History of Madhubani
Literally meaning forests of honey, Madhubani painting has traditionally been done by the women of villages around the present town of Madhubani and other areas of Mithila in the state of Bihar, India.
A 2500-year-old folk art, the history of Madhubani paintings is said to date back to the time of Ramayana, when King Janaka asked an artist to capture his daughter Sita’s wedding to Prince Rama. These paintings were usually created by women on walls and floors of homes during festivals, ceremonies or special occasions.
The traditional base of freshly plastered mud walls of huts has now been replaced by cloth, handmade paper and canvas. Since the paintings have been confined to a limited geographical area, the themes as well as the style are, more or less, the same throughout the region. Madhubani paintings make use of two-dimensional images and the colors that are used are derived mainly from plants, though contemporary artists also use watercolors and acrylics.
The paintings are characterized by figures that have prominently outlined, bulging fish-like eyes and pointed noses. The themes of these paintings usually include natural elements like fish, parrots, elephants, turtles, the sun, moon, bamboo trees and lotus. Geometric patterns can be seen in these pictures that often symbolize love, valour, devotion, fertility and prosperity. This ancient art form has also been known to depict scenes of wedding rituals, religious rituals and different cultural events such as festivals and mythology.
Making Madhubani Paintings
The brush used for Madhubani paintings of Bihar was made of cotton, wrapped around a bamboo stick. The artists prepared the colors that are used for the paintings. Black is made by adding soot to cow dung; yellow from combining turmeric (or pollen or lime) with the milk of banyan leaves; blue from indigo; red from the kusam flower juice or red sandalwood; green from the leaves of the wood apple tree; white from rice powder and orange from palasha flowers. There is no shading in the application of colors. A double line is drawn for outlines and the gap is filled with either cross or straight tiny lines. In the case of strictly linear paintings, only black is used for the images.
Madhubani Art in Present Times
The contemporary art of madhubani painting was born in the early 1960’s, following the terrible Bihar famine. The women of Mithila were encouraged by the government to apply their painting skills to paper as a means of supplementing their meager incomes. Once applied to a portable and thus more visible medium, the skills of the Mithila women were quickly recognized. The work was enthusiastically bought by tourists and folk art collectors alike.
Over the ensuing fifty years a wide range of styles and qualities of Madhubani art have evolved, with styles differentiated by region and caste, particularly the Brahmin, Kayastha and Harijan castes.
Women of the Brahman caste contributed to promote the style of Mithila paintings called Bharni. Their art can be said to be characterized by bright colours bordered with a bold, dark black outline. Women of the Kayasth caste earned their name for their elaborate style of Mithila paintings that used plenty of lines and making paintings predominantly with outlines only. They depict village or religious scenes to the finest details. It is said that Brahmins prefer to use bright hues while the Kayasthas opt for muted ones, more lines and outlines. The third group comprising of women of the Scheduled Castes or Harijans, are known to treat their surfaces with mud or cow dung prior to painting. Harijan paintings broadly come under two styles – Gobar, or cow dung painting (made by Chamar caste that disposed of carcasses), and Godana, or tattoo painting (made by Dusadh community who were agricultural laborers).
Many individual artists have emerged with distinctive individual styles. Among the best known early Brahmin artists have been the late Ganga Devi, Baua Devi, Sita Devi, and Karpoori Devi. Today’s leading artists, working in the kayastha style, include Pushpa Kumari and her grandmother, Mahasundari Devi.
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 Madhubani 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.
Khazana has an extensive collection of Madhubani paintings circa 1980-2005. A large selection of the works are made and signed by the artist Baua Devi. Devi's paintings on paper explore an array of personal and mythological themes. One of her favorite subjects is the nag kanya, or snake maiden, a creature with the torso and head of a beautiful woman and the lower body of a snake.
See Baua Devi's work, as well as other artists' Madhubani paintings on display at Khazana during the month of May, 2018.
We recommend this video of 5 master Madhubani artists, if you want to explore further.