Madhubani Arts - History - Introduction

[This piece of article is provided by Ms. SONAM DHINGRA who is a prominent art teacher at City Vocational Public School, Meerut, by profession and an artist herself. She has done in-depth research on indian arts and crafts.]


When Mithila painting was first transferred to paper for sale in the late 1960s, the previously unsigned if not quite anonymous "ritual art," was popularly recast as "folk art." For many painters today these two categories still seem accurate. But Mithila has also been generating numerous highly individuated self-conscious artists. As a result - and unlike most "traditional" arts of India - the styles and subjects of Mithila painting have evolved and multiplied dramatically. Displaying an extraordinary vitality, painters of different backgrounds have drawn on their own caste traditions, interaction with outsiders, a new sense of themselves as artists and social actors, and have responded to a wide range of national and international audiences and markets.

Mithila painting is still village-based and readily recognized. Yet it’s rapidly ramifying variants and dynamics suggest a developing aesthetic community or art world (Danto 1964) as rich and complex as that found among academically trained artists in Bombay, Calcutta, and New Delhi, or elsewhere in the world.

Wall Painting to painting on paper:
Ritual wall painting is of course an ancient domestic tradition in Mithila. Local women were encouraged to paint on paper in 1966-67. Paintings by Ganga Devi and Sita Devi were credible. National awards and exhibitions around the world have brought wide-spread audiences and attention to Mithila painting.

New themes and perspective in Madhubani art:
Aside from more traditional subjects Sita Devi painted extraordinary images of the World Trade Centre, Arlington National Cemetery, and facades of 19th century buildings in New York City. Ganga Devi used her refined linear style to depict, among other things, her hotel in Moscow, an American roller coaster, and her highly personal series of paintings of her ultimately fatal cancer treatment reproduced in Jyotindra Jain's 1997 volume "Tradition and Expression in Mithila Painting."Both women opened imaginative and expressive spaces for others to explore and brought a new themes and perspective to this art.

Inspiration to other women:
In effect, Sita Devi and Ganga Devi epitomized two distinctly different Brahmin and Kayastha styles of Mithila painting. Other Brahmin and Kayastha women also began painting in the late 1960s, and several won national and state awards. Painting in the villages around Madhubani has now become vastly more complex, varied, and vibrant. Thus as early as 1972, Dusadh women (and some men) in Sita Devi's village of Jitwarpur, also began to paint on paper.

Emergence of new styles:
Strikingly, the Dusadh quickly developed two different styles of painting on paper. One Dusadh style, exemplified by the innovative national awardee, Shanti Devi, resembled the Brahmin style in its boldly drawn "floating" figures, flowers and trees. The second Dusadh style, known as godna (tattoo) painting, was totally different. It consisted of small stick-like figures based on body tattoos geometrically organized in parallel lines, concentric circles, and rectangles.

Men and Madhubani paintings:
Despite of the popular impression that Mithila painting is a women's tradition, a small but significant number of men from several different castes also began painting in the 1970s. The men's paintings differ however in focusing on daily life and secular subjects - village life, musicians, farming activities, railroad trips, floods, local folklore - leaving the more ritual,
cosmological, sacred, and symbolic images.

Diversification of the Mithila painting:
As if this dispersion of subject matter, styles of painting, and indeed, of who was painting, was not enough, since the 1980s there has been further diversification of Mithila painting.

Numerous Kayastha and Brahmin women, while staying within their distinctive caste styles, began painting episodes from Hindu myths and legends, especially the Ramayana. Leela Devi produced a stunning large multi-episode painting telling the story of Kalidasa. Baua Devi, Lalitha Devi and Vinita Jha began producing series of 5 to 25 paintings on such varied subjects as the multi-year marriage ceremony, local legends and folktales, and most strikingly, their own life histories.

Dusadh painters have similarly diversified. Dusadh artists working in the godana style are breaking with the earlier geometrically organized paintings, e,g, Raudy Paswan's depiction of multiple episodes of a long Dusadh historical narrative, Urmila Devi's paintings of migrant workers and Chano Devi is experimenting with new black on white linear compositions and Sarup Lal Paswan is producing striking new minimalist paintings of tiny birds.

Emergence of new opportunities for women:
During the late 1970s and 1980s, American anthropologist Raymond Owens spent more than two years living in Jitwarpur and Madhubani helped found the Madhubani Master Craftsmens Association and the Ethnic Arts Foundation. In the process he became very close to many of the painters, providing continuous advice on American tastes and markets. Over the years he encouraged them to expand their repertoire to include local stories and legends as well as autobiographical paintings and series.

Tokio Hasegawa hosted eight Mithila painters for three to nine months at his Mithila Museum and Studio in the mountains of central Japan, and at exhibitions of their work in numerous Japanese municipalities. Several of the painters, including Ganga Devi, Sita Devi, Shanti Devi, Godaveri Dutta, Vimla Dutta, and Baua Devi made repeated trips to Japan. Their general experience and celebrity treatment in very foreign cultural settings inevitably raised their consciousness of themselves and their colleagues as creative artists.

Madhubani paintings and commercialization:
Generations over generation, this art has been carried forward, although the content and style has remained same but its form has changed. Modern transitions of the wall paintings on cloth and canvas can be seen all around these days (mainly due to commercial purposes). Now a day’s these are used as motifs for cards and dress materials. Change is quite visible in these pieces of work, cultural change and change in the tastes of viewers has made the painters change a bit. Although the recent trends of consumerism and selling attitude of the artists have made this art a salve of rich people. Although it has surrendered the entire traditional creativity before the buyers, yet the essence of a whole culture can be smelt from each and every piece of this art. The last 40 years have shifted Madhubani art from a community religious practise to a form of  ndividual creative expression. Paper transformed the context and purpose of the painting. The anonymous artist is now recognizable as a name and women who privately made their art within a courtyard crossed physical, ideological and conceptual bridges to break away, at least partially, from the boundaries structured by centuries of community tradition.