“Holding my breath, I walked into the gloom of the princess’s kohbar ghar to finally see the oldest extant example of Mithila wall painting. Every inch of all four walls was covered with paintings, still vivid after all these years. Here the goddesses had the prominent positions: Durga presided from a painted arch over the fireplace mantel, one of her golden feet on a white lion, the other on her husband, Lord Shiva. The broad expanses of wall had been divided into dozens of rectangles in three tiers each edged with a three-inch floral border, exactly like a piece of paper art from recent periods. In each rectangle was enshrined a deity—Krishna, Vishnu, Saraswati, Mahadev, Ganesh—or a pair of parrots or other images from poetry and nature. Every spare inch was filled with a profusion of vines, creepers, flowers, and leaves.”
Born in the land of Sita, Buddha and forests of honeyed vines, Madhubani painting is part of the cultural identity of Bihar and the Mithila, a historical region that folded in parts of present-day Nepal. What began as a ritualistic tradition to beautify and sanctify the home has flowered into a rich, evolving artistic practice. Today, the art has broken its domestic confines to articulate a stand on love, sex, politics, social justice and the environment. But to understand this form, it’s essential to get acquainted with a few techniques, symbols and themes to which Madhubani artists will return again and again for creative sustenance and grounding. Let’s look at a few of them.
Parade of divinity
Somewhat resembling the figures found on ancient Greek terracotta vases, Mithila art is immersed in mythological lore. Since the tradition is believed to date from Sita’s wedding to Rama, tales from the Ramayana remain the dominant theme in artworks, particualrly those made by upper caste artists. Other popular figures are Shiva, Durga, Vishnu (and his dashavatara), Ganesha and the Ardhanarishwara.
Artists from historically oppressed castes have also used the form to commit their unique oral histories, heroes and mythologies to paper. Dalit artists celebrate icons like Raja Salhesh as well as Lord Buddha, Savitribai Phule and Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar.
Traditionally, Maithil women are taught by their mothers and later, mother-in-laws, to carefully document village life and festivities. On a typical wall painting outside a home here, you are likely to see scenes of harvest, pujas, weddings, markets and children swimming in lotus-studded ponds. Every bit of excitement of rural Indian life is captured here. Nature is the star of these works and every corner is filled with life—parakeets, fish, frogs and bees abound.
The dichotomy of Bharani and Kachani
In the late ’60s and ’70s, when Mithila art was being transferred on paper and canvas, distinctive styles in the art were established and carried forward by the artists. Amidst the popularity of Kachani and Bharani styles, evolved the Geru, Gobar and Godna. Different castes created their own technique and form. Some of these were born out of cultural and social shifts that the women were experiencing.
Coming from conservative homes, women artists initially stuck to paintings around rituals and religious themes. But among these too there were distinctions. While Kayastha women painted in the Kachani style, Brahmins favoured Bharni.
Kachani is focused on the ornate, repetitive use of lines—the spaces between lines are even and blank, creating an effect almost of movement, of animation. Artists use fine nib pens and mostly red, black or darker, muted inks to paint. The Bharni style, on the other hand, fills spaces with vibrant splashes of colours—the word comes from the Hindi ‘bhar na’, to fill. A pioneer of the Mithila tradition Sita Devi created works in the Bharni style, playing exuberantly with colours like no one before her.
Lustrous lines of Geru
As an early one in the Mithila tradition, the Geru style was big on thick black lines and less on ornamentation. It has boldness and emotion, rather than the detailed splendour of other styles. Said to have been developed by Dusadh women, this simpler earthy style was practised by a few artists like Bhagvati Devi in the ’70s and ’80s. But it has since fallen out of vogue. However, two exceptional styles did emerge from the Dalit Maithil communities, specifically from the Chamars and Dusadhs and these were the Gobar and Godna styles respectively.
Grounding & blossoming through Gobar, Godna
From the Chamar community, Jamuna Devi became the first Dalit Mithila artist to receive the National Award. She developed a pattern—two lines drawn using dung with black dots in between them—and this became a distinguishing feature of the Gobar style. She experimented further by giving canvases a wash of cow dung to simulate a blank wall and show up the bright colours that were laid on them. This was a custom that would eventually be adopted by other communities, too. Another one of the subaltern art styles was the Godna style of the Dusadhs. While taking up the art, the Dusadh women started by creating patterns and sequences inspired by the Godna (tattoo) marks on their arms and legs. This style is a confluence of meticulous imagery, fine precision and recurring patterns all aimed at narrating a story. Here too, cow dung finds a place and it’s used as a wash on the canvas. Chano Devi and her husband Rodi Paswan are attributed not only with starting this style of Mithila but also carrying forward the tradition by training several Dalit artists. Featuring stories of Raja Salhesh rendered in geometric patterns, Godna art became a channel of subaltern emancipation and expression.
MARG: Vol 3, no 3, page 24-33, ‘Maithil paintings’ by William Archer