Art is a language that speaks a lot more than what words ever could. And what better art form to exemplify it, than Madhubani, a tradition indigenous to the namesake district in the state of Bihar. Like every art form, the roots of Madhubani paintings are interwoven with heritage, culture and mythology. The themes of these paintings usually revolve around scenes from the royal court, social events like weddings, festivals and even the picturesque landscape of the place.
The word Madhubani translates to forests of honey and is a tradition that has been handed down through many generations. The origins of the Mithila painting can be traced back to the mythological times of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Legend has it that Sita’s father, King Janaka commissioned the best craftsmen from across his kingdom to paint and decorate the land on the occasion of his daughter’s wedding to Lord Ram.
An intricate craft which flourishes in the hands of highly skilled artisans, the process behind this art form is as beautiful as the paintings themselves. Any Madhubani design is characterized by line drawings and tribal motifs accompanied with bright earthy tones and contrasting patterns. What makes it unique is how artists give an identity to every painting by following their instincts and not using any sketches.
What makes it unique is how artists give an identity to every painting by following their instincts and not using any sketches.
The colours used are ideally obtained from natural sources and mineral pigments, where black was derived by mixing soot (a black flaky substance produced from the burning of organic matter) with cow dung; yellow from pollen or lime along with the milk of banyan leaves; blue from indigo; green from the leaves of the wood apple tree; the many hues of red from the kusum flower (common name – Ceylon oak, gum-lac tree) juice or red sandalwood; and orange from palasha flowers. But over the years, the usage of these natural pigments have decreased with fabric paints being brought to the forefront.
A characteristic trait is how these colours are applied flat with no shading and no space is left empty in the paintings. If any, they are filled up with floral, animal and bird motifs along with varying geometric designs. The artists traditionally used twigs, branches and cotton wrapped around a bamboo stick to create their art rather than paintbrushes, making this eco-friendly art form way ahead of its time.
The artists traditionally used twigs, branches and cotton wrapped around a bamboo stick to create their art rather than paintbrushes, making this eco-friendly art form way ahead of its time.
Over the years the art form has been kept alive majorly by the women of Bihar, mainly in the district of Madhubani, and they aim to empower other women by educating them about this art form and to embrace it as a way of life. What started as depictions of rural scenes, cultural festivities and Hindu deities are now being used as a medium to propagate awareness about extremely serious issues that are close to their heart and calls for action to be taken. Pressing socio-economic problems like education, sustainability, women and child welfare, safety, over-population, sanity and poverty are being brought the forefront, making the voice of the people heard.
With the wave of commercialization that has taken the Indian handicraft industry by a storm, Madhubani paintings are no longer confined to the mud walls of houses, or regionally known as bhitti chitra. The canvas for Madhubani now ranges from handmade paper, clothing apparels especially sarees to home decor pieces, and this was the turning point. For a variety of fabrics from the everyday wear cotton to the designer wear silk, the Madhubani design is the most sought after print. It is a confluence of classical and contemporary art, not just for the vibrancy of colours and patterns but for the message it conveys through the designs.
The beauty of Madhubani is how it is becoming a mainstream medium for sustainable and eco-friendly narratives. From keeping the art alive to being ahead of their times in terms of sustainable fashion, it has come a long way. The journey from Mithila to modern day Bihar has been arduous and taxing on the craftsmen across generations who have put in their heart and soul. Unlike a lot of indigenous art forms that have dwindled down, let us open our hearts to Madhubani to ensure its rich heritage and beauty is preserved for generations to come