Madhubani Paintings- An ancient wall painting art from India

There are several great art forms from ancient India. Out of those, one art form has the magic of transforming bare mud patches into works of incredible art. “Madhubani paintings”, is a collective term given to different styles of paintings emerging from the Madhubani region of modern-day Bihar state in India. They are characterized by complex geometrical patterns made on mud patches and plain walls. These paintings generally display special occasions, rituals, legends and festivals, etc.

A Madhubani Painting depicting women worshipping a tree.
A Madhubani painting displaying a bridal procession
Women dancing during the springtime

Since ancient times, women from and around the Madhubani region are creating these pieces of art as a part of their routine. The earliest references of these paintings can be found in the Hindu epic Ramayana when the king of Mithila, Janaka asks his painters to create Madhubani paintings for his daughter Sita’s wedding. The knowledge has since then passed down through generations by the women of the village, who placed their dreams and aspirations in these paintings and embellished the canvas with colors of their struggles and suppressed emotions. Mud patches and walls became the canvases of creativity for the women who were dedicated to household works.

Madhubani Paintings is an “umbrella term” that is used to describe the various styles of paintings from this region. These paintings are broadly categorized into five styles, depending not only on the contents and the method of painting but also on the region and the caste of the artist. All the styles of Madhubani Paintings share few common characteristics.

  • Women from different castes and economic strata, with no formal education or training in painting, were the ones to practice and preserve this art form for ages. It was not until modern times that prominent male figures emerged in the field of Madhubani Paintings.
  • The colors used in these paintings are derived from various natural substances like powdered rice, flowers, pollen, indigo, turmeric, plant-based pigments, etc..;
  • Walls, floors, tiles, fabric, ceilings, mud patches, paper and even cow dung serve as a canvas for these paintings. Depending on the style of the painting, the canvas changes too.
  • The intricate details and geometric patterns in these paintings are made with twigs, sticks, matchsticks, brushes and pens. Naturally derived colors are spread across the canvas by fingers and brushes.
  • A double line border is drawn outside the paintings most of the times.
S.noStyle of Madhubani PaintingDescription
1.Tantric styleTantric style painting only depicts the deities, legends and rituals from the Tantric tradition, followed in this part of India. Tantrism is the belief that meditation and certain rituals can grant one powers and knowledge. They are generally painted on floor, glass, walls and fabric. A very detailed and intricate outline work is done and the painting is not filled in with solid colors traditionally. These paintings are revered and often worshipped by the believers of Tantrism.
2. Kohbar StyleKohbar style painting is generally done on walls. Especially, the walls of the nuptial chamber of newlyweds are adorned by beautiful Kohbar paintings, depicting legends and symbols of fertility. They are one of the most popular forms of Madhubani paintings.
3. Godna style Godna style was practiced by the women of lesser societal status and who tattooed their bodies. They are made in a concentric circular fashion on a cow dung base. These paintings too, generally do not have a solid color fill. They are inspired from the tattooing art that these women are adept at. They have a striking resemblance to the Australian aboriginal art.
4. Katchni styleKatchni paintings are usually just the outlines without a solid color fill. Animals, birds and other aspects of Nature are its common themes. Fabric and paper are the best canvases for these paintings.
5. Bharni styleBharni style paintings have bold, black outlines and are filled in with solid colors. They are made on walls, fabric, paper, mud floor and other canvases. Hindu gods and legends are its main themes. Royal processions and important occasions are also common themes.
A brief introduction to different styles of Madhubani Paintings

History and future of Madhubani Paintings

Over time, the mud walls which served as a canvas for the Madhubani painters got replaced with cloth, tiles and paper. But these paintings have stood the test of time and many Madhubani painters garnered awards from the Indian government for their efforts in conserving native culture. But it was not until W.G Archer, a British man working in the Indian Civil Service, did research on these paintings and published them in 1949, did the world outside come to know about these unique and beautiful paintings. While the drought of 1966-1968 wrecked many households, the All India Handicrafts Board patronized women from this region to make Madhubani paintings on paper and sell them. This helped many women to find livelihood and sustain themselves during these severe droughts. A book and film by the name, The Women Painters of India, was produced by a French man called Yves Vequad in the 1970s. Erika Moser, a German anthropologist and folklorist along with Raymond Lee Owens, a folklorist from the U.S.A, coordinated with local artists and set up the Master Craftsmen Association of Mithila in 1977. Since the 1990s, the Tokyo Hasegawa museum has showcased many beautiful Madhubani Paintings.

Series of events like these boosted the Madhubani artists and many gained worldwide fame. Some of the major centers that teach this art form today are Benipatti in Madhubani district, Gram Vikas Parishad in Ranti and Vaidehi in Madhubani.

Transforming elements of Nature into art that displays legendary and social events, Madhubani paintings have acted as an outlet for the suppressed emotions of women in this region.

Author’s Bio:

This guest article is submitted by K. Niveditha. Niveditha, a graduate in Journalism, calls herself a writer for the peace that words bring to her. Apart from seeking ways to make her words breathe on paper, she loves to travel and study about the culture of different places and the diversity that stands out.

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