Through Changing Tides: A Brief History of the Art of Madhubani

“The flow of the river is ceaseless; and its water is never the same.

The foam that floats in the pools

Now gathering, now vanishing

Never lasts long.”

Kamo no Chōmei, 1212. 

Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936, interestingly states this at the beginning: “One thing stands out: the here and now of the work of art- its unique existence in the place where it is at the moment” (5). By means of announcing it at the outset, the author is reiterating the fact that in all major historical periods, perceptions of art- what constitutes it, who produces it, who ‘owns’ it- alters as per the epoch’s conventions. He is of the understanding that of all perceptions of art through the ages, two distinctive modes stand out i.e., a work of art holding “cultic” values (centred around religious beliefs), and the other being the “display” value (reproducibility of art via technological means)(12). In some ways, this theory holds true. Artistic expressions, especially in predominantly oral cultures, carry historic, communal, and ritualistic significance. Whether they be etched in stones, monoliths, caves, wood, clay, walls etc., the motifs imprinted on surfaces should be seen as potential archives of the past. However, in landscapes having undergone colonialism perpetuated by the West, these narratives more often than not get re-represented. There is a danger of over fetishising the “orient,” the “tribal,” “the indigenous.” Perhaps, Benjamin is alluding to this ‘newness’ which attempts to reproduce minor art forms without any nuances? Perhaps in such a setting, Madhubani (the art hailing from the forest, the voice-giving art of the Mithali communities) becomes just “Madhubani,” a noun, a passing phrase in post-colonialism “diversity” quota. The history of Madhubani (if at all a chronology is possible), can be recalled in three concrete time periods: Pre-colonial, Colonial, and Post-colonial. Though these might be generalised divisions in an otherwise complex history, they help provide a brief overview of the art form’s evolution.

Pre-Colonial Time Period: 

The art of Madhubani which emerged from the Mithila region spread across Bihar, Jharkhand, and Nepal, was a quintessential form of expression within these communities. Named after the Madhubani district situated in Bihar (one among its 38 states), this art form has a folkloric and mythical element to its origin story.  Few local texts date the practice of Madhubani back to the 14th century where King Janaka (present day Janakpur, Nepal) is said to have been commissioned a wedding portrait of his daughter Sita and Ram on their auspicious day. This story shares similarities to a specific form of Madhubani art known as Kohbar which is often associated with marriage ceremonies. Brides, usually with blessings from divine deities such as Shiva, decorate their houses with this style. Other significant forms of Madhubani are the tantrik (deeply symbolic patterns that directly reference Hindu tantras (“magical texts”)), Godna (said to have been pioneered by Chanu Devi through the use of bamboo sticks and khol), Kachni (a duo-tone artwork), and finally Bharni (a colourful art form heavily drawing from Hindu mythology). Traditionally practised by Mithila women—so much so that Madhubani is also known as Mithila art, it has today, a wider range of artists across genders. The composition of the art is in such a way that the artist attempts to cover all gaps. Every patch of surface is adorned in motifs representing people, animals, birds, plants, gods such as Krishna, Shiva, Lakshmi, and even festivals like Holi, Durga Puja and so on. In earlier times, the tools used for illustration were hands themselves, matchsticks, wood scraps, bamboo twigs, etc. These however, are now being replaced with synthetic brushes and the likes.

Colonial Time Period:

During the lengthy years of the British regime in India, the colonisation process expanded all terrains of administrative, political, religious, cultural, and even historical. Names of tribes, people, and places were altered according to the English alphabet. For example, the Zeme community of the northeast became “Zemi”, an error rectified only in the last few decades or so post-independence. Unsurprisingly then, every aspect of life became an act that needed “discovery” by the West. So, in January 1934, right after the devastating Bihar earthquake (8.4), a local British collector W. G Archer happened to chance upon the ruins of local households.

To his astonishment, “Art” in the form of “floating gods and goddesses” adorned the walls of many high caste Brahmin and Kayastha houses (David L. Szanton, 2007). Inspired by his Cambridge education and Western art training, Archer drew immediate comparisons of Madhubani with artists such as Chagall, Picasso etc. Szanton notes that Archer’s interpretations set a dangerous precedent for cultural appropriation. By placing focus on the tantrism of the art, he highlighted sexual symbolism, erotic love poetry as major recurring themes. No where in his records did he actually personally interact with the women who painted them. The pen, his pen to be exact, overwrote a centuries old passed-down tradition. The use of “modern” language like English trumped the “local” speech, making apparent the glaring imbalance in power relations between the imperial government and the actual indigenous inhabitants. His own wife, Mildred in later years (post-independence) published a historically inaccurate book titled Indian Popular Painting (1977) through Her Majesty the Queen’s Stationary Office (6). It is safe to assume then that throughout the years under the Raj, certain dominant narratives continued to overshadow the rest. That is, until the arrival of American anthropologist Raymond Lee Owens in 1977 (post-independence).

Post-Colonial Time Period: 

The essay “Madhubani: A Contemporary History (1971-2011)” by Narendra Narayan Sinha (2011), presents a succinct report on the corpus of writing available on the subject of Madhubani. After Archer, the district of Madhubani drew attention only in the 1950s due to prevailing droughts in the region. Pupul Jayakar (then chairperson of the Handloom Handicrafts Export Cooperation (HHEC), and Bhaskar Kulkarni (officer in charge of the relief programme) along with other imminent artists like Upendra Maharathi etc., decided to promote Madhubani as an art form to help women generate income. This point in time heralded the shift in art mediums. From the walls and doors of houses, Madhubani came to rest on a two-dimensional surface i.e., the paper.  Other notable mentions are French journalist Yves Vequaud who came to Mithila in 1973 and stayed for two years, producing a book and a film in the process. Sinha notes, “His book [The Women Painters of Mithila] , though blamed for false ethnographic reporting, resulted in the worldwide popularity of Mithila painting” (1246). The credit however, for the revival of Madhubani art and community, is Raymond Lee Owens. In 1976, Owens arrived at Mithila on a FullBright scholarship to research floods and water irrigation. On attending a lecture from Indian anthropologist M.N Srinivas who urged his audience to not simply “study” villages but also be of “use” to them, Owens decided to start the Master Craftsmen’s Association of Mithila (MCAM) in 1977 and later the still-present Ethnic Arts Foundation (EAF) in 1977. Through these trans-national interactions, renowned artists such as Sita Devi, Ganga Devi, Mahasundari Devi, and Dulari Devi (a Padma Shri awardee of 2021) and many others were able to showcase their works in and outside the country.

Women Can Do Everything: Feminist Madhubani Art
(Sourced from David Szanton’s article. The title of this image reads: Figure16. Shalinee Kumari 2004. Women Can Do Everything)

In recent times, Madhubani art work has become a household name for many people across countries. The popularity of this form has not come without any baggage. From mass produced copies to counterfeit ones, Madhubani has taken on a role separate from how it first originated. In an article by the Hindu (4th January, 2013), a startup 100Krafts led by Nishant Gupta and Roshan Ravi records this: “Artisans too are now waking up to the demands of new-age customers. For instance, some of the artists we met in Bihar offered their work in various mediums - such as paper, cloth and even on T-Shirts!.” Apart from the pressing need to “adapt” that the artists themselves face, another shift can be noted in the very subject of the art works. Where previously deities and religious iconography dotted the artists’ imaginative landscapes, numerous contemporary artists like Shalinee Kumari (An art titled “Women Can Do Everything,'' 2004), Rani Jha (“Breaking Through the Curtain,” 2010), Annu Priya (“Traditional Woman vs Modern Woman”, 2010) to name a few, are attempting to revolutionise Mithila paintings. Tricia Taormina in her article “India and Nepal’s Mithila Art is Having a Feminist Renaissance” (2019) documents art partners and husband-wife duo Mahalaxmi and Shantanu Das’s feminist pieces. On them she writes this: “[Their] work spans a breadth of themes from ritual depictions to a playful series on mermaids. Their ongoing [feminist] series, “Household Diaries,” depicts local women in what Mahalaxmi calls their “various incarnations”- wives, mothers, workers, painters.”  It is also pertinent to note that caste divisions are very much a reality in the Mithila communities. The women however, from interviews held and paintings studied, express concerns about these social issues. Szanton records an interesting point in a footnote: “I have only seen two paintings that directly refer to caste conflict, and both were done by upper caste young women.” While the first one showed a Dalit woman being denied water from the common well, the second one showed a tragic love story in nice panels, between a young lower caste man hired to tutor a upper caste woman. Even Padma Shri winner Dulari Devi’s family in an interview with The Indian Express stated the following: “She is the pride of the village. Who would have ever thought a mallah’s illiterate daughter would bring such honour and recognition to the village?”

Returning back to Benjamin and his words in the beginning of the essay, we recall his theory on art becoming “displayable” and “reproducible” as mass culture rapidly grows. He furthers this by adding that this correlation of art and the masses creates a “collective reaction” - where if one one hand new representations are praised, equally on the other, they are shunned. The reaction to change then, in this light, depends on art’s capacity to constantly re-display itself. David Szanton records his email interchanges with a processor and a budding Mithila artist. Though the professor recognised that tradition must evolve, he also questioned the eligibility of Mithila paintings addressing topics such as 9/11. He writes: “What is the subjective response of that painting to the person who is engaging with it? Is it the same as traditional painting of gods and goddesses? Can it qualify as visual knowledge?” Whereas, in an interview with Rambharos Jha on his “not-so-traditional” painting on waterlife, Jha answered: “Of course I’m a Mithila artist. Tradition is like flowing water. It must flow to stay clean. If it stops flowing it gets dirty, becomes stagnant.” 

I return at this point to the haiku narrated by the reclusive Japanese monk Kamo no Chōmei, the flow of the river is indeed ceaseless like time. Although the imprint/reflection of the trees, the river bank, the smooth stones, the birds etc. reflects on the water, the medium itself, the water-canvas, keeps moving. 


  1. Padma Shri Ramchandra Manjhi and Dulari Devi: Tale of two artists, and of art, caste and grit in Bihar | India News,The Indian Express
  2. “Nirala,” Narendra Narayan Sinha. “MADHUBANI: A CONTEMPORARY HISTORY (1971-2011).” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 71, 2010, pp. 1243–50. JSTOR, Accessed 20 Aug. 2022.
  3. India and Nepal’s Mithila Art Is Having a Feminist Renaissance - Atlas Obscura
  4. Ethnic Arts Foundation
  6. Janakpur Women's Development Center
  7. The Politics of Mithila Painting | ORIAS
  8. Types of Madhubani Painting - Authindia
  9. Ray Smith Symposium Focuses on Commodification, Aesthetics of South Asian Folk Art | Syracuse University News
  10. Madhubani walls - The Hindu



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