Madhubani~History, themes and characteristics

Madhubani~History, themes and characteristics

Painting is a mode of expression for human thought. In the Indian context, art emerged when homo sapiens painted on mud surface through twigs, fingers or bone points which could not withstand the ravages of time. The earliest available examples found from the Mesolithic caves evolved their way with their continous presence in the daily lives of people. So developed the wall painting tradition of India, of which Madhubani is a famous name.

Madhubani painting is said to have developed in the ancient city of Mithila, the birth place of Sita, daughter of king Janak. It is said that the Mithila paintings were commissioned by the king to commemorate the marriage of his daughter to Lord Rama of Ayodhya. It was recognised as kulin art or art of the pure castes. It continues to flourish as a household art, mainly as social customs and practises. Due to the growing demand of this artform, the artists cease to confine themselves to walls and have started painting on canvases, paper and other objects. The publications, photographs and educational films by E. Moser Schmitt give us a first-hand account of themes, techniques and social backgrounds, philosophically, Madhubani painting is a living tradition based on principles of dualisms, where opposites run in dualisms – day or night, sun or moon, etc. They represent a holistic universe, inundated with deities, sun and moon, flora and fauna, among others. It also includes symbols from buddhism, tantric symbols, Islamic sufism, and classical Hinduism.

Jogan painting

Figure 1 Jogan painting

Discovery of Madhubani paintings

In the present context, Madhubani painting tradition was discovered by William G. Archer, a British colonial officer of the Madhubani district in 1934, when a massive earthquake hit Bihar. He chanced upon these paintings in the interior walls of the houses. He then housed a repository of much better quality and wider themed Madhubani paintings.

About Madhubani paintings

The wall paintings of Madhubani can be divided into figurate and non-figurative wall paintings. The former is more colourful and richer in symbols. The Kohbar has the most illustrious wall drawings. It is of three types: Kohbar of north Bihar/ madhubani style; Kohbar of eastern Uttar Pradesh; border drawings with creeper motifs.

Traditionally these paintings were done by Brahmin and Kayastha women. Until the 1970s the artform remained unappreciated. The arrival of art dealers and national recognition provided the villagers with new sources of income. Further research revealed that even the Harijan women decorated the walls of their huts with such paintings. However, their paintings differ in the terms of style and content. The brahmin women favour a free composition with bright colours; Kayastha women focus on the line drawing and enclosure of individual scenes. These traditionally different styles have now merged their depictions to much extent.

Over the course of time, some women have carved a name and recognition for themselves, such as – Ganga Devi of Chiri village, Jagdamba Devi of Ranthi village, Sita Devi and Yamuna Devi from Jitwarpur village.

Making of the painting

Thin layers of mud and cow dung are used to coat the surface. It acts as a preservative and a strengthening agent. It is considered auspicious and a harbinger of prosperity. It is followed by imagery made using powdered rice and paint using fingers, bamboo twigs, cotton rags and nowadays pens. Traditionally no space is left in the painting. It is filled with flowers, birds, animals, tattoo designs etc.

 Themes, Colours and Symbols

The themes for the paintings differ depending on the function or the event that they are painted for. However, the central theme remains love and fertility. All deities of the hindu pantheon and the rural local traditions can be found in the art.

Some of the favoured subjects are – bride surrounded by fishes and other auspicious symbols, bridegroom wearing his nuptial crown, hunting and ploughing scenes, trees, animals, etc.

 A special chamber called Kohbar is made during the wedding ceremonies. At times even the floor would be painted, serving purpose similar to that of Alpana from Bengal. According to Mildred Archer:

 “The subject matter of these paintings can be divided into two types. There are firstly the gods who bring their blessings to the bridal pair – Shiva and Kali and Ganesh. To these are sometimes added the figures of bride and bridegroom and their attendants. In the second place are various symbols of prosperity – elephants, fish, parrots, turtles, the sun and moon, a bamboo tree and a great circular lotus flower. These symbols will, it is hoped, bring good fortune to the young couple and bless them with children.”

Traditionally the colours were prepared by the women themselves. Burnt jawar or kajal was used for black; turmeric or chuna mixed with milk from banyan tree for yellow; pailash flower for orange; kusum flower for red; bilva leaf for green. However today the readymade colours from bazaars are used. This has led to a richer and wider palette.

The colours are governed by the five basic elements of life – earth, water, fire, sky, and air. These are denoted by various shades; earth by yellow, water by white, fire by red, sky by blue and air by black. These elements are also explained using three basic forms – triangle, circle and square. A triangle that has its tip towards the sky denotes fire and the one with its tip downwards depict water. Square depicts the earth. The circumference of the circle is used to denote air, while the inner portion depicts sky. Sky and air, fire and water are inter-related. All these forms emerge from a bindu, which represents Shiva and Shakti. A mishra bindu is formed when the formless Shiva visualises his form in Shakti.

The wall paintings are executed in three walls of the houses:

  • Gosai ghar or room of the family deity
  • Kohbar ghar or room of the newly wed couples
  • Verandah outside the Kohbar ghar, used as a room for visitors

 Some significant symbols in madhubani paintings are:

  • Parijat – Symbol of reproduction and fertility
  • Two peacocks – Symbol of eternity
  • Elephant aripana – Symbol of successful pregnancy
  • Lotus aripana – Signifies sexual energy
  • Circle aripana – God of creation
  • Parrot aripana – Symbol of kama
  • Snake – Power of regeneration
  • Mandalas – To evoke love among the newly-weds.

 A few important characteristics of Madhubani paintings

  • The paintings are divided into horizontal and vertical sections to imply different time and space.
  • The qualities of paintings vary between frescos and miniature style.
  • The bodies of gods and goddesses are foreshortened and often distorted. Common amongst them are radha-krishna madhubani, ganesha madhubani painting, etc.
  • The faces are shown in profile; however, the eyes have a frontal view. The eyes are painted after the whole painting is completed.

Modernisation

During the early 1980s, the Festivals of India gave an impetus to tribal and folk paintings through several cultural exchange programs in the United Kingdom. Today, modern madhubani paintings can also be found on sarees, stoles, bags, clocks, etc.  

The art of Mithila is unique, for here we can see a unique blend of comprehension, knowledge of Sanskrit and culture, vocabulary and iconography.

madhubani stole

Ganga Devi, a significant artist in Madhubani art

Ganga Devi is a Kayastha painter from the village Rasidpur. Like other kayastha painters, her artistic expressions were confined to the wall paintings of Kohbar ghar, or the ritual floor paintings or aripana. Her evolution as an artist is connected with the socio-cultural norms of the caste to which she belongs and the agonising personal events of her life which made her seek solace in art.

Her artistic growth can be traced back to the ritual floor painting. Her desire for ritual purity led to the iconographic perfection of her works. The second phase of her life began when her husband married someone else and threw her out on the street to fetch for herself. Around the same time, efforts of the Government of India and private artists like Pupul Jayakar led to an influx of paper. She recognised the advantages of smooth paper over the rough plaster. She solved the problem of perspective by eliminating depth-dimension completely. There was no shading or overlapping of objects to create depth. All objects began to have their own free space. These depictions made her work unfamiliar and individualistic.

The third phase of her life began in 1982 with her work ‘The cycle of life’. The theme comprised of a series of samskaras or ritual events as done in Madhubani painting.

 Written by ~ Misha Jaswal

Further References 

  • Anand, Mulk Raj. Madhubani Painting, New Delhi: Publication Division, 1984.
  • Appasamy, J. The Critical Vision, Selected Writings. New Delhi: Lalit Kala Akademi, 1985.
  • Archer, Mildred. Indian Popular Painting, London, 1977.
  • Archer, Mildred. Bihar Handicrafts, Bombay: Marg Publications, December 1966, Vol. XX,
  • No. 1, p. 47.
  • Bhatnagar, Parul. Traditional Indian Costumes and Textiles. Chandigarh: Abhshek
  • Bhavani, Enakshi. Folk and Tribal Designs of India. Bombay: Taraporevala, 1974.
  • Dayal, Bharti. Madhubani Art: Indian Art Series. New Delhi: Niyogi books, 2016.
  • Gupta, Charu Smita. Indian Folk and Tribal Paintings. New Delhi: Roli Books. 2008.
  • Jain, Jyotindra. Fine Contemporary Folk and Tribal Artists of India. New Delhi: The
  • Handicrafts and Handlooms Exports Corporation of India Ltd.
  • Jain, Madhu. Folk Arts of Uttar Pradesh. New Delhi: Indus Pub. Co., 2009.
  • Jayakar, Pupul. The Earthen Drum. New Delhi: National Museum, 1981.

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