Madhubani Art – Folk Art from North East India and Nepal

Naggar Valley’s limited collection of Madhubani paintings have been sourced from unknown female artists who live in small villages and support their families with the sales of their paintings. As per tradition the paintings are unsigned however their authenticity and charm is undeniable.

Since their emergence on the international art scene in the late 1960’s Madhubani paintings have been catching the eye and hearts of art enthusiasts across the globe. They have been likened to the works of 20th century modern artists such as Picasso, Klee and Miro and attracted discerning followers and collectors.

Traditionally Madhubani art is painted with fingers, nib-pens, twigs, and matchsticks. These beautiful and striking paintings are for every occasion and festival. Almost solely the domain of women folk, a small number of male artists are now beginning to learn and practice this art form.  Often depicting human figures with disproportionately large eyes and noses, they tell the stories of rituals, customs and everyday life in the ancient Mithila region, now the Madhubani area of northern Bihar, India. Subjects include man and its association with nature, and Hindu scenes & deity from ancient Ramayana epics. Many of the characters within the images are symbolic; fish representing good luck, fertility and community, serpents are the divine protectors, peacocks and owls stand for romantic and religious love, lions show strength, elephants knowledge and horses translate a message of welcome.

Madhubani literally translates into “forests of honey”.  A rural art form developed by women from Mithila, the paintings were originally created as interior wall and floor murals. They have a very distinct style that captures the viewer’s attention with their geometrical patterns and bold, bright colours. Typically the paintings have a margin or a border, which may also be embellished with geometrical patterns, or flowers or other motifs. One style uses only black pigment for a striking monochrome effect. When colour is incorporated, it is often bright and vibrant. There is very little shading in the paintings, instead hatch and cross hatching lines are used.

The wall paintings were usually made on the eve of important dates to mark the ceremonies to be performed, like a wedding, or a puja (prayer ceremony). Today Madhubani art is practised on paper, cloth and other medium as well. The special handmade paper is treated with buffalo dung to give a coating and porosity similar to that of the walls of houses that in Mithila. Traditionally rice is ground into paste to create a medium for the paint. The colours are taken from natural dyes derived from the vegetation found in the forest and other natural substances. For instance, charcoal or soot is used for black, pure rice powder for white, yellow colour is extracted from turmeric, red from sandalwood, blue from indigo and so on. As demand for the art form has become more widespread, several schools have opened across the Madhubani region to teach the artistic style however encompass the use of synthetic paints and modern round tipped paintbrushes as these are more accessible and take less time to prepare.


History of Madhubani/ Mithila Art

Madhubani paintings were born from a domestic interior wall art painted solely by women and know as Mithila art. The name Mithila being taken from an ancient capital in the northern Indian and Nepal region which is now known as modern day Janakpur in Nepal.

The exact age of Mithila art is unknown however the Ramayana mentions that Janaka; the ruler of Mithila, (4th to 5th century BCE), asked his kinfolk to decorate the floors and walls of the kingdom with paintings on the occasion of his daughter’s wedding, and this is thought to be the origin of Mithila art.

Mithila painting, as a domestic ritual activity, was unknown to the outside world until the massive Bihar earthquake of 1934. House walls had tumbled down, and the British colonial officer in Madhubani District, William G. Archer, inspecting the damage discovered the paintings on the newly exposed interior walls of homes. Archer, who later became the South Asia Curator at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, was stunned by the beauty of the paintings and similarities to the work of modern Western artists of the time like Klee, Miro, and Picasso. During the 1930s he took black and white photos of some of these paintings, the earliest recorded images of the art form. Over a decade later in a 1949 article published in the Indian art journal Marg, he brought the wall paintings to public attention.

However, it was not until a second natural disaster hit in 1966 that Mithila art became internationally known. The entire region was in the grips of a catastrophic drought, government officials touring the area came face to face with the beautiful murals within the village houses. Prompted the All India Handicrafts Board a few upper caste women in villages around Madhubani were encouraged to transfer their ritual wall paintings to paper as an income during these desperate times and Madhubani art was the result.

Whilst retaining the wall paintings’ distinctive styles and conventions, the women began painting many new subjects; episodes from the Ramayana, local epics and tales, ritual activities, village life, even autobiographical paintings. In the subsequent 45 years it has truly blossomed as an art form and women of all castes have adopted the paper format.

Mithila had long been famous in India for its rich culture and numerous poets, scholars, and theologians – all men. For women, it has been a deeply conservative society, and until painting on paper began, most women were confined to their homes and limited to household chores, child rearing, managing family rituals, and ritual wall painting. Painting on paper for commercial purposes has changed this dramatically. Aside from generating important new family income, individual women have gained local, national, and even international recognition.