Folk Art Tradition of Mithila – A Feminine Preserve
- If we look at the socio-economic background, then it would be adequate to say that Madhubani art came under the exclusive command and domination of the women artists of Mithila.
- Dulari Devi's life is nothing less than an extraordinary anecdote of an Indian rural woman moving from extreme poverty and constant menial labour to establish herself as an accomplished and recognised painter.
- Vibha and her connect to Mithila Painting goes back to 1962, when Bhaskar Kulkarni an early patron of this art came to the village looking out for Mahasundari Devi, the best painters of her times and Vibha’s mother-in-law.
Folk art as a form of art is associated with the common man. This art is related to a particular society, caste and religion and is practised as a ritual by a group within the periphery of a society. But the geographical and cultural factors of Mithila did not collaborate for creative activities. Consequently, the people of Mithila developed an entirely different form of the art catering to their needs and taste which presented the primitive impetuous and conventional survivals in a distinctive manner. Due to their style and technique, they gained immense fame and recognition in the world. Despite various economic constraints, these artists made these wall paintings on every religious and social occasion. If we look at the socio-economic background, then it would be adequate to say that this art came under the exclusive command and domination of the women artists of Mithila. The variety and inventiveness make them, perhaps most sophisticated and elegant of all popular paintings in India.
Mithila paintings are pictorial representations from the epic Ramayana. And as the myth goes, it was commissioned by Raja Janaka to celebrate the birth of his daughter, Sita.
To trace the principle origin, one must understand its religious compulsion, which operates the flow of the practice and is primarily responsible for shaping up its stylistic identity. They grew in the vicinity of the Hindu temples, to be used as sacred wall hangings, harmonising the walls around the chambers and passageways of the temple. Roving minstrels (Kathakas, storytellers) painted mythological figures and carried them to places, displaying them with an oration of the words of God. The painters over the ages have been performing the role of a reformer by promoting the flare of rectitude in the minds of the common populace, not as a preacher but the entertainer with their artistic ability of painting and singing. The origin of this continuity may be traced to the continuous spell of Hindu rule in Mithila from 1907 AD to c1550 AD under the Karnatas and the Oinavaras, which continued uninterruptedly under the Khandavala dynasty Darbhanga Raj till the present day.
The transition of paintings from the walls to papers
In around 1964 the place Mithila was struck by a big earthquake. At that time few members of the All India Handicrafts Board in Delhi came to Mithila for a survey and were attracted by the wall paintings. They gave suggestions to some local artisans to paint on cloth and paper in their traditional way. They also encouraged the women of Mithila for commercial sale. It was in this light the transition of paintings from the walls to papers occurred and it was implanted on various other sources such as posters, bed sheets, saris, wooden crafts and other materials.
Mithila Paintings can be broadly classified in three ways, the wall paintings known as Bhitti Chitra, canvas painting called the Pata Chitra and the floor paintings or Ariparna.
For many generations, the women of Madhubani have been painting colourful pictures on the walls of their homes. This tradition has been passed on from mother to daughter over centuries, thus making the art evolve. These paintings don’t stop to walls of solid houses but also on the walls of palm leaf – grass thatched huts located under the cool – sheds of banana and mango orchards. They are also produced on various kinds of paper from bamboo to pulp canvas. Now, these paintings are getting displayed in art galleries, beautifying the wall of massive bungalows and adding glamour to the plush drawing rooms both in India and aboard. They are also finding their places in five-star hotels, airports, railway stations and ports. The exhibitions of Madhubani painting have been staged in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai. In Germany, Japan, France, Poland, Denmark, Italy, Canada and USA, this particular form of painting have also been exhibited. Once upon a time, the lives of these Maithili painters and inhabitants used to be pivoted around these artworks.
Habitual and customary practice of paintings in Mithila, emerged in its formative years to meet the requirements of the daily ritualistic chores. The artworks embody a harmonious and rhythmic quality in them. The forms are simplistic and pleasing to the eye. They contain numerous motifs, immersed with symbolic significance. Even if connected to the regional customs, these art forms, endorse a universal appeal. The paintings are often accentuated with symbolism as they represent the intrinsic livelihood metaphorically rather than directly. The art stringently establishes its scheme, remains adaptable to the usual representational restrictions and at the same time remains open to the external influences.
- Mithila paintings are pictorial representations from the epic Ramayana.
- Traditionally the artisans had been painting colourful pictures on the walls of their homes. This tradition is passed on from mother to daughter.
- Around 1964, Mithila was struck by a big earthquake. At that time few members of the All India Handicrafts Board in Delhi came to Mithila for a survey. They gave suggestions to some local artisans to paint on cloth and paper in their traditional way.
- Two women artists, Dulari Devi and Vibha Das throw light on the feminist aspect of Mithila how these paintings instil a sense of self and identity among the women artists.
Women artists of Mithila
The women of Mithila continue to create designs on the earthen walls and floors to convene the sacred cause of domestic rituals; protective forms and auspicious spaces created for the well-being of her kinsfolk. They perpetually engage with the creative act in the name of oneness with the God.
This transcendent ideology prevents the art form from disappearing; result that a simple economic or utilitarian argument may not achieve. While religious conviction explains its survival, the creative flair describes its universal spread and fame.
The remorseless tide of time and circumstances totally commercialized these paintings and made them adopt this art as a source of livelihood. Today, it is not like that the paintings do not sell, they do sell, but their numbers are not so large that the painters could spend a complete year with that income.
Commercial Viability of the Artform
Traditionally a feminine preserve, the art of Mithila, for nearly half a decade now has not only brought in fame and recognition but also substantial economic benefits to the community. The sanctimonious process enlightens existence in the entire region. One is left mystified with the magnificent aura commencing out of the widespread usage of art and creative designs in every nook and corner that retains the primordial values of its age-old entity.
The following two narratives and life accounts of women artists throw light on the feminist aspect of Mithila how these paintings instil a sense of self and identity among the women artists. They end up becoming an inseparable part of the life of these women and take the form of a complex mode of expression.
“These paintings are my life and I can’t stay a day without making them,” says a 50-year-old Mithila artist Dulari Devi with a spark and passion that makes us all the more curious to dive deeper in her story.
Dulari Devi’s life is nothing less than an extraordinary anecdote of an Indian rural woman moving from extreme poverty and constant menial labour to establish herself as an accomplished and recognised painter. Devi was once married and delivered a girl child who unfortunately couldn’t survive long. Her woes aggravated when her husband abandoned her with a second marriage and she had to return to her parental village to end up working as a waged labourer in field to domestic households. Sometimes sowing paddy in the rice fields to washing dishes in someone’s house Dulari represented millions of single unskilled women who find it difficult to make their ends meet. That was the time she developed a great like for Mithila paintings looking and capturing the view in her eyes and mind, actively. She would admirably look up to a few women already engaged with making and selling Mithila paintings and ask them to teach her the same. Guided by a cue of fate she then got a chance to work as a maid in the house of a successful Mithila artist, Karpuri Devi. She was consequently able to undergo a six months painting training under her. After that Dulari registered in a local painting institution run by Mr Gauri Mishra by the help of Karpuri Devi and worked there for 16 years on the wage of Rs 200 per month.
Dulari Devi’s Works
Dulari is a well-known painter of traditional Ram-Sita paintings of Mithila region. However, catering to current demand and market preference she also draws a lot of contemporary themes and social issues like child marriage, aids menace, foeticide, etc. In addition to her everyday, rural scenes, involving trees, fields, animals, etc. She is also a seasoned painter of Ganesh images.
Dulari shares a lot of her time goes in making paintings as per her clients’ details, majorly covering today’s rural plots, but she never let go of traditional designs. That’s also her advice to the young generation and budding Mithila painters in the region, she teaches and grooms, to not let go of traditional artwork focusing on Hindu Gods, weddings, kohbhars, etc. Dulari, having missed on education due to the scarcity of resources and money, regrets not able to use the internet efficiently. She gets very happy upon checking Madhubani paintings on the net, whenever shown by kids around.
Her work has taken her to places outside the hinterlands of Mithila region and they include Bangalore, Madras, Delhi, Patna, Gaya, etc. With the income she has made from selling these paintings, Dulari has already made a house and gotten a shop open for her brother where these paintings could be purchased. She gleefully chuckles about the money being good enough for her to sustain a comfortable life and buy appliances and furniture. But more than money, Dulari sees her paintings as her identity. She believes her painting vocation has not only given her means to lead her independent journey but it has also given her more courage to face the world and comfortably interact with people around. The monetary rewards of paintings have provided for the education of her brother’s kids and created a steady employment for her brother also. She trains upcoming young painters in Mithila art institute and is impressed by the equipment and resources she finds with them helping them learn the art better and faster.
With the income she has made from selling these paintings, Dulari has already made a house and gotten a shop open for her brother where these paintings could be purchased.
Generous and loved by all, Dulari doesn’t charge for painting walls in weddings of her own village. She charges for work only outside her community. Dulari has won many accolades and recognition for her decades of contribution towards Mithila Art.
Visibly proud and happy of her achievements in the art of making illustrious Madhubani paintings, Vibha Das elaborates its various aspects related to culture, evolution, themes and current market dynamics to us.
Mithila Painting on five papers
The wedding culture of sending a form of Mithila Painting on five papers to the girl’s family has been fondly passed through generations in Kayastha Caste residents of Mithila Region. Five different paintings on Bamboo paper along with vermillion (sindur) are namely Kohbar, Baas, Prem, Dashavtar and another Kohbar. A particular type of picture, a Kohbar, is used to indicate a girl’s proposal of marriage to a young man she is interested in.
The kohbar’s basic design and composition is heavily charged with tantric symbolism, and in its centre a lingam, the phallus, penetrates the circular beauty of a yoni, the symbol of the female genitals, often drawn as a fully-opened lotus. Other popular traditional forms of Mithila paintings are a depiction of religious deities, Wedding ceremonies, conventional occupational sights like fishing or farming, household sittings and above all Ram-Sita Marriage.
Vibha and her connect to Mithila Painting goes back to 1962, when Bhaskar Kulkarni an early patron of this art came to the village looking out for Mahasundari Devi, the best painters of her times and Vibha’s mother-in-law. She has two girls and a boy. She provides training to many women and men in the village’s institution making them vocationally capable to make a living.
Mahasundari Devi, who is a Padamshree awardee and the most respected stalwart of Mithila Painting was able to impress Bhaskar through her dexterity and sheer flair with this art and bagged an offer to make many such depictions. Lalit Narayan Mishra, Bhaskar Kulkarni and Upendra Maharathi came here with a plan in their mind: they distributed papers to the people of Jitwarpur and Ranti and asked them to paint on them. After collecting those pieces of art, they went to Delhi. There, the people showed a massive interest in such paintings for their originality, colours combinations and thematic speciality. The Mithila painting immediately carved out a place for itself among the art lovers.
Famous Women of Madhubani
Mahasundari Devi, who was one of the early practitioners of this art and later successful in enterprising same was accompanied with other seasoned hands of those times Jagdamba Devi and Sita Devi. Working individually but in the same trade these women championed emerging fame of Mithila Paintings and a lot of credit goes to this trinity for writing few first chapters of its current wider story.
As the trade grew and demand exceeded supply for these paintings, men started to join women and the market expanded. The village now had an office for catering to these requirements. National and State governments then opened and run training centres to impart these painting skills to many women and gents and create vocational employment for same. In her own words, “Mithila Painting initially started from early adopters in Kayastha caste and then was began to be practised by people from other castes in the region.” That’s how the art and trade of Mithila Painting evolved to its current state where it is in making to become one of the most recognized and followed folk art of India.
Themes and styles
The themes and styles of these paintings have also seen a gradual evolution from early times of Ram-Sita Kohwar to current increasing demands around contemporary themes and social issues like family planning, government literacy programs, child marriage, AIDS menace, foeticide, etc. Even the colours have now become synthetic and brighter as per demand, than the earlier forms with natural colours made from stems of trees, flowers and plants like turmeric yellow. The shift to synthetic colour was essential due to demand for brighter colours and more lively paintings depicting modern style.
Cost is an important dimension in regard to wider use and proliferation of Madhubani paintings. Since these paintings are hand drawn and require considerable human engagement all time, prices tend to go slightly up.
Fabric paintings as on sarees, kurtas and other clothing pieces are even more expensive because of fabric price. A painter usually charges anywhere between 200-300 per day as a wage and a simple cotton saree would require 8-10 days of work on it. Vibha, first tried her hands in making these paintings on a slight push from her mother-in-law which later transcended in her own interest and today her remarkable identity. She is today a national awardee and holds many accolades and laurels won by practising this growing painting style. Her mother-in-law was able to earn a good income by making and selling these paintings and built a house from the same.
Vibha happily recalls the income from one of Mahasundari Devi’s 84-feet-long masterpiece placed in the legislative assembly of Bihar, being grand enough to budget for making her entire house.
Aditi Narayani is a Research Scholar at the Centre for the Study of Discrimination and Exclusion, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has co-authored a book called “Mithila ki Vidushi Prampara”. The views expressed are the author’s own.
Image Credits: Aditi Narayani