The Mithila painting is one of the living creative activities of the women of this region. It is a famous folk painting on paper, cloth, readymade garments, movable objects etc., mainly by the village women of Mithila. Originally it is a folk art, practiced by the women of all castes and communities, including the Muslims, on walls and floors using the natural and vegetable colours. Later some people took interest in it and motivated the women to translate their art from walls and floors to the canvas and now the new form has given this a very distinct identity in the art world as well as in the market. This folk art has a history, a cultural background, women’s monopoly and distinct regional identification. Where is Mithila? What is the cultural and historical significance of this land? Why is it that this art is that special in Mithila? These are the few questions that deserve an answer before anything can be written about this art form.
Far away from Indian big cities and the modern world lies a beautiful region once known as Mithila. It was one of the first kingdoms to be established in eastern India. The region is a vast plain stretching north towards Nepal, south towards the Ganges and west towards Bengal. The present districts of Champaran, Saharsa, Muzaffarpur, Vaishali, Darbhanga, Madhubani, Supaul, Samastipur etc., and parts of Munger, Begusarai, Bhagalpur and Purnea of Bihar cover Mithila. It is completely flat and free from rock or stone. Its soil is the alluvial slit deposited by the river Ganges, a rich, smooth clay dotted with thousands of pools replenished by the monsoon, the only reservoirs until the next monsoon. If the monsoon is late or scanty, the harvest is in jeopardy. But if the rain god is kind, the whole plain bursts into green from October to February, dotted with man-made ponds where beasts and peasants bath beneath ancient vatvrikshas. Madhubani is the heartland where the paintings are more profuse than elsewhere. “The region’s rich vegetation so impressed ancient visitors that they called it Madhubani, ‘Forest of Honey’ (Vequaud, Yves 1977:9)”, the name of the most acknowledged district for this painting. In this mythical region, Rama, the handsome prince of Ayodhya and incarnation of the Vishnu, married princess Sita, born of a furrow her father King Janaka had tilled. Mithila is that sacred land where the founders of Buddhism and Jainism; the scholars of all six orthodox branches of Sanskrit learning such as Yajnavalkya, Bridha Vachaspati, Ayachi Mishra, Shankar Mishra, Gautam, Kapil, Sachal Mishra, Kumaril Bhatt and Mandan Mishra were born. Vidyapati, a Vaisnav poet of 14th century was born in Mithila who immortalized a new form of love songs explaining the relationship between Radha and Krishna in the region through his padavalis and therefore the people rightly remember him as the reincarnation of Jaideva (abhinavajaideva). Karnpure, a classical Sanskrit poet of Bengal, in his famous devotional epic, the Parijataharanamahakavya gives an interesting account confirming the scholarship of the people of Mithila. Krishna tells his beloved Satyabhama, while flying over this land on way to Dwarka from Amravati, “O lotus-eyed one behold! Yonder this is Mithila, the birthplace of Sita. Here in every house Saraswati dances with pride on the tip of the tongue of the learned (Mishra, Kailash Kumar 2000)” Mithila is a wonderful land where art and scholarship, laukika and Vedic traditions flourished together in complete harmony between the two. There was no binary opposition.
Then a second natural disaster, a severe draught in the late 1960s, prompted the All India Handicrafts Board to encourage a few upper caste women in villages around Madhubani town to transfer their ritual wall paintings to paper as an income generating project. Drawing on the region’s rich visual culture, contrasting “line painting” and “color painting” traditions, and their individual talents, several of these women turned out to be superb artists. Four of them were soon representing India in cultural fairs in Europe, Russia, and the USA. Their national and international recognition prompted many other women from many other castes – including harijans or dalits, the ex-“untouchables” – to begin painting on paper as well.
By the late 1970s, the popular success of the paintings – aesthetically distinct from other Indian painting traditions – was drawing dealers from New Delhi offering minimal prices for mass produced paintings of the most popular divinities and three familiar scenes from the Ramayana. Out of poverty, many painters complied with the dealers’ demands, and produced the rapid and repetitious images known as “Madhubani paintings.” Nevertheless, with the encouragement of a number of outsiders – both Indian and foreign – other artists working within the same aesthetic traditions continued to produce the highly crafted, deeply individual and increasingly diverse work, now known as “Mithila Painting.”
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 40+ years ago, 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 sale has changed this dramatically. Aside from generating important new family income, individual women have gained local, national, and even international recognition. Artists are being invited to exhibitions across India, and to Europe, the United States, and Japan – no longer as “folk artists,” but now as “contemporary artists.” Where once their paintings were “anonymous,” now they are proudly signed. Along with economic success, opportunities for travel, education, radio, and now television are expanding women’s consciousness and engagement with the multiple worlds around them. Gender relations are shifting. A few men continue to paint within what is still defined as “a women’s tradition,” but their work tends to be personal and anodyne. In contrast, the women’s paintings are increasingly socially charged, critical, and edgy.
These changes have provoked an argument in Mithila and beyond between cultural conservatives who claim that commercialization and the loss of its ritual functions has debased Mithila painting, versus those who see Mithila Painting as a contemporary art form rooted in the expanding experience, concerns, and freedoms of Mithila’s women. Viewers of Mithila Painting: The Evolution of an Art Form are encouraged to form their own judgments.