Mithila Art: A living tradition since the Ramayana

Mithila Art: A living tradition since the Ramayana

As you wander through the dusty-lanes of the squat-little Rajanpali hamlet in Madhubani district of Bihar, you find local women painting the marriage scenes of Lord Rama with Sita from the Ramayana while sitting under the cool shade of an Aam-Gachi(mango tree) or in the verandah of their houses.

You might be surprised but this tradition of painting Sita in a bridal dress exchanging the “Maala” (garland) with Lord Rama and other scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata has been continuing in the picturesque villages dotting Madhubani district since time immemorial. Sita is believed to have been born in this very region.

Be it Rajanpali, Hanti, Marar, Jitwarpur, Ranti, Simri or other villages of Madhubani, the womenfolk have been doing this on paper, cloth and walls of their houses as a matter of centuries-old tradition. In fact, the local women-folk, by instinct, turn painters of Madhubani Motif or The Mithila School of Art.

For generations together, the art of depicting Ramayana, Mahabharata and other facets of Hinduism passed on from mother to daughter. It might appear strange but this form of art is done only by the women. It is a no entry art-zone for males. 

Before we delve deep into the tradition of Madhubani painting, let us know that it is perhaps the only form of art in entire India which is done exclusively by human fingers, matchsticks, nib-pens and tree-twigs. Only the bio-colours extracted from vegetables, clay, milk, glue extracted from Babul tree, fruits, flowers and leaf of the plants are used in this form of art. Incidentally, the genre of this art remains unchanged since the days of the epic Ramayana. This perhaps is the only school of art that revolves around Hinduism. Perhaps this is the reason that natural colours are used, for maintaining the sanctity of the religion.

An Art Genre Rooted Deeply in Ramayana

Thousands of women in Madhubani which falls in the ancient Mithila region are engaged in this particular form of folk art that is believed to have been practiced at least for the last 3500 years: a conservative estimate of the time of Ramayana.

It is also a ritualistic art that is still used to decorate the marriage chamber of the newlyweds. Many stories from the epics are depicted through this form of art.

In fact, the tradition in Mithila has it that King Janak asked the local womenfolk to decorate the royal palace with the special paintings at the time of the marriage of his daughter Sita with Lord Rama. The village women accordingly painted the walls with motifs such as lotus plants, bamboo groves, mango orchards, fishes in the ponds, birds and snakes in union: Mithun.

Since the time of Ramayana, the local womenfolk paint such scenes as the marriage of Rama and Sita, Sita Bidai or scene of sending Sita to her Sasural (husband’s house) and various Leela or moods of Lord Krishna like Makhan Chore or Kaliya Daman. We also often find the depiction of village haats or bazaars and different festivals as well like Chhat.

The paintings are made on important occasions like on marriage, the birth of a child, at the beginning of a festival like Chhat or Diwali. This ancient-most school of art follows certain artistic genres like Bharni, Kachni, Tantrik and Nepali. Since Mithilanchal or Mithila is adjacent to Nepal, this form of art also is very popular there.

One of the many specialties of Mithila painting is the application of very gaudy-bright-gorgeous colour combinations which catch the eyes immediately. These are natural colours, extracted only from bio-materials.

In the entire world, this perhaps is the only form of art that revolves around the epics and scriptures of a particular religion: Hinduism.Get monthly updates 
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Perhaps the Only Form of Art Using Natural Colour

Since the days of the epic Ramayana, the trend and use of raw materials in paintings have undergone a total change over the centuries replacing natural, biomaterial-based colours with synthetic ones. But the original ingredients have still been maintained by the women painters of Madhubani. Still, they make the outline of the paintings with rice paste for its framework as they used to do hundreds of years ago. 

A special trait of Madhubani painting is that no blank space is found in the painted pieces. In case there is a border, it is filled up with floral motifs. Just as the local painters used bamboo nibs, tree-twigs and other similar things in the days of King Janak, the womenfolk in Mithilanchal still paint with these elements.

Sanctity of Hinduism is maintained in making the paintings. The bright colours are made from turmeric, pollen, sandalwood, charcoal and shoot for black, blue from indigo, lime, leaf of Bel and other trees, kusum flower (for deep red), palash flower (for orange), vermillion and red clay. Since these natural floral and fruit juices mixed with natural gum from Babul tree are often boiled, the colours just don’t fade away.  

Interestingly enough, this particular school of art may have been one of the ancient most ones in India, yet the people of the country hardly knew about it before 1934. Can you believe a natural calamity – the disastrous earthquake in North Bihar – brought the Madhubani painting to the notice of the Indians? It really is an interesting story.

A School of Art Rising from Devastations

In 1934, a massive earthquake brought about virtual devastation in the northern part of Bihar. The entire Mithilanchal, particularly Madhubani district, turned into a heap of rubble with hundreds of houses collapsing with the quaking of the earth. While visiting the scenes of death, devastation and destruction, the British officer William G. Archer stumbled upon a certain type of painting in the walls of collapsed houses.

Archer, later becoming the South Asia Curator of Victoria and Albert Museum in London, was charmed by those paintings having a mythological theme as their genre which he later photographed.

He realised that the generically, these paintings are altogether from the other contemporary painting schools of India. Back in Patna, Archer researched a lot on this genre of painting. He took steps to bring Mithila Art to the notice of Indians and British people.

In 1960-62, a series of drought totally plagued the overall agriculture-based economy of the entire Mithilanchal pocket. Even as the Central and Bihar government took steps to provide succor to the local people, the All India Handicraft Board (AIHB) started encouraging the womenfolk to revive the Mithila Art and make it a viable source of income.

On being encouraged by the AIHB, the rural women started churning out the pieces of paintings. With the help of AIHB, the art dealers from New Delhi, Mumbai and Calcutta thronged Madhubani villages to buy those pieces of art. Now the country knew about the existence of such a beautiful form of art that differed totally from the aesthetic point of view from other forms of Indian art. 

Today, the Mithila paintings have virtually been added wings as those pieces in paper and cloth are flying as far as Japan, Belgium, Russia, USA, Norway, UK and France from the squat-little nondescript hamlets dotting northern part of Bihar. Even the Union Ministries of Railways, External Affairs and different Indian embassies are buying the pieces of this particular form of art to decorate their walls.

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