E xclusively the domain of women, the art of Madhubani painting has been handed down from one generation to another. Translated, Madhubani literally means ‘a forest of honey’. The art flourished in the villages around Madhubani in the Mithila region of north Bihar near the Indo-Nepal border. This region has historical and religious importance as Mahavir, Buddha and Lord Rama’s wife Sita, are all believed to have been born here.
Historically, painting was an important medium of expression for the women of the Madhubani region, in the absence of any formal education. The works of art were created mainly for ritual occasions. Mothers passed on the traditional skill to their young enthusiastic daughters.
The paintings are mostly pictorial depictions of gods and goddesses from the Hindu pantheon like Rama, Krishna, Shiva, Ganesh, Lakshmi, Durga and Kali. Durga, the goddess of energy, sitting on her vahana (vehicle), a lion, is often seen in their creations. As is the amorous couple of Hindu mythology, Radha and Krishna – with Krishna playing the flute and Radha offering water to a bird from her pot. Goddess Lakshmi too is often depicted in their paintings. Special events like marriage ceremonies and court scenes are also depicted, besides themes from nature. Geometrical designs fill up all the gaps, leaving hardly any empty space in this style. Being of a religious nature, the paintings are done by the women predominantly at home, in anointed areas like the prayer room. It is said that women offer prayers to the deity before starting on a painting. Traditionally, the work is done on freshly plastered mud, dung walls and floors.
The women don’t use camel hair brushes to create their works of art, but use only plain, slatted bamboo sticks with wads of cotton to apply the paint. “The colours are made from vegetable dyes or are of natural origin and are prepared by the women themselves.” explained Anmala Devi, a Madhubani artist herself, who spread out samples of her work for us to photograph. “For example, black is made by mixing soot with cow dung, yellow from turmeric, blue from indigo, red from red sandalwood, green from leaves and white from rice paste. The black outlines are drawn first and then the colour is filled into the spaces. ” Yet, despite the crude implements, the result is a bright and bold image with a character of its own. While this art has been in practice for centuries, it has, for most practical purposes, remained confined within the region. Even now, the women prefer to remain anonymous. Most of them being illiterate, are shy, and have not been outside the confines of their mud-thatched villages.
Unfortunately, it was a tragedy that led to these paintings being exposed, appreciated and collected as ethnic art around the globe. During the period 1966-68, a prolonged drought struck Madhubani and the neighbouring region of Mithila. A new source of non-agricultural income had to be found to keep these people away from the pangs of hunger. The All India Handicrafts Board encouraged the women artists to create their paintings on handmade paper for commercial purposes. For the market, the work is done on handmade paper or cloth treated with cowdung to give it its distinctive look and identity. Ever since, this craft has become a regular source of income. The artists travel far and wide and sell their work through art exhibitions. Their success has inspired even their menfolk to join them in their art to meet the growing demand.