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Madhubani - A Revisit

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Mithila, in the state of Bihar of modern India, is a quite and bountiful region. Part of the Gangetic flood plains, it is among the most fertile patches of land in northern India. This has been true for the past 3500 years. The place is prominent in the ancient Hindu epic of Ramayana, as it is the kingdom of Sita, wife of Ram, the prince of Ayodhya. But the region is also popular for another reason – an art that is reportedly as old as history of the place itself – The Madhubani Paintings.

Madhubani, which literally means “from forests of honey” (Madhu means honey, bani implies forest or product of forest), is the most famous folk art of the region. The region, a  part of Mithila, is called Madhubani too. The paintings are sometimes referred to as Mithila paintings too. Another unique aspect of this form or art, is that unlike most other native painting techniques, it is practices predominantly by women. These paintings are created by women of the village on walls and floors of thier houses during festivals or special occasions like weddings.


Madhubani is considered a tribal art and the world was unaware of the art till early 1930s and came to limelight due to a devastating earthquake that damaged Bihar. In 1934, William Archer, a British Officer who was on inspection rounds to ascertain the damage caused by the earthquake, notices the paintings on walls of tribal homes and re-introduced it to the modern world.

Madhubani art is relatively less demanding when it comes to resources compared to other similar painting techniques. This can be credited to the artists – the women – who had to run the household as well. They could not afford the luxury of time, which is a major demand in other techniques. As most of the villages in the region are isolated, the resources to make the paints and dyes had to be locally and naturally sourced. This added a shade of exclusiveness to the art of every village.

The paintings were done on freshly plastered mud walls and floors of village houses. But now, they are made on larger number of mediums like handpaper, fabrics and canvas. Twigs were used to make the outlines while fingers were used to fill in the colors. Big eyes of the characters easily draw attention towards them. The paintings are bright-colored and there are rarely any blank spaces in the painting as every inch is covered with designs. If borders are needed, they too are filled with colorful geometrical and floral patterns.

Colors are made from natural material. Charcoal and soot is used for black, sandalwood extract for red, yellow from turmeric roots and indigo for the blues. As there was no commercial aspect for the paintings, minimal resources were used. The paintings faded and had to be replaced more than often. Different paintings were made for different seasons and festivals, each having some symbolic element that showed the significance of the event.

Apart from the big fish-like eyes, the paintings are characterised with pointed noses. Mithila has abundance of fish from the perenial rivers and they are considered a life-line during dry seasons which are results of an irregular monsoon. The people of the region celebrate as their symbol, which has been the royal emblem of the region for most part of history. They believe fish is life and life of a character lies in the eyes, hence the fish-shaped eyes.


Natural elements like trees, plants, fish, animals like elephantsand peacocks, the sun and the moon, flowers like lotus are all common occurences. Geometrical patterns are used in the scene to set the emotion of the painting like love, devotion and celebration. Religious rituals and mythological scenes are most commom themes found in the paintings.

There are five different styles of Madhubani – Bharni, Kachni, Tantrik, Godna and Khobar. Bharni, Kanchni and Tantrik are mainly religious paintings and depicted Hindu Gods and Godesses, plants and animals. Godna and Khobar focused more on daily lives of the villagers. But in current times, the difference between styles in thin and the art has achieved near homogeniety.

 

Madhubani paintings have become channels for social development and awareness campaigns.

In 2012, hundreds of trees were decorated with Madhubani paintings, mostly with divine figures. The local villagers stopped cutting these trees as the paintings instilled reverence. Synthetic paint was used for longer lifespan of the paintings and it is reported that not a single tree was cut after this campaign started. The campiagn started as as protest against felling of trees for building roads and other developmental projects. People would walk further to collect dead wood than cut the trees. The campaign gained publicity as among the simplest and most successful forest conservation program and villagers were made aware of the importance of trees and forests. The campaign was started by Shashtinath Jha.

Even before this campaign, Madhubani paintings have played a major role in women upliftment in rural Bihar. As most of the paintings were done by women, they portrayed social issues like female infanticide and foeticide, child marriage and family planning. The ideas were well recieved. Later, once the paintings were well known and were in demand, the women found a source of livelihood by selling the paintings. Many self-help groups were formed and hve been successful in lifting many families out of poverty. The art provided alternate employment when there was no agricultural activity.