Artshala: Madhubani Painting

Mithila was abuzz with preparations for the royal wedding. Raja Janak had instructed for the whole town to be decked up like a bridemuch like his daughter Sita, who was being married to Rama. Artists set to work, painting walls with details of the wedding and different ceremonies. 



This intricate work came to be known as Mithila art and was perhaps the first form of graffiti in India. Better known as Madhubani painting, this 2500-year-old art form is now found on everything from sarees to coasters. 



Madhubani started off as a form of Bhitti Chitra (wall art) as people painted the walls of their houses to mark special occasions like festivals, marriages, etc. It is said to have originated in erstwhile Mithila, which included Bihar, Jharkhand and certain parts of Southern Nepal, including Janakpur, which is hailed as Raja Janak’s (Sita’s father) kingdom. 

In 1934, Bihar was struck by a devastating earthquake. While examining the damage, a British officer, William G. Archer stumbled upon these paintings on some of the walls of collapsed homes. During the Bihar drought of 1966-1968, women were encouraged to be self-sufficient by making and selling Madhubani paintings. These two instances brought this art form into the limelight, so much that today Japan has an entire museum dedicated to Madhubani art!




Madhubani has a distinct style that catches your attention with its unique patterns and motifs. Though it began as a form of wall art, it gradually moved to handmade paper which was often made with multani mitti, neem juice and cow dung. This mixture gave it a light yellow hue, similar to a mud wallits humble origins. 


The brush was made with a bamboo stick, its tip wrapped with cotton. Apart from brushes, artists used twigs, matchsticks, nib pens and even their fingers to fill in colours. The outlines are made with rice paste before colouring the final shapes. As is the case with other folk art forms like Pattachitra and Pichwai, colours are obtained from natural sources.






A unique feature of Madhubani painting is that it barely has any empty spaces. Even the smallest of gaps are filled with flowers, wildlife, or geometric patterns. The figures have slightly exaggerated features like bulging eyes and prominent noses. Every Madhubani home has a painting of the sun which they worship daily. Sun and moon often form the centrepiece of these paintings.


Hindu deities and Yantras often make an appearance in these paintings. The Kayasthas' style, in particular, symbolised fertility and had motifs like lotus, fish, tortoises, parrots and birds. Patterns and motifs from Madhubani have also found their way on to different items like coasters, cushion covers, table linen, etc.




There are 5 main styles of making a Madhubani painting:


Bharni: This style uses black colour for outlines, which are filled with bright colours like red, yellow, orange, etc. It basically refers to the process of shading and filling colours.


Kachni: Delicate and fine lines are used to fill the painting instead of using solid colours. Artisans usually stick to black and vermillion for this style. 


Godhana: In this style of paintings, patterns and figures are repeated in concentric circles or parallel lines for a symmetrical effect. These are usually made with black colour. 


Tantric: As the name suggests, this style of Madhubani paintings follows colours, characters and descriptions given in tantric texts.


Kohbar: These paintings are usually made in honour of a newlywed couple and thus, include symbols of love, prosperity and fertility. Fishes, birds, lotus plants, etc are some common motifs here. 


The first three forms were usually made by Brahmin and Kayastha women as they portrayed religious themes which the lower caste women were forbidden to draw. Instead, they would draw scenes from their daily life, flora, fauna and local deities. The context and theme of each painting was decided by the occasion for which it was being created. 


Today, Madhubani is found on a wide range of objects like crockery and sarees but it continues to be used majorly as a wall hanging, since it was traditionally painted on walls to decorate the house. Madhubani artists often step out of the traditional mould to take inspiration from social issues for modern designs. With their artistic expression of the modern world, they raise awareness and create a better world for future generations. 

November 19, 2020 — Team Bimba