The Madhubani Paintings – Simple, Elegant and Meaningful

Madhubani Paintings
Image – Wikimedia

One of the traditional forms of paintings that was practiced in households and painted on walls by the women of the home, Madhubani Paintings also called Mithila art have come a long way in getting wide spread acclaim and attention. Considering that this Indian folk art form has been passed through generations and managed to save an entire forest speaks volumes about how art can impact not only creativity and expression but also stand tall for social and environmental causes. 

History of Madhubani Paintings

Madhubani folk art
Image – Chamko Rani via Flickr

Originating from the Mithila region of Bihar and Nepal, the oldest reference of this painting art is found in the Ramayana, where King Janaka, Sita’s father asks painters to create Madhubani paintings for his daughter’s wedding. This knowledge has been passed for years and manifested itself on the walls of the homes of those residing in these regions. Initially the paintings revolved around weddings, festivities and depiction of gods and goddesses and natural scenes. Today these paintings speak about social causes, objectives as well as traditions and folklores. 

The paintings were discovered and brought into light to the outside world when during an earthquake in 1934 the British Colonial Officer of the Madhubani district, William G Arthur happened to chance upon these paintings in the homes of the locals. 

Also, in 1960 when the region suffered from a major drought, the All India Handicrafts Board encouraged the women of the Madhubani district to make the paintings on paper and canvas to start generating income. 

Madhubani Style

Madhubani Style
Source – Wikimedia

The Madhubani paintings are differently done. They are done using fingers, twigs, matchsticks, nibs etc. Natural dyes and colors were used, though today the use of synthetic colors is not uncommon. The paintings are distinctly different from other paintings, through their usage of geometric designs, floral and colorful motifs that fill the entire background leaving no empty space and the characteristic facial forms with fish-shaped eyes and pointed noses. 

Where the paintings were initially done on mud and walls, today these paintings are made on canvas paper and cloth. Since the paintings have been concentrated to a particular region over the years, they have been accorded the GI or Geographical Indication status. 

Social Structure & Art

Madhubani paintings have five different styles, called Bharni, Katchni, Tantrik, Kohbar and Godna. Until the 1960’s, the Bharni, Tantrik and Katchni styles were practiced only by the women of the upper caste. The themes of these painting were based on depiction of gods and goddesses. The painters of the lower class, on the other hand, depicted their daily lives and stories in their paintings. Today, this class divide has vanished with painters painting across all the five styles. 

Another notable feature of the Madhubani paintings is the almost exclusive practice of the paintings by the women of the region. Even till date, the women of the Mithila region of Bihar and Nepal sometimes resort to painting on their walls. However, there are also various institutes across the state that have kept the tradition of this painting alive and passed over to the new generation. 

Saving a Forest

Madhubani
Image – Gulfnews.com

Gram Vikas Parishad a NGO decided to take a stand to the cutting of more than 100 trees in 2012. They plastered the Madhubani paintings depicting gods, spiritual symbols and mythological characters to avoid the cutting of the trees. The paintings also spread the message of awareness on global warming and climate change. Spearheaded by Shashthi Nath Jha who runs the NGO, the paintings are a unique way to protect the environment as a drive along NH 52 of the Madhubani district shines in brightly colored tree paintings. Not a single tree that had a painting on it was cut. In fact, the stretch of forest from Rampatti to Rajnagar became a tourist attraction of sort with people wanting to catch a glimpse of the artistry of the painters who were using their skill for a much greater cause. 

Renowned Madhubani Artists

Sita Devi Madhubani Painting Artist
Sita Devi – Source

Some of the most renowned artists of the Madhubani paintings who have received national and international fame and felicitation for keeping and promoting the art alive include, Sita Devi, Ganga Devi, Mahasundari Devi, Bharti Dayal, Jagdamba Devi, Baua Devi and many more. 

Today Madhubani art is used to not only adore as paintings in our homes or offices, but the designs and patterns are also used on mugs, bags, cushion cases, mouse pads, crockery and more. The designs have also been used by fashion designers as borders on different garments. 

Madhubani-Paintings-on-Lifestyle-Accessories
Image – Swaranga Designs THE MITHILA COLLECTION

Madhubani paintings are an important traditional art because the paintings are simple, yet eye-catching. The involvement of the entire society, especially women make this art form a collective genius that is housed in the specific region or district of the state. The fact that this art has found a way to be meaningful in purpose makes it even more significant. At the same time, it has kept its essential elements, styles and themes in place as passed over generations. All of this perhaps make the Madhubani paintings a true legend. 

Also checkout our Articles on other Indian Folk Art forms

Folk Art Forms of India – Defining Our Cultural Diversity

Discovering a Folk Art Form – Chittara

Warli Paintings – A Timeless Folk Art Form of India

Indian Folk Art Mandana: The Doomed Tradition Needs to be Preserved

Tasneem Sariya
"An avid writer, I write for different blogs related to travel, culture and parenting. With a degree in Geography and work experience at Google India, I find writing about people, cultures, traditions and places a blissful way of exploring the unexplored and discovering the little joys of new ideas and perspectives."