A Massive catastrophe struck Bihar (a state in the eastern part of India) in 1934 in the form of a horrifying earthquake claiming thousands of lives. Nature’s fury resulted in the large scale of devastation of structures and cities in the region. Madhubani in Mithila region of Bihar was one of the worst affected areas. William G Archer, a young, idealist Englishman, unlike the stereotypical colonial Sahib, was serving as a sub-divisional officer in the Madhubani area. During one of his inspection visits post-earthquake he stumbled upon a magnificent cultural treasure which was until then hidden away from the outside world. Astounded by the discovery Archer confesses in his autobiography “I could see beyond the courtyards into some of the inner rooms, and what I saw in the house of a Maithil Brahmin took my breath away. In normal times I would never have seen them since the rooms were private and intimate. But now they stood exposed and with astonished eyes, I saw that the walls were covered with brilliantly painted murals.” These folk illustrations came to be called Madhubani Art to the world. An ardent former student of contemporary post-Impressionist art at Cambridge University the young officer went on to contribute an article in the Indian art journal, Marg which laid the cornerstone for the transformation of Madhubani art.               

Vivid, unrelenting colours, bold geometric designs depicting local folklores, every inch of the canvas oozing life in its most aesthetic form distinguish Madhubani paintings from the rest. The stimulating art form was fostered by women of the Mithila region for centuries. The story of Madhubani paintings can be traced back to the mythical times of Ramayana, one of the greatest epics of the world. Legend has it that King Janaka invited artists from the village to douse the whole kingdom with traditional murals on the occasion of his daughter Sita’s wedding to Lord Rama. Primarily, Madhubani art developed as a decorative art, practiced on special social and religious ceremonies where women of the house would illustrate their vast landscape of imagination in the form of striking paintings on the walls. 

The Madhubani paintings display distinct styles like Bharni, Kachni, Tantrik, Nepali and Gobar. It is interesting to note that there are certain styles like Bharni, Kachni, Tantrik which were practiced by the higher class and caste women, these styles depicted mythological stories, divinities, deities and other religious symbols. The other styles carried forward by lower caste women forayed into a wide diversity in terms of character and elements of the paintings. The opulent art form has extremely austere tools like bamboo nibs, twigs, matchsticks among others. The colourants like turmeric, pollen, lime, sandalwood, charcoal etc used in the paintings are extracted organically from natural habitat.

It was the year of 1966 when the region was struck by another disaster, Bihar drought had damaged the agricultural economy, the annual food grains production had sharply dropped causing large scale migration and starvation. “You can’t feed art to a hungry man” they say but this time art came as a refuge in the times of adversity. Papul Jayakar who was serving as the director of All India Handicrafts Board visited Madhubani as a part of government’s project to provide relief work to local people. Jayakar was dismayed to see how “the bleak dust of poverty had sapped away the will and the energy needed to ornament the home.” Tremendous efforts by Papul Jayakar and Mumbai-based artist Bhaskar Kulkarni resulted in the major transformation of the art-form. The intricate designs started flowing on paper, making the paintings more accessible and marketable. The artists were free to explore, express and experiment. Gradually, Madhubani art form became a global phenomenon.

Today there are numerous villages in the Madhubani district where everybody is a painter, “Every painting is distinct and has its own character, like human beings” says Shekhar Iyer, a Madhubani artist from Gangapur village in Madhubani who has been practicing the art for almost half a century. The treasured art form has created innumerable livelihood opportunities for the indigenous artists in the region and a stir among the art aficionados all over the world. Madhubani art form not only retained its traditional aesthetics but also rediscovered itself midst the disasters.

Anais Nin’s words echo the spirit and soul of Madhubani art form “something is always born of excess: great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.”

Rachit Sharma