2500 years ago King Janaka commissioned artists to record the wedding of his beloved daughter Sita to Prince Rama in the form of a painting. He asked that the entire kingdom be decorated with this sparkling art form to commemorate the occasion. This is the first ever reference Madhubani in the ancient scriptures and texts. So many centuries on we are still captivated by this glorious and life-affirming art form.
Also known as Mithila art as it originates from the Mithila region of Bihar it has been practiced solely by women and passed down from mothers to daughters over generations. Madhubani literally translates into Honey Forest. The paintings are done with ordinary, everyday materials like twigs, matchsticks, nibs and even fingertips. Nowadays, practitioners also use brushes and pens. Natural dyes like ochre, indigo and lampblack – the soot from lamps are used while outlines are drawn in rice paste. No space is left undecorated or filled in. Borders are adorned with geometric and floral patterns. Madhubani is bright, bold, eye catching and goes straight to the heart. There are five distinct styles practiced by different castes. The so-called upper castes painted religious themes and festivals while the “lower” castes depicted themes from nature. The styles are called Bharni, Katchni, Tantrik, Godna, and Kohbar. Modern Madhubani has shedded its caste associations and anybody paints anything.
With its short, stubby lines, flowing waves, semi-circles, zig zags and streaming chevrons, Madhubani has a childlike, lilting, rhythmic quality which delights the eye and its bold, happy colours please the senses. With gods and goddesses, mythic scenes, fish and flowers, owls and peacocks, Madhubani captures the joy of life, the nature of community and the power of nature.
Earlier, women decorated their homes with this distinctive art form. Mud plastered walls teemed with images of boldly outlined fish with popping eyes, birds, turtles, bright suns and serene moons and the flora and fauna that surrounded the region – leaves, bamboo trees and lotus.
Interestingly Madhubani, while an ancient art form, was lost to us but happily found again by a colonial, William G. Archer while assessing the destruction caused by the earthquake of 1934. He was stunned by the vibrant illustrations that faced him which he then brought to the attention of the rest of the world.
Old as it is, its graphic quality and 2 dimensional depictions give Madhubani a very post-modern feel which resonates with today’s aesthetic. And now it is practiced with joyous abandon finding its way onto different surfaces from saris to ceramics. Its appearance on wall coverings cannot be far behind. An exploration of Madhubani is a delight to the senses and there is much to feast the eye on. The older versions have a softer, quieter quality due to the faded colours and flowing lines; the newer ones delight with both art and theme. One thing is for sure, once bitten with the Madhubani bug, you will be a fan for life.