Mithila is known to all of us as the birthplace of Sita, wife of Rama. Another name for Sita is Mythili. But it may be less known that there is a whole school of painting known as Mithila or Madhubani painting.
Mithila, named after Sita or Mythili, has a matriarchal society. The painting is done entirely by women. Girls learn the art at a young age from their mothers and grandmothers with the idea that one day they would present their work to their husbands. The actual work of painting the walls of the nuptial chamber which the bride and groom share is a task in which all the women of the community take part.
This style of painting belongs to North Bihar. In keeping with the tradition under which it began, the style is replete with symbols of fertility like the lotus plant, the bamboo grove, birds, fish, etc. in union. The art shifted to drawing paper in the 1960s, and this brought with it a new freedom and creativity. Paper is movable and economically feasible too.
The association with rituals also lessened, giving more freedom to the artist. The colours used by the Mithila painters were black (made from soot), red (from local clay) and yellow (from carnation pollen). The raw materials were mixed with goat’s milk, gum arabic and juice from bean plants. Today green, blue, red and orange have been added to these colours.
The three styles of Madhubani painting done by various communities are Kayastha women who do mostly outline paintings, Brahmin women who fill in a rough outline on colour and Harijan women who superimpose black dots on the thick brown lines done with cow dung and water.
Nowadays, Bihari women use the style to paint sarees, dupattas, etc., with fabric paint. But the traditional skill still exists, on walls and on homemade paper, with natural dyes.
Madras Craft Foundation is conducting a Mithila painting workshop on August 3, 4, 5 and 6 on this unique style of painting at the C P Arts Centre, Chennai.