The living tradition of Mithila paintings

Josheen Oberoi looks at the history and artistic practice of Mithila (popularly known as Madhubani) paintings

New York: Mithila paintings, sometimes referred to as Madhubani, originate in the region of Mithila from where they also derive their name (as is often the case in artistic traditions in India). This nomenclature is fitting since it is the geographical origin and medium of the artwork that unites this genre. Beyond that this tradition encompasses a diversity of aesthetic styles and content. As a living tradition, Mithila painting has had a dramatic trajectory over the last fifty years, and its evolution is crucial to understanding its value.

Mithila is the birthplace of Sita, located on the plains of Bihar. This mineral rich area plays into the aesthetics of Mithila paintings – the primary mediums for this tradition have always been natural vegetable dyes and mineral oxides. This accessibility of medium also tangentially relates to the original praxis of Mithila painting since it is the women of Mithila who had been the sole practitioners for generations creating ceremonial and devotional floor paintings (aripana) and wall murals (kohabar) for festivals and auspicious occasions like weddings using simple brushes made of bamboo and raw cotton. These paintings created sacred spaces for their domestic rituals.

Indrakala Devi
Earth and oxide colours on handmade paper
29.5 x 21.5 in
From: the collection “Colours of the Earth”, The Story by Saffronart

The first known recording of Mithila painting occurred in the 1930s. After an earthquake in Bihar in 1934, W.G. Archer, a British civil servant, found these wall and floor paintings in his survey of the area. He and his wife Mildred photographed and published their subsequent research over the next fifteen years. The 1950s and 60s saw a greater interest from Indian scholars. However, it was a 1966 drought in the area that led to its transformation from a localized and domestic art form to a national one. In the 1970s, the All India Handicrafts Board in an effort to provide economic assistance for the drought affected encouraged women of the region to transfer their wall paintings on to paper, for sale. The works in “Colours of the Earth” from the Story by Saffronart  primarily come from this early period, marking this critical chapter in the history of Mithila painting.

An art form independent of stylistic influences, Mithila painting was practiced by women from every caste. However, art historian Neel Rekha notes in her dissertation “Art and Assertion of Identity: Women and Madhubani Paintings” that one outcome of this change to paper as a medium in the 1970s was the emergence of different styles of painting. These can be broadly categorised as Geru, Bharni, Kachni, Tantric, Gobar (cow dung), and Godana (tattoo).

Earthoxide, ink and gouache on paper
29.5 x 21.5 in
From: the collection “Colours of the Earth”, The Story by Saffronart

In the early 70s, most paintings were close to the Geru style, the folk art tradition, with an absence of ornamentation and thick black lines. While the Bharni (filled) style uses strong colours and mostly eschews lines, the Kachni (lined) style is marked by the intricate use of line to create dense, beautiful patterns. In content, Maithil artists also retain their autonomy – subjects range from mythological epics and celebrations of rituals and important events to snapshots of their daily life. Theirs is picture writing, and their ideas and experiences remain key to this art, as they were when this tradition was private to these women’s homes.

Importantly, the names of these women artists from the 1970s onwards, like Indrakala Devi, Annapurna Devi, amongst others are documented and attributed, creating a significant canon of Mithila art. Ganga Devi, a Karn Kayastha, Sita Devi, a Mahapatra Brahmin, and Jumna Devi, a Harijan, were important early painters in this tradition, each with a distinct aesthetic. Both Ganga Devi and Sita Devi have represented India at major cultural exhibitions in Japan, Russia, Europe and the USA.

Strong scholarship on Mithila paintings, from the 1970s onwards has been vital to building knowledge around the art form. Yves Vequad, a French novelist and journalist, produced a pioneering book and a film, The Women Painters of Mithila,in the 1970s. Another researcher, Raymond Lee Owens, set up the Master Craftsmen Association of Mithila in 1977 and the Ethnic Arts Foundation in 1980. This association, which is still active, provides the artists of the region with a regular source of income through exhibitions and sales. The Mithila Art Institute (MAI) was set up in 2003 at the bequest of the late Owens, and is an important source for the transmitting of techniques and the specific Maithil painting culture. In Tokamachi, Japan, the Mithila Museum exhibits about 850 Madhubani paintings at any given time.

Attributed to Rudhan Devi
Man on Bull
c. 1970s
Earth and oxide colours on handmade paper
21.5 x 29.5 in
From: From: the collection “Colours of the Earth”, The Story by Saffronart

Works by Maithil artists are also in the permanent collections of Crafts Museum, New Delhi, Syracuse University, New York, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. At the latter two institutes, important exhibitions of Mithila paintings were held in 2002-03. Another significant exhibition was held at the Janakpur Women’s Development Center; their website has an incredible diversity of work available for viewing, while a documentary made on five Mithila artists by the University of Wisconsin-Madison documents the diversity of practices within this oeuvre.

Interestingly, the predominance of international exhibitions vis-a vis domestic suggests an appreciation for this tradition abroad that has been somewhat lacking in India. However, the government of Bihar stated early this year that plans are underfoot to open a school for teaching Mithila.

Sashikala Devi
Snake Gods
c. 1970s
Earth, oxide colours on handmade paper
22 x 30 in
Image courtesy: Saffronart’s Indian Folk and Tribal Art and Objects Auction (Aug 21 – 22, 2012), Lot 16

The shared history of Mithila paintings and the intuitive understanding of pictorial language is a constant within the diversity of the visual aesthetics that this tradition represents. Key to the economic independence of women from the region from the 70s onwards, it continues to be dominated by women artists, although now not exclusively so. The early works from the 1970s began this chapter of contemporary Mithila painting and have shown a consistent demand, even as newer artists emerge. In a recent Saffronart auction in August 2012, works by artists like Bachi Devi, Sashikala Devi (the image above) and Kali Devi, all from the 1970s, received a strong response.

“Mithila painting is part decoration, part social commentary, recording the lives of rural women in a society where reading and writing are reserved for high-caste men” (Arminton, Bindloss & Mayhew, 2006, p. 315). The suggestion  that these paintings empowered women by providing them tools of communication and documenting their lives has remained central to its narrative. The aesthetics and vibrancy of this artistic tradition has persevered in the independent voice that each Mithila artist represents.