Straight from the women's world

mithila art

exclusive The themes of Mithila art range from deities to sacred plants.

Originally these paintings were done on freshly plastered mud walls of huts and floors. But now it is also done on cloth, hand-made paper and canvas. The story of how the art originated, grew, thrived within a tiny village and then turned global is a rather fascinating story.

There was a time when very few people outside the Mithila knew about this art. The first to document this tradition as a form of folk art was William Archer, a British civil servant posted in the region during the colonial era. He and his wife Mildred got some of the typical designs copied on paper. They carried these to the India Records Office in London, now part of the British Library, so that artists specialising in folk art could get an idea about this special folk art from India.

As the name suggests, Mithila art is a style of painting that originated in the Mithila region of Bihar, particularly in the village of Madhubani. The origin of the art is shrouded in mystery. However, it is generally believed that it was created during the epic period when King Janak of Mithila ordered the marriage hall to be decorated for his daughter Sita’s marriage to Rama. We find some vivid descriptions of the wall and floor paintings in Tulsidas’s magnum opus, Ramcharitamanas.

Traditionally, Mithila painting was done by the womenfolk of the village who were the sole custodians of this art. Younger women and girls helped them and learnt it from them from a very young age. That is how it passed on from one generation to the next.

Mithila art is usually divided into three categories — paintings done on the floor, on the walls and on moveable objects such as wooden seats, clay pots, mats, fans, woven baskets and so on.

The first one is called aripan, which is a floor art like the alpana in Bengal. Aripan is made with rice paste called pithar in the local language. As in alpana, aripan is also done with one’s finger tips and the basic pattern is done in white and filled up later with different colours, usually red and yellow. Astadala, sarvatobhadra, dasapata and swastika are some of the symbols used in aripan.

An interesting feature of all Mithila paintings was that the artists used only locally available raw materials, including indigenous colour — vermillion and local red clay for red; turmeric and flower petals for yellow; leaves for green; soot for black and  crushed berries for blue. In fact, a number of local flowers, leaves, fruits, barks, herbs and roots were used to extract colours, usually in the form of powder which was then strained through fine cloth.
Some colours were made by boiling the ingredients in water. All the colours were then mixed with goat’s milk and gum from babul trees so that they stuck to the walls properly and also lasted longer.

However, now Mithila artists use readymade acrylic colours and paint brushes, although the style and themes remain the same.

The themes of Mithila art comprise Hindu deities such as Rama and Sita; Radha and Krishna; Shiva and Parvati; Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati and so on; natural objects such as the sun and the moon; sacred plants like tulasi and banana stem; social scenes like wedding or a royal court gathering, and also various symbols, depending on the occasion.
Generally, no space is left empty. All gaps are filled up with pictures of flowers, animals, birds and even geometric designs. Many of these have specific meanings. An elephant is supposed to convey good luck, fish stands for fertility, parrots symbolise love and so on.

Traditionally, no brushes were used for painting. The colour was applied with a piece of cotton or lint stuck to a piece of bamboo. Or, they made a rough brush by wrapping cotton at the end of a twig.

These paintings are made during all festivals, religious events and social occasions such as weddings, naming ceremony, sacred thread ceremony and others. All ceremonies related to marriage are performed in the kohbar, a special chamber where the newly weds spend their first few nights. All paintings in this room symbolise love, sex and fertility, as well as some specific gods and goddesses, such as the Dashaavatara, Gauri, Bidh and Bidhata and so on.

Mithila art was first practised by Brahmin women who used bright colours. They mostly painted gods and goddesses and symbolic painting used in the kohbar. The art was then taken up by Kayastha women whose speciality was fine line drawings. They also used muted colours and shaded the drawings. Many of them painted just outlines, depicting village and festive scenes with fine, intricate details. Their style is very different from the others. Women of other castes took to painting much later, from the 1980s onwards. Their drawings are often quite simple, comprising lines, waves, circles, animals, trees and flowers.

What prompted the artists of Mithila to share their exclusive art with the rest of the world?
Surprisingly, it came about because of a major ecological and economic disaster that struck Mithila following a prolonged drought during 1966-68. In order to create a new source of non-agricultural income, the All India Handicrafts Board encouraged the women artists of Mithila to produce their traditional paintings for commercial sale. That is how women from all levels of society joined in and Mithila paintings became the primary source of income for scores of families. It is now taught in several art schools, all over the country, and has become a popular stylised art.

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