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Madhubani painting or Mithila painting is a style of Hindu Painting, practiced in the Mithila region of Nepal and in Indian States of Bihar. Painting is done with fingers, twigs, brushes, nib-pens, and matchsticks, using natural dyes and pigments, and is characterized by eye-catching geometrical patterns. There are paintings for each occasion and festival such as birth, marriage, Holi, Surya Shasti, kali puja, Upanayanam, Durga Puja etc.
The Mithila region, from which the name Mithila art is derived, is believed to have been the kingdom of King Janak. The exact location of it lies in present day Janakpur of Nepal.
The exact time when Mithila art originated is not known. According to local mythology, the origin can be traced to the time of the Ramayana, when King Janaka of Nepal ordered his kingdom to decorate the town for the wedding of his daughter, Sita, to Lord Rama. The ancient tradition of elaborate wall paintings or Bhitti-Chitra in Nepal and Bihar played a major role in the emergence of this new art form. The original inspiration for Madhubani art emerged from women’s craving for religiousness and an intense desire to be one with God. With the belief that painting something divine would achieve that desire, women began to paint pictures of gods and goddesses with an interpretation so divine that captured the hearts of many.
Madhubani, which by one account means Forest of Honey, (‘Madhu’-honey, ‘Ban’-forest or woods) is a region in Mithila region of Nepal and the northern part of Bihar. A region that has a distinct regional identity and language that reportedly spans 2500 years.
The women painters of Mithila lived in a closed society. It is locally believed that Madhubani painting tradition started when Raja Janak of Nepal commissioned local artists to paint murals in his palace in preparations for the marriage of his daughter Sita to Lord Ram. The paintings were originally done on walls coated with mud and cow dung. The kohbar ghar or the nuptial chamber was the room in which the paintings were traditionally done. Originally the paintings depicted an assembly of symbolic images of the lotus plant, the bamboo grove, fishes, birds and snakes in union. These images represented fertility and proliferation of life. There used to be a tradition that the newly married bride and groom would spend three nights in the kohbar ghar without cohabiting. On the fourth night they would consummate the marriage surrounded with the colourful painting. The Mithila paintings were done only by women of the house, the village and the caste and only on occasion of marriages.
Mithila painting, as a domestic ritual activity, was unknown to the outside world until the massive India-Nepal border earthquake of 1934 when the houses and walls tumbled down. Then British colonial officer in Madhubani District, William G. Archer, while inspecting the damage “discovered” the paintings on the newly exposed interior walls of Mithila homes. He was struck by reported similarities to the work of modern Western artists like Miro and Picasso. During the 1930s he took black and white photos of some of these paintings, which today are the earliest images of the art. He also wrote about the painting in a 1949 article in ‘Marg’ an Indo-Nepal Art Journal. The drought from 1966 to 1968 crippled the agricultural economy of the region. As part of a larger initiative to bring economic relief to the region, Ms. Pupul Jayakar, the then Director of the All Indo-Nepal Handicrafts Board,sent the Bombay-based artist Mr.Bhaskar Kulkarni to Mithila to encourage women there to replicate their mural paintings on paper which, to facilitate sales, as a source of income to ensure survival.
The contribution of foreign scholars in promoting the art form internationally has also been immense. Yves Vequad, a French novelist and journalist, in the early 1970s wrote a book on the basis of his research on Mithila painting and produced a film ‘The Women Painters of Mithila’. The German anthropologist film-maker and social activist Erika Moser persuaded the impoverished Dusadh community to paint as well. The result was the Dusadh captured their oral history (such as the adventures of Raja Salhesh, and depictions of their primary deity, Rahu) — typified by bold compositions and figures based on traditional tattoo patterns called Goidna locally. This added another distinctive new style to the region’s flourishing art scene.
With financial support of Moser and Raymond Lee Owens (a Fulbright Scholar then), along with land in Jitbarpur donated by Anthropologist Erika Moser likes of Dr. Gauri Mishra spearheaded the setting up of the Master Craftsmen Association of Mithila in 1977. This association was very active during the life time of Owens working in tandem with Ethnic Arts Foundation a non-profit 501(c) 3 of USA. Master Craftsmen Association is reported to have later merged with SEWA Mithila which unlike its namesake in Ahemdabad is registered under Society’s Act and not under the Trade Union Act. It endeavours to uphold similar mission of providing the artists of the region with a regular source of income through exhibitions, and sales to collectors and art galleries. Ford Foundation has a long history of association with Madhubani painting. Ms. Viji Srinivasan, then a programme officer with Ford Foundation, and who later set up an NGO Adithi headquartered in Bihar and worked on women’s issues including livelihood through handicrafts too played a role in nurturing the cluster.Since the 1990s, Japan has also shown a keen interest in Madhubani paintings, mainly because of the initiatives of Tokyo Hasegawa, who set up the Mithila Museum in Tokamachi, where around 850 Madhubani paintings are exhibited on a regular basis.
Madhubani painting/Mithila painting was traditionally created by the women of the Brahman, Dusadh and Kayastha communities in Mithila region in Nepal and India. It was originated in Madhubhani village of Capital city of Ancient Mithila known as Janakpur (presently in Nepal). It is a well-demarcated cultural region lying between the Ganges and the Terai of Nepal, and between the Koshi and Narayani tributaries. This painting as a form of wall art was practiced widely throughout the region; the more recent development of painting on paper and canvas originated among the villages around Madhubani, and it is these latter developments that may correctly be referred to as Madhubani art.
The painting was traditionally done on freshly plastered mud walls and floors of huts, but now they are also done on cloth, handmade paper and canvas. Madhubani paintings are made from the paste of powdered rice. Madhubani painting has remained confined to a compact geographical area and the skills have been passed on through centuries, the content and the style have largely remained the same. And that is the reason for Madhubani painting being accorded the coveted GI (Geographical Indication) status. Madhubani paintings also use two dimensional imagery, and the colors used are derived from plants. Ochre and lampblack are also used for reddish brown and black respectively.
Madhubani paintings mostly depict the men & its association with nature and the scenes & deity from the ancient epics. Natural objects like the sun, the moon, and religious plants like tulsi are also widely painted, along with scenes from the royal court and social events like weddings. Generally no space is left empty; the gaps are filled by paintings of flowers, animals, birds, and even geometric designs. Traditionally, painting was one of the skills that was passed down from generation to generation in the families of the Mithila Region, mainly by women.
Madhubani art has five distinctive styles - Bharni, Katchni, Tantrik, Nepali and Gobar. In the 1960s Bharni, Kachni and Tantrik style were mainly done Brahman & Kayashth women, who are upper caste women in India and Nepal. Their themes were mainly religious, and they depicted Gods and Goddesses in their paintings. People of lower castes and classes included aspects of their daily life and symbols of Gods and Goddesses much more, in their paintings. The Godna and Gobar style is done by the Dalit and Dushadh communities. Of course, nowadays Madhubani has become a globalized art form, and difference in styles of various castes are distinct in the same way they may have been before Madhubani received international and national attention.
Artists and awards
Madhubani painting received official recognition in 1975, when the President of India gave Padma Shri award to Jagdamba Devi, of Jitbarpur village near Madhubani. Other painters, Mahasundari Devi (2008), Sita Devi, Godavari Dutt, Bharti Dayal and Bua Devi were also given National award. Smt Bharti Dayal won an Award from All India Fine Arts and Crafts for fifty years of art in independent India and the state Award for kalamkari in Mithila Painting and her painting "Eternal Music" bagged the top award in Millennium Art Competition from AIFAC for the year 2001. Smt Bharti Dayal is also Honoured with The Vishist Bihari Samman amid festivities to commemorate 100 year of Bihar. She has been honoured with Indira Gandhi Priyadarshini Award 2013 for her exceptional work in Madhubani Art, globally too.
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