India, the land of diverse cultures and people, has a rich collection of arts and crafts, some of which have been practiced for centuries. From folkart to modern paintings and contemporary installations, the vibrant art scene in India is booming with creativity.
In this series of blogs, I, Riddhi Doshi, a journalist with 17 years of experience, will introduce you to different arts and artists in India, beginning with the vivacious Madhubani art dominated by women creators.
The wall paintings of Madhubani, native to Bihar, are said to have commemorated the grand wedding of the Indian deity Sita and her husband, Rama. Sita’s father, Janaka, commissioned these paintings to add colour to the festivities of his daughter’s marriage with the prince of Ayodhya in his kingdom Mithila. Hence, the art is also known as Mithila art.
In the more recent past, the art form was discovered by British officer William Archer in 1934 when a massive earthquake hit Madhubani. He saw these paintings on the walls of the collapsed houses and made a repository of them.
Since, this folk art continues to flourish as a domestic art, mainly created by women on the walls of their homes. Madhubani is also painted on paper and canvas as collectors worldwide desire a piece of Madhubani. This painting is by Hiral Buch.
In the patriarchal society of India, Mithila is known to be a feminine art, mastered by women creators, even today. The most celebrated artists are Ganga Devi, Sita Devi, Mahasundari Devi, Baoa Devi and Bharti Dayal The paintings celebrate fertility, sexual energy, nature, and the cosmos, each depicting a message, a story, and even a prayer.
The making and hidden meanings
When made on the wall, a fine layer of mud and cow dung makes for the first coat, which acts as a preservative and a strengthening agent. The artists then outline the images with powdered rice and paint.
The frescos to miniature-style paintings are divided into horizontal and vertical sections to imply different times and spaces.
The paintings are made with natural colours obtained from plants, fruits, vegetables, and minerals, and the paintings are outlined and coloured with twigs, leaves, and fingers. The common motifs are peacocks, lotus, flowers, creepers, trees, birds, Radha Krishna, Shiva Parvati, and Rama and Sita. Each motif signifies different virtues such as fertility, loyalty, etc.
Motifs and Meanings
- Parijat (Night jasmine) – Reproduction and fertility
- Lotus – Sexual energy
- Circle – God of creation
- Parrot – Kama (Sexual desire)
- Two peacocks – Eternity
- Elephant – Successful pregnancy
- Snake – Power of regeneration
- Mandalas – To evoke love among the newlyweds.
- Different types of Madhubani
- Bharni – In these religious and mythological paintings, the main subject is highlighted in black, the other motifs are brightly coloured.
- Kachni – Uses just two colours.
- Godhana – These look like tattoos, made with bamboo sticks.
- Tantric – Depicts gods and goddesses.
- Kohbar – Usually made in a bride’s house to celebrate her wedding.
Where to see Madhubani paintings
Madhubani paintings can be found in several houses of Rajangarh, Jitwarpur, Rasidpur, and Ranti districts of Bihar and Jharkhand.
The Ram Janki temple in Janakpur, Bihar, known as the birthplace of Sita, (Also known as Janki) has several Madhubani paintings on its interior walls.
One can also find Madhubani paintings on wall papers, crockery, home décor items, etc. Hiral Buch, a 30-year-old artist from Vadodara, Gujarat, has been making wall plates, coasters, and wall paintings of Madhubani art along with painting on paper and canvas. “A Madhubani painting is said to bring good luck, fortune, and good things and experiences in life,” says Buch. Hence, people want a piece of it in their homes.
Even the British Museum in the UK and the National Crafts Museum in Delhi, India, has an impressive collection of Madhubani paintings. A 75-centimeter painting of artist Ganga Devi, donated to the British Museum by Dr. Achinto Sen-Gupta, a late food scientist, stands out for its intricate work. The painting depicts a goddess riding on a bird (she stands barefoot upon his back). She is four-armed and carries a wand in her lower right hand. She is surrounded by flowers, and larger quartered blossoms are seen in three of the four corners. The edge of the paper is marked with a thick pink line.
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About the author
Riddhi Doshi is a Mumbai-based, independent journalist and writer. Her stories appear in Forbes, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu, Travel & Leisure, Mint Lounge, South China Morning Post, and other publications. She is also a Kathak student and a first-time pet parent.