Madhubani Painting

Madhubani (Literal meaning: The Forest of Honey) is a small village in Northern Bihar, in India, complete with its small clay and straw huts, narrow lanes and smell of cow dung. To the uninitiated, this nondescript hamlet seems to be having nothing extra ordinary on offer. The sheer abundance of houses, fences, temples and lanes is enough to startle a person until he comes to know the fact that this undistinguished little village is the heartland of the internationally acclaimed school of folk art painting called 'Madhubani' or 'Mithila' painting.

Blissfully unaware of Picasso and Hussain, the women folk of Madhubani and its adjacent Maithili villages (presently comprising the districts of Champaran, Saharsa, Muzaffarpur,

Vaishali, Darbhanga, Madhubani, Samastipur, parts of Monghyr, Beguserai, Bhagalpur and Purnea) have kept this hereditary art of three dimensional painting alive for centuries. It is their expression of day-to-day life and practiced as a part of daily rituals.

The origin of Madhubani paintings can be traced back to the tradition of painting walls for the purpose of domestic beautification and ceremonial rituals. This folk art is believed to have survived from epic periods. Tulsidas (an ancient Indian poet) has given a vivid account of Mithila decorated for the marriage of Sita with Ram (Indian Mythological figures). Natural and mythological figures, added with deities of the Hindu pantheon, besides regional flora and fauna were painted on household and village walls to mark the seasonal festivals of the religious year and for special events of the life cycle, especially the rite of marriage. 'Januar', 'Gosain Ghar', 'Chhat', 'Chauth Chand', and 'Devathan Ekadasi' were some of the festivals integrally linked to this ethnic art form. For the first three occasions the walls were embellished with paintings of gods and goddesses. And for the latter two occasions mural paintings were done in the 'khobar' or the nuptial room at the bride's house.

The paintings in 'khobar' were meant to bestow a blissful life on the newly married couple and naturally there was an abundant use of imageries related to fertility, love and conjugality. It was considered necessary to include all the main gods and goddesses in the paintings so that they can shower their blessings on the newly weds. Divine couples like Shiva and Parvati, Vishnu and Lakshmi, Ram and Sita, Radha and Krishna along with Jagannatha trio and Ganesha were illustrated on the walls.

Maithilis are Sakti worshippers with the influence of Tantric rituals and so Siva-Sakti, Kali, Durga, Ravana and Hanuman also appear in their murals. Often, the bride and groom were also depicted whereby they could also become a part of the auspicious scene. The symbols like ring of lotuses and bamboo tree were frequently used to decorate the walls. The other symbols included, moon, a source of heavenly nectar, to ensue a long life, sun to fertilize and impregnate, turtles to bring beneficent powers to the matrimonial alliance, parrots to symbolize bride and bridegroom and fishes to help in fertility. The divine beings were positioned centrally in the frame while their consorts or mounts or simply their symbols and floral motifs formed the background. The human figures are mostly abstract and linear in form; the animals are usually naturalistic and are invariably depicted in profile. The colors are applied flat with no shading. There is normally a double line drawn for the outlines, with the gap between the lines filled by cross or tiny straight lines. In the linear painting, no colors are applied. Only the outlines are drawn.

Madhubani painting was executed on smooth mud walls plastered with cow dung. Often, a coat of whitewash was also applied before actually starting the process of the painting. Traditionally natural colors obtained from plant extracts (Henna leaves, Bougainvillea, Neem) were used as the medium. Natural juices obtained from plants were mixed with resin from banana leaves and ordinary gum in order to make the paint stick to the painting medium. Presently, synthetic colors are also used. However, black continues to be obtained from the soot deposits by the flame of diyas (earthen oil lamps), dissolved in gum. The colors used are usually deep red, green, blue, black, light yellow, pink and lemon.

Colors, in Madhubani Painting, along with having a decorative role, also play an important symbolic part. For instance, energy and passion are expressed through the use of red and yellow, as monochrome crashed over large surfaces of the painting. Concentration of energy and the binding force is best reflected in red while green governs the natural leaves and vegetation. Two kinds of brushes are used - one for the tiny details made out of bamboo twigs and the other for filling in the space which is prepared from a small piece of cloth attached to a twig.

Women of the household and from the neighborhood came together to paint the walls. The most experienced woman took the charge and drew outlines of the figures. Once, the outlines were sketched the other women filled colors in the shapes. Young girls were usually assigned the task of holding the pots of paint and preparation of paintbrushes. The idea was that they should get well acquainted with the ritual and technique of painting by the time they leave for their husband's house.

Women from the castes of Maithil Brahmins and Maithil Kayasths were the primary practitioners of this folk painting and both the clans had their distinctive ways of painting. Maithil Kayasth paintings appear to be tightly bound into panels with patterned frames or ranged in long processions round the walls. The chief colors, which were used in the paintings, were bluish gray, ochre, and black. The paintings were executed in complicated patterns. The figures were fleshy and stout in nature. Maithil Brahmin paintings can best be described as casual collection of figures that seem to float like aimless creatures in a single flat plane yet gracefully harmonizing each other in the pictorial space. There is ample use of blues, yellows, pinks, and reds in these paintings.

Even though Madhubani painting has been practiced for centuries, it has become an internationally acknowledged and commercially viable art form only during the last few decades. A major ecological and economic crisis engendered by the prolonged draught of 1966-1968 that struck Madhubani and the surrounding Mithila region, made the craft of Madhubani paintings cross its domestic threshold and step into the larger world outside. In order to generate a new source of non-agricultural income, the women were encouraged to produce their traditional painting on hand made paper for commercial purposes. Since then the traditional art of painting has become the source of sustenance for scores of families in the region.

Despite the lure of economic profits, the practitioners of this folk art have kept their artistry strongly rooted to traditional themes and techniques. Not only has it generated a steady source of income for rural Indian women and their families, but it has also been a unique window to a long heritage of art linked with the lives of women otherwise hidden from the world outside.

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Explore the colors and images of incredible India at this rare online gallery of Indian Paintings, consisting magnificent Madhubani paintings, mysterious Warli paintings, Patachitras, Tribal Paintings, Thangka Paintings and also contemporary Indian art paintings.