Artistic activity among all tribal cultures is an integral part of life. It has a well defined function socially, evolving from their interaction with nature and interpretation of its mysteries. It usually serves as a channel of communication with non-human forces, spiritual or otherwise.
Maithili painting, known for their vibrant lines and striking colours, age “written” by the tribal women of northern Bihar as preparation for religious ceremonies and important festivities. They are also known as Madhubani paintings. Madhuban, forest of honey, is Mithila’s largest district and one of the main centres of this art form.
Mithila, or Videha in ancient times, lies in the northern Darbhanga district of Bihar. On the northern front this region is marked off from Nepal by the Himalayan foothills. In the south the rivers Ganga, Gandaki and Kosi have secured it from the great plains of central India.
The relative isolation has made this region a fertile ground for artistic activity and spiritual pursuits. It is the birthplace of Sita or Vaidehi, of India’s most famed legend, the Ramayana; the land where Vidyapati’s sensuous poetry has reverberated since the 14th century; where the loves of the divine couple Krishna and Radha have been extolled in songs through the ages; where nature is worshipped in her energy-charged incarnation of Shakti, where Vedic learning has flourished and the Hindu scriptures are familiar in every home. Besides literature and poetry, the region also cultivated a rich musical and theatrical tradition.
In such an enriched environment, Mithila paintings have been written for centuries, with little change in the basic style. For it is not the painting of the object that is of importance, but the tradition – the spirit – which is treasured and faithfully handed down generations. The paintings themselves are left to fade or are deliberately obliterated. The custom belongs to a category of similar traditions among tribes across central and western India, whereby women decorate their huts with abstract motifs as part of socio-religious practice. It is thus more a domestic preoccupation than a specialized activity. Yet each tribe has its distinct style and symbols that derive from its own unique ethos.
The bhatti chitras or wall paintings are written in three primary areas of the hut. The gosainghar or devasthan is where the icons of the household deities and clan lords are worshipped. The kobarghar is the inner room, the heart of the hut, the nuptial chamber of newly weds, the delivery chamber where babies are born, the room which throbs with life. This room is always kept pure, with freshly plastered walls on which pictures of the deities are written and to whom oblations are made of fragrant flowers. Outer walls of the hut, the courtyard where guests are received, are also beautified with paintings. Women may decorate other household articles used in auspicious rituals, but these remain secondary to the walls.
W G Archer was the first to study the Maithili tradition in detail. It was found that the paintings were doen in the more prosperious homes of the villages. The two castes Brahmins and Kayasthas were most involved in this activity, and had more evolved styles. Women from other castes also wrote, but their work, stylistically and content wise, remained comparatively rudimentary.
Traditionally, painting has been a social activity. Women work in groups, first plastering the wall with cowdung. Then the more skilled of them draws outlines with a twig of bamboo whose ends are frayed. Draughtsmanship is spontaneous, done without any initial sketch and with only previous experience for reference. Other women then begin to fill colours in washes. For brushes, cloth strips are wound around twigs and dipped in colour, each brush being used for a single colour. Young girls in the group, either as spectators or as assistants, absorb these ancestral traditions and learn its idioms. In some Kayastha households, the traditions are handed down on bits of paper which are preserved as family heirlooms and referred to at the time of painting.
The women of Mithila are nearly always attired in white, but their palette belies a vibrant spirit. They use a few basic colours in very bright but single tones. The colours normally range between orange, red, green, yellow, pink, black and white. These are extremely popular with the Brahmin women. The Kayastha artists prefer more subdued shades like earthen tones of browns, yellows and reds, using only one or two of these with black in a painting. While originally these colours were prepared by the women and girls from minerals and plant extracts, today the chemical bazaar colours have gained widespread acceptance.
The complete absence of depth or perspective is a hallmark of Mathili paintings. Human and animal forms are shown in frontal position, against a background textured with dots or lines and elaborately decorated with designs. This gives the painting a full bodied effect. Free floating forms are a regular feature in the works by Brahmin women. These are spontaneous images, vibrant and appealing, yet lacking context. But the paintings of Kayastha artists shows greater planning and intricate depiction. Animal and human forms are depicted in the process of some kind of activity. The lines are bolder and more confident. In fact there is more stress on link work than colour, giving the painting a tapestry look. For the Maithilis, each painting is an act of creation, the artist, the medium,and the supreme Brahma, the creator. This negates the concept of errors, and lines once drawn are rarely reworked.
Contents of the paintings are determined by the occasion and ritual for which they are written, and the deity being invoked. Paintings usually contain a combination of heavenly and animal form, with stylized flora. On occasions of marriage the bridal procession is also included. The more elaborate one may narrate episodes from scriptures such as the Bhagvata Purana. The deity secures the auspicious environment for the occasion. Also included are symbols of fertility and prosperity, so important to agricultural communities which are at the mercy of nature. The most important symbols are the lotus flower and bamboo shoot, both of which proliferate very fast and which together are diagrammatic repres4entations of the six organs. Other symbols like the sun and moon, turtles, fish have varying degree of importance.
The paintings are inalienable from religious customs, without them no ritual is possible. And occasions for rituals are many. Birth of child, the sacred thread ceremony, renovation of the family shrine, a girl’s attainment of puberty and marriage are some of the occasions marked with religious significance. Festivals are also of special importance when particular deities of the Hindu pantheon are invoked and worshipped.
In the 1950s and 60s, the central government began to take active interest in keeping alive the various rural crafts and traditions. The Maithilis, at that time confronted with a particularly severe drought, received due encouragement to put their art to paper. Since then, this style of painting has acquired new metaphors. Symbols of urban living have crept in to the picture, and the tradition has forfeited its magical value to the individual artist’s idioms of self-expression. Artists now strive at establishing a uniqueness in style to accompany their signature. Jamba Devi and Maha Sunderi Devi of Ranthi, ganga Devi of Chiri, Sita Devi, Yamuna Devi and Ookha Devi of Jitwarpur are among the accomplished masters. The art of Mithila got further impetus from the cultural Festival of Indias hosted in various countries in the mid nineteen-eighties. More than a means of living, Maithili paintings have become their artists’ window to the new world.