Down the ages the women of Madhubani have been painting colorful pictures on the walls of their homes. This art is a tradition that has been passed on from mother to daughter over centuries thus keeping the art alive – just like an eternal spring……………
The first thing that attracted my attention, after entering Jitwarpur, was that yellow building. A small group of girls was entering that building. A few years back when I first visited this place, I had heard the interesting story of the making of this building. A German lady, who was also an art connoisseur, Erica Smith, builds this building in the early days of the eighth decade.
It was the year of 1968 – the entire land was in the grip of a terrible famine. Imbued with zeal to help the famished villagers, Erica Smith trotted through the Madhubani villages. Gloom all round, but she was suddenly struck by the bright figures on he mud wall of the hutments. Bewitching and dreamy, Erica was told that this was done by an unlettered Belle who, when cajoled by her, unhesitatingly reproduced it on a sheet of paper. Then Erica bought a lot of paintings and took them to Germany with her. She gave the artists their remuneration. After a few months, She came back again. The villagers found it strange, that Erica wanted to spend the money; she had gained from selling the paintings, on the progress of that village. She bought a piece of land and thus started the work of this building. She felt that this would help the art lovers, who came from various places to buy the paintings, as they wouldn’t have to move from one village to another and one home to another, to buy the paintings of their choice. It would also help the artists as they would find it easy then to sell their paintings. She later helped to form a committee which worked for the welfare of the artists. The money that was still left was used by her to get the ponds of the village cleaned.
“Erica is no more but still the villagers remember her” says K.K. Putty. (Madhubani based Putty is a reporter of Hindi daily.) I had requested him to accompany me.
These are rainy days. It was raining heavily last night. While leaving from Patna at dawn, the sky was clouded. But now the sky was clear and it was bright all around. Pieces of white clouds were floating in the transparent sky. Leaving our car there, Putty and I came out on the roads of Jitwarpur. Jitwarpur and Ranti are situated on the outskirts of Madhubani. These are two such villages where Madhubani Paintings are made. It is a part of their daily routine. Then I began thinking of Madhubani.
The rhythm that the word “Madhubani” – generates, have an old anecdote attached to it. Centuries ago, the bees might have been making their hives in the jungles that lay near to the village- subsequently, the villagers regularly extracted “Madhu” or honey before the arrival of rainy season. Hence the place came to be known as “Madhubani”. Tilling the earth, in those days of hoary past, was not a very easy job, for to grow crops, the people had to depend totally on nature god. They needed grace of the god for good crops. Hence, “Madhu” or honey was the only thing that could provide sweetness in their lives.
My knowledge of the history of Madhubani or Mithila is very limited. But the people of Madhubani amaze me a lot. For 3000 years, they continued to present the paintings (in their original form?) Without any change. Generally it is hold that way back in 2000 B.C., the Aryans could cast their influences on the Indians. Beginning their journey from the Central Asia, the Aryans came to the Kashmir valley through relatively plains routes. In the beginning, few Aryan – settlements took place in the pasture lands, located in Punjab region, because they could get enough for their domesticated animals. But one of the Branches of Aryans came to the Gangetic –Plains – With the help of the Ganges; they came up to the Mithila – region by crossing river Gandak. Thus, the kingdom of Mithila came in to being. According to the Arthavaveda, that Nomadic – race settled down in Mithila – region.
Over the last 3000 years, the warlike Mongols and Persians Made several invasions on Mithila – region. The new marital – relationship took place and an inter- mingling of different race too occurred. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to say whether the people of Mithila could retains their original racial identity or they looked different from their neighbours. However, they kept intact their ancient tradition of art and painting.
During the British period, W.G. Archer, while roaming the villages of Mithila, saw the murals and paintings. He was enamoured by them. He termed this particular school of art as Mithila painting. The history does not say, with full authenticity, when this particular art originated. However, the shape – figures of Mithila art tallies with those of the potteries, coins and seals found in Harappa (Indus Valley Civilization).
The ancient literature of Mithila also speaks about this art. The great Maithili poet Vidyapati mentioned about it in his poems. Over the last few thousand years, the women painted colourful pictures on the walls of their palm leaf – grass thatched huts located under the cool – sheds of banana and mango orchards on lying at the banks of ponds.
Mangnu Jha was the first person whom we met. He was acquainted to Putty. He had gone to Dilli Haat (in new delhi) a few days ago, to exhibit his art. All his paintings had been sold there, making him really very happy. In a nearly house, a man was making paintings. This man was Krishnakant Jha. He was busy with his wife, making paintings to present to his customers. I requested Mangnu Jha to show me the Kohbar Ghar (marriage chamber). He took me to a beautiful mud-house which was just behind this one. There was a small courtyard which was surrounded on three sides by small rooms. An elderly lady was sitting on verandah making paintings. The head of the family was feeding a cow. A newly wed young woman sitting just beside her mother was helping her with the paintings. That woman showed the Kohbar Ghar which was made on a cow dung pasted wall just in front me. It is the symbols in the Kohbar (the marriage chamber) that has fascinated many researchers.
It is only this Kohbar, about which Yves Vequaud, a French researcher, has given a fascinating description in his book ‘The Art of Mithila’. “Mithila is matriarchal society, and there are regular gatherings of young men to which girls who want too marry come. Traditionally, girls start at a very early age to learn to draw and paint so that they may present their work to their future husbands: a particular type of picture, a Kohbar, is used to indicate a girl’s proposal of marriage to young man she is interested in. The kohbar’s basic design and composition is heavily charged with tantric symbolism, and in its centre a lingam, the phallus , penetrates the circular beauty of a yoni, the symbol of the female genitals, often drawn as a fully – opened lotus. This pictorial intercourse has its source in three, or perhaps even five, thousand years of ritual, and centuries of marriages have sophisticated its expression. Sexuality here manifests itself as the source of all creation, in a characteristically Indian approach to the transcendent. There is no question of male or female dominance, but life itself is venerated; so that the simplest and most intimate ceremony in which a man and a woman participate is both cause and effect of the kohbar which is unique in the history of the world’s art – a glorious crucifixion seen on the walls of every bedroom in Mithila.”
On moving further on this road a famous Madhubani painter, Padmashree Sita Devi house, falls toward the right. She died only last year. When I had visited Madhubani the last time, I had an opportunity to meet her. It is very pertinent to mention here that Sita Devi was one among the few famous artists of Madhubani School whose creations occupies spaces in the art galleries dotting in France, USA, Germany , Japan. Italy and Denmark. She also represented India in these countries. The books on art, belonging to Japan, France and Italy, mentions about her works. The famous Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand even devoted a full chapter on her.
Here, I met her grandson Lallan. He took us to his home at request. He welcomed us with some cold water of the well and some tea. There are many specialties of Madhubani. Hospitality and politeness in their language are some among them. These lessen the tiredness of the visitors and guests.
It was now mid-day. Girls were returning home from the training centers (many centers are nowadays running in the villages where girls learn the art of painting). The dismissal bell had already rung in the schools. Children were making lots of noise while running back to their homes.
While sauntering around the hamlets, strewn in Madhubani which is famous for its Madhubani painting, One finds a close link between the locale of the stories of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya and these villages having Squat – little huts, banana orchards, ponds having tranquil green waters and “makhana”. As a bonus, you can find little naked children running to and fro, in the mud and dust. Truly it appears that we have landed in the home of a “character” of the novels of Sharat Babu.
The next moment I found myself standing in front of one of the most popular Madhubani painters, Mahasundari Devi’s house, in Ranti. I gave a knock at door; which after a few moments, was opened by her daughter–in-law, Vibha Das, who herself is an expert Madhubani painter and has, been awarded by the Bihar Government.
Inside the house, in the verandah, Mahasundari Devi was busy with a huge painting. Vibha Das told me that Mahasundari Devi is not well these days. Her art is wonderful. Vibha Das tells us an interesting story: Yves Vequaud, a French art connoisseur and documentary film maker once took some of Mahasundari Devi’s painting to France with him. Piccaso was in France then. He saw her paintings whose originality and colour combinations impressed him greatly. He wrote some lines for her, too, “People find me a great artist but when I saw your art, I found you even a greater painter than me.”
Mahasundari preserved them, but unfortunately, in a house – fire, it burnt down to “Maa ji (Mahasundari Devi) ko iska dukh ab tak hai” says Vibha.
Many paintings were lying here and there in the house. Great art connoisseur Ananda Coomarswamy, comes to my mind at this sight. “How holding exhibitions of folk art objects is justified? When art critic like Ananda Coomarswamy poses such anxiety, it is perhaps fully correct .According to him we should make access to such artists directly. We should observes art works of these artists in its natural perspective by going to their villages and their premises; only then we can visualize their real expression, People of the various countries of the whole world, for the patronage of their folk art did not go to art galleries. Rather they themselves engraved pictures on the walls and floors of their houses and doing so through their creativity they remained developing their mental bliss and aesthetic sense. They preserved the continuity of the human feelings through colours and figures, and on the basis of the same they made their monotonous daily life into colorful and pleasurable. Madhubani folk painting is of the same patter and form.”
You would be surprised to know that this art, after remaining in unknown for generations, came into the focus of the world due to a disaster. In 1968, a grueling drought hit the villages of Mithila. The people started perishing due to hunger. Till then, only a, handful of people knew about this art, However, the Ex-union Minister, Late Lalit Narayan Mishra was well acquainted with the characteristics features of Mithila Paintings. The well known connoisseur of art from Maharashtra Late Bhaskhar Kulkarni too was fond of this particular school of painting. So were Late Upendra Maharatti and Pupul Jaykar they knew about it.
They came here with a plan in their mind: they distributed papers to the people of Jitwarpur and Ranti and asked them to paint on them. After collecting those pieces of art, they went to Delhi. There, the people showed massive interest in such paintings for their originality, colours combinations and thematic specialty. The Mithila painting immediately carved out a place for itself among the art lovers.
After this, the papers began to be distributed and paintings began to travel in different directions. It is very rare that a disaster causes such type of miracles. From the wall of villages of Madhubani, the paintings, descended on the papers and cloths. Now, these paintings are getting displayed in art galleries, beautifying the wall of massive bungalows and adding glamour to the plush drawing rooms both in India and aboard. They are also finding their places in five star hotels, airports, railway stations and ports. The fashions mongers are using Madhubani painting as an independent fashion mode for women. The exhibitions of Madhubani painting have been staged in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai. In Germany, Japan, France, Poland, Denmark. Italy. Canada and USA, this particular form of painting have also been exhibited.
In 1970, this century’s old school of art got the governmental recognition. The presidents Award was conferred, for the first time, upon Jagdamba Devi of Jitwarpur for promoting the Madhubani painting. She was followed by Sita Devi, Mahasundari Devi of Ranti and Ganga Devi. They got Padmashree also. Several painters traveled abroad also during the (overseas) exhibitions of their paintings.
We are now in the same village where one can see riot of colours. I can’t believe this that I’m among those artists whose creations is spread all over the world. Serene rural environment. simple honest and innocent artists. Nobody will think of these lady artists that they would ever have crossed the doors of their houses.
Putty and I went to the homes of many such artists. Somebody or the other in these houses was busy in painting. Earlier, only women used to paint but from when the commercialization has taken place, man have also started making paintings.
“Will you buy my painting?” a small girl asked me thinking me an outsider. “Yes, surely! But have you made this painting?” I wanted to know. “Yes, I have. Let me bring it.” She ran away to her house after saying this. She came out after a few moments with a small painting in her hand. “Here it is. But I’ll give it to you in free… if you’ll have my photograph taken.” She looks at my camera with curious eyes. And then she gave a wonderful pose.
The Sun was about to set. Girls were coming out of that building on the outskirts of the village, which was built by Erica Smith and where these girls went to learn painting. We also took our car and got set to return. I took leave from Putty in Madhubani and I left for Patna.
I was thinking of the artists of Madhubani on the way back home. In the hamlets of Madhubani, people still prepare painting. But they lack the enthusiasm which they once evinced in the days of Lalit Narayan Mishra, Bhaskar Kulkarni and Upendra Maharathi. Once upon a time, these paintings happened to be the pivot round which their happiness revolved. But the remorseless tide of time and circumstances totally commercialized these painting and made them adopt this art as a source of livelihood. Currently, they are strikes by poverty since the pieces of their paintings are not getting sold. It is not so that the paintings do not sell- they do sell, but their numbers are not so large that the painters could spend a complete year with that income.