Amidst the serene surrounding of tall and majestic trees and lush green foliage, the mud-houses of Mithila stand as the epitome of sublime beauty. Mirroring the activities and elements of the human and animal world with colorful geometrical patterns, the cow dung coated mud walls of these houses reflect the ancient tradition of elaborate wall painting or Bhitti Chitra practiced in the Mithila region of Bihar and the adjoining parts of Tarai in Nepal.
The vibrant tradition of these ritual paintings, widely known as Madhubani, which by one account means “Forest of Honey”, is said to dates back to the time of Ramayana, when king Janaka asked an artist to capture his daughter Sita’s wedding to the prince Rama. The art form originated in Madhubani village of the capital city of Ancient Mithila, which has a distinct identity and language that is believed to go back over 2500 years.
The paintings were traditionally created by the women of various communities in Mithila region, as a simple means of self-expression, during festivals, ceremonies or special occasions. Themes of Mithila paintings revolved around Hindu deities like Krishna, Rama, Lakshmi, Shiva, Durga, and Saraswati. The natural themes included the Sun, the Moon and the religious plants like Tulsi. Scenes from the royal courts and social events, like weddings, can also be found in some of the paintings. The left empty spaces were filled by the motifs of flowers, animals, and birds or geometric designs.
These paintings have remained confined to a compact geographical area, with the skills passed on through generations and centuries. Revealing the deep knowledge and understanding of spiritual trends and cross currents in the rural society, the Mithila painting was unknown to the outside world until the massive India-Nepal border earthquake of 1934.
The then British Colonial officer of Madhubani district, William G. Archer chanced upon these paintings in the interior walls of the homes while he was examining the damage caused by the quake. Struck by the similarities to the work of modern Western artists like Miro and Picasso, Archer wrote about the paintings in a 1949 article. Years later, after the drought of 1968, the women of the region, encouraged by the All Indo-Nepal Handicrafts Board, replicated their mural paintings on paper in order to facilitate sales as a source of income to ensure survival.
However, Madhubani painting got official recognition in 1969 when Sita Devi, a painter received State award by Government of Bihar and Jagdamba Devi was given a Padma Shri in 1975. The government also awarded Sita Devi the National Award that year. The current generation painter Bharti Dayal has also played a significant role in the re-emergence and propagation of this art form. Her work finds a place among many foreign collections. She was awarded the National Award in 2006 and the Indira Gandhi Priyadarshini Award in 2013.
Gradually, the Madhubani painting of India crossed the traditional boundaries and started reaching connoisseurs of art, both at the national as well as the international level. Today, Madhubani art piques interest in art lovers from different countries like USA, Australia, UK, and Russia. Patterns from this art form have also found their way onto various items like bags, cushion covers, coasters, mugs, crockery, and mouse pads.
In 2012, to prevent deforestation, Madhubani artists created colorful masterpieces on the tree trunks of highway number 52. As a result, not even a single painted tree was cut and highway number 52 of the Madhubani district has become a well-known tourist attraction.
Born of indigenous talents, free from textual injunctions and complicated technical doctrines and controversies, these paintings depict the realities of life and symbolize those reactions emanating from intense feelings of joy and sorrow and the mysteries associated with nature and society that thrill the inner hearts of the men and women of Mithila.