The Maithils are intrinsically Shakti (mother goddess) worshippers, Bhagwati- Gauri is among their Kula Devta; schools of Tantric rituals has been flourishing since the age-old inside Mithila region that is undoubtedly a crucial epithet behind the practices of this indigenous folk art which in modern time received acclaim as Madhubani painting or Mithila art.
Moreover, Mithila remains a great place of Sanskrit learning; quintessence of that living tradition had left very conducive impact on alternative disciplines like- art, literature, drama etc through drawing consistent royal patronage from different dynasties of Darbhanga Raj.
The Karnat dynasty that ruled Mithila from twelfth to the fourteenth century was perhaps the progenitor of royal patronage to this ethnic art. Although that phase of medieval Mithila was caught in frequent political disruptions because of external Islamic invasions from northern India, nevertheless those adverseness were overcome in later phase and the royal court of Darbhanga very soon retrieve its intellectual glory.
Contemporary of King Hari Singh Dev (Karnat dynasty); great poet and scion of Maithili literature, Vidyapati and in later course of time, an another stalwart Jyotireshwar Thakur had brought aesthetic metamorphosis in the region through lyrics of passion and physical love which entirely saturate the countryside and left deep impact on existing art form and its succeeding generation.
Apart from that, Vedic and Puranic sources were quite familiar to most of the Maithil households at the end of medieval period and on the threshold of modern age; so, scriptures and texts like the Bhagvad Purana remains very familiar among the culturally inclined Maithil folks, besides Mithila’s ancient associations with the Ramayana as the birth place of Sit further forward them as source material for the paintings of Shiva-Shakti, Rama-Sita, Krishna-Radha, Ravana and Hanuman, Kohber, Aripan and many more auspicious rituals.
For centuries Mithila art has retained its isolation from outside world until it was came across a visionary British official, W.G. Archer during the colonial era; his perceptive curiosity first drew attention to the mural paintings (Later developed as Kacchni style of painting) of the Brahmin and Kayastha village communities of Mithila.
Madhubani which literally means “forest of honey” partially signifies the closeness of nature with this locality; with separation from old Darbhanga district in 1973, Madhubani became a full fledged district and also privileged to retain the locus of Mithila art inside its world famous “Panchkosi region (Within the fifteen Kilometer radius from Village Saurath, hub of unusual marriage fair)”which was earlier used to be the centre of “Kulinta“(elite ness) and scholastic learning’s.
Indeed Mithila art had fortunate to receive the well timed Mentorship from a renowned commercial artist, Upendra Mahrathi who like a father nurtured this ethnic art and meticulously tried to end its isolation. His pioneering initiative like collection of traditional Mithila paintings on paper and its exhibition then as part of the Indian independence movement in 1930’s proved very beneficial in the broadening of Mithila paintings commercial horizons.
Later he became the chairman of Bihar Handicrafts and began buying paintings and other handicraft arts in that capacity throughout the 1950’s albeit he remained concerned that the tradition must degenerate with commercialization.
In 1960’s famine viciously struck the agrarian socio-economic structure of Mithila which started to desperate the psyche of peoples for their livelihoods; amidst those adverseness a senior Congress leader and stalwart of Maithil politics, Shri Lalit Narayan Mishra (Union Cabinet Minister) had put enormous effort to heal the suffering of that region. Probably he was among few politicians from that region who was so enthusiast to raise the fortune of his native area; obviously this ethnic art was his prime concern, so he struggled to fetch government attention and grant and succeeded with an amount of Rs75, 000 to encourage the commercialization of Mithila art and its innovation as an occupation.
Consequences of his activism proved more fruitful in future as than Prime Minister Indira Gandhi shown proper concern for Mithila region and their indigenous art by sending her close aide and than Chairman of All India Handicrafts Society, Pupul Jayakar to visit and look after the plights of this region. That proved another landmark as Pupul Jayakar involved very deep with this ethnic art, both at personnel as well as on institutional level and played very proactive role in further development of this art.
She had also written numbers of papers on Mithila art and remained keen throughout her life with it; some years later she sent the artist Bhaskar Kulkarni with hand made papers and colors to expedite and incubate the commercialization of Mithila art which was proved epoch making as use of artificial elements in painting out rightly revolutionize the practices of artists involved in that profession.
In later course Mithila art attracted numbers of intellectuals; Erika Moser Smith of Germany and Yves Vequad (The art of Mithila-Ceremonial Paintings from an Ancient Kingdom) of France were foremost among them; they empirically studied the pattern and related micro issues of this art. American Naomi Owens, wife of Ray Owens (An anthropologist and an avid researcher on Mithila art) had very carefully analyzed the feminists led folk music of Mithila; another art enthusiast from U.S.A, Carolyn Henning Brown accomplished an excellent study of the aesthetics of Mithila art.
Among Indian scholars apart from Pupul Jayakar, Mulkraj Anand (a book over Madhubani painting), Devaki Jain (numbers of papers on Mithila art) and Jyotindra Jain (a fine book over on legend artist, Ganga Devi) were amongst the pivotal contributor to this ethnic art; they traveled across the hinterlands of Mithila to comprehend the actualities of artistic genesis among the rural folks of this region.
Among Maithils, role of Parmeshwar Jha (U.S.A. based academician and an art activist) and his wife Bibha Jha in internationalization of Mithila art is immensely crucial, especially in further turnaround of its fortune. Establishment of Mithila Art Museum in Nilgate (Japan) by Mr. Tokio Hasgawa and American Anthropologist Ray Owens’s almost three decades of active association with this ethnic art and finally set up of Mithila Art Institute in Madhubani (with collaboration from Ethnic Art Foundation, U.S.A) are some of the pleasant outcomes of such consistent efforts.
It’s quite imperative here to understand the subtleties of Mithila art as Madhubani painting is one dominant artistic expression among its peers of handicrafts made by natural recourses like, Bamboos and other herbal ingredients; arts like Siki-Mauni, Sujni and Sitalpati, Godna, sculptures of mythological Sama- Chakeva and numerous other folk art forms which are very close to daily life style of Maithil rural peoples are equally vibrant and needed same attention.
As Mithila art is basically a traditional expression entrusted with unique especialties (like idioms, theme, stylization etc), that has been carried out through a long stretch of time by the Maithil women’s irrespective of caste and class and they largely played the role of channel through this inherited knowledge flows, transformed and made auspiciousness resonant in the energy of the present.The strength of Madhubani painting is that it hasn’t any confinement or taboo in its practices, so persons (especially women’s) of all communities paint.
Their schools of painting can be distinguished, painting is an earthen palette of ochre’s and umber browns, dust pinks, dull turmeric’s and earth reds. The outlines are in a fine black line; here the emphasis used to be given on the volume and depth. Colors are laid on in broad sweeps of the brush, ornaments on cloth or backgrounds are discarded; there is an absence of alankara as tree, bird or foliage.
The Paintings are entrusted with energy forms, stuffed with all details. Austerity are profusely maintain in the paintings, a relentless energy and a sense of magic which perhaps has its source in Tantric ritual and worship (Paintings like “The ten Goddess by Batohi Jha, Tantric, Village Jitwarpur, undated could be a fine example). Like all rural art forms the eyes are the source of Shakti, central point of power.
Colors and their complex uses are the chief characteristics of the this indigenous art, as tradition of colors remains upbeat since the time of writing Sarrada Tilaka in the eleventh century A.D; ingredients of colors are- Black (Burnt Jowar or Kajal), Yellow (Turmeric) or from Chunam mixed with banyan tree, Orange from Palas flower, Red from Kusum flower, Green from Bilva leaf. It could be a matter of solace that natural colors are still in use although artificial colors are became more rampant in the wake of commercialization.
Jitwarpur and Ranti are two prominent villages of artists that also represent some distinction in their paintings. Sita Devi, Ookha Devi, Yamuna Devi and Harijan painters from Jitwarpur; Jagdamba Devi, Mahasundri Devi from Ranti and Ganga Devi from Chiri village were the protagonists and true epoch makers of Madhubani paintings in last century.
They standardized this indigenous art in their limited means and received huge accolades from across the world for sophistication of Madhubani art; it is indeed very prideful for Mithila art lovers that some of artists among them had fetch top civilian awards for their work which sharpen the recognition of Madhubani painting across the world.
Presently Gauri Mishra of SEWA MITHILA is carrying the legacies of those great artists with hundreds of local artists; apart from that independent artists and probably every households of Mithila is very much involve in preserving their indigenous art through their cultural practices like- Kohber (paintings in the sanctum of newly weds), Aripan (portray the agrarian materialism of Maithil folks) etc. Future prospects of this indigenous art is undoubtedly bright as the bright and acclaimed artist like Santosh Das (village Ranti), who left his glamorous voyage in the field of modern art after passing out from M.S.University (Baroda), in 1980’s to catch up his indigenous art with mission to raise it to the crest of achievements.
Through deep intellectual understanding this man in his mid fourtees has added many distinct qualities to the Madhubani painting with relentless meticulous innovations. His experiment in Madhubani paintings have broadly directed it’s towards a complete new journey of expression which was quite unseen before him. Hope Madhubani painting will keep adapting with new innovations in future time with same auspicious colorful connotation in their themes.
Atul Kumar Thakur
November15th2009, New Delhi