even shed light on the various women’s issues.
Madhubani paintings are said to date back to the times of Ramayana, when King Janaka, the king of the kingdom of Mithila, asked an artist to capture his daughter Sita’s wedding to Prince Rama. The Madhubani paintings were usually a woman’s domain, created by the women on the walls and floors of their homes during festivals, ceremonies or any other special occasions. Since they originated in the Mithila region of Bihar, they are also called Mithila paintings. They are now traditional to areas of Bihar and Nepal.
In 1934, when a massive earthquake hit Bihar, the Mithila paintings or Bhitti Chitra were first discovered. The then British Colonial office of Madhubani district – William G Archer chanced upon these paintings on the inner walls of the homes when he was examining the damage that the earthquake had caused.
The Madhubani paintings are done using fingers and twigs, as well as matchsticks and pen nibs. These paintings generally use bright colours. An outline is first made with rice paste to form a framework for the painting. These paintings generally do not have any blank spaces. The borders of the paintings, if there, are embellished with geometric and floral patterns. The paintings are made using natural dyes, for instance, charcoal and soot for black colour, turmeric extract for yellow colour, red from sandalwood, blue from indigo, green from spinach and leaves, etc.
A major feature of these Madhubani paintings is that the figures in these paintings have prominently outlined, bulging fish-like eyes and pointed noses. Natural elements, such as, fishes, parrots, elephants, turtles, Sun, Moon, bamboo trees, lotuses, etc generally make for the theme of these paintings. The paintings also frequently depict scenes from wedding rituals, religious rituals, different cultural events, mythology, etc.
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.
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