Madhubani Arts - History - Discussion

[This painting is made by famous artist and cartoonist Mahendra Prasad]
[The History of Mithila Paintings is provided by Dr. Kailash K. Mishra. Dr. Kailash Kumar Mishra is an anthropologist who works as free lance scholar and looks after the Bahudha Utkarsh Foundation as its founder and Managing Trustee. he can be contacted at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , Ph: 09868963743]

In Mithila, painting is normally done by women folk in three forms: painting on floor, painting on wall and painting on movable objects. Aripan, under the first category, is made on the floor with the paste of arva (crude) rice. This rice paste is called pithar in the local language. Apart from the floor it is also made on banana and maina17 leaves and pidhi (wooden seats).   A woman or a girl does it using her right hand’s fingertips. In tusari puja, a festival celebrated by the unmarried girls in order to please Gauri and Shiva to have a suitable husband; an aripan is made with dry rice powder in white, yellow and red colours. Aripan is of different types suiting different occasions. Astadala, sarvatobhadra, dasapata and swastika are its main varieties. Wall paintings are multicolored. Three to four colors are usually used to depict the wall paintings. Pictures include those of nayana-jogini, purain18, carrier of fish, curd, jackfruit, trees of fruits such as mango and pomegranate and birds like peacock. Attractive floral motifs adorn the wall on three sides of the entrance. Paintings on movable objects include those on clay models of pots, elephants, birds like Sama and chakeba; Raja Salhesa, bamboo structure, mat, fan and objects made of sikki19. Decorative multicolored designs made on the faces of brides and the sumangalis20 also fall in this category. Many of these paintings have great tantrik significance. Certain non-Vedic rites during the marriage ceremony, practiced exclusively by the women, like thakka-bakka, nayana-jogini etc., are directly related to the Mithila tantra.

The tradition of wall paintings as well as surface paintings for beautification of dwellings and ritual purposes in Mithila is believed to have survived from the epic period. Tulsidasa in his magnum opus the Ramcharitamanasa gives a vivid account of Mithila painting decorated for the marriage of Sita and Rama. Influenced with the wonderful pair – Rama and Sita –Gauri, the Consort of Siva, desired to participate in the actual marriage ritual and wanted to paint the kohabar21 where the sumangalis had to perform songs and related rituals for this divine ideal couple. These decorations are mythological murals, added with deities of Hindu pantheon, besides regional flora and fauna. The women artists, according to the old age tradition, are the sole custodians who practice this folk painting passing down for generations from mother to her daughter. They have been retaining this great art form in the region since time immemorial. The girl learns to play with the brush and colors at an early age that finally culminates in the kohabar, which acquires great sanctity in the social life. All religious ceremonies relating to the marriage are performed in the kohabar. The ahibaatak patil22 is kept burning in all through for four days.

The present form of Mithila paintings, also called Madhubani paintings, are the translation of the wall paintings, floor paintings and terracotta idols onto paper or canvas23. This experiment is not very old. In the late sixties, twentieth century, in order to create the job opportunity for the women to face the cruel challenge of the terrible drought, some women were approached to translate their art from walls, floors and other form of creativity to the paper or canvas. They did and it worked miraculously. At first when the ritual was fixed on paper it had a very small audience at the receiver’s end but it certainly opened a new world of art appreciators and also potential buyers of their artworks in the world. This was a great success and a ticket to trade. Since then the painting medium has diversified. Wall paintings were transferred to hand made paper (which was of poster size) and gradually it laid the way for other mediums and motifs like greeting cards, dress materials, sun-mica etc. The stylized figures, fierce lions with electrified manes, the human profiles reminiscent of ancient Cretan pottery, the bright native colours and all possible indigenous experiments appealed to the audience of the world. In the beginning only a few Brahman women were given the opportunity to practice this art but after ten years some women of the Kayasthas also came forward with a new style. Till now, the women of the Harijans were not given the opportunity to experiment in this art with their hands. On careful examination I found an interesting story behind this. The women of higher castes were not allowed in the region to cross the boundary of their houses, however they wanted to do some work for generating finance to run their family smoothly mainly during the natural calamities. One folk poet, Faturilal of present Shahpur village of Madhubani had described the pathetic condition of the people during famine in late nineteenth century in his famous poetry known as the Akalkavitta24.  Influenced with his poetic description the then Maharaja of Darbhanga, Maharaja Laxmeshwar Singh decided to create job opportunities with the help of the British ruler for the people. The women of lower castes however were helping their husbands or male counterparts by working in the agricultural fields of better off people and also as maid servant in the houses of higher castes. This time also some people thought of involving the women of higher castes in some creative business. Mahatma Gandhi’s experiment with charkha25 came as a wonder for all the women of Maithil Brahmans. They found it very easy as earlier they were preparing cotton thread on tekuli for preparing the janeu or jagyopaveeta26. The khadi workers used to give raw cotton to them in every house and collect their prepared yarns. Very delicate and costly khadi clothes are woven from these yarns today and they are in great demand everywhere in the country. Some women prepare such very fine thread that at times the length of a sacred thread is contained in the case of a piece of cardamom. Anyway, this created a space for women. Khadi centres used to give money as well as clothes for their labour. This was a respectful job mainly for destitute, widows and poor women of higher castes in the locality. And the second experiment was Mithila paintings. As a result some women of the Brahman caste such as Sita Devi contributed to promote the Brahmin style of Mithila paintings. This art, characterised by bright colours and an absence of shade, is mainly concerned with the khobars27 and gods and goddesses (Krishna, Rama and Durga mostly). Bawa Devi and her daughter, Sarita Devi later made important personal contributions.

Another social group, the women of the Kayasthas, was also facing the similar problem. They were landless community and their women also got attracted towards this art form to gain some finance. They worked hard on the art and also in the entrepreneurship and finally achieved recognition in the seventies.  The Kayastha women earned their name for their elaborate line paintings. Most of the Kayastha women do outline paintings only. They cover their sheets of paper or cloth or any object with the care of cartographers, producing finished pictures where exquisite execution is more impressive in view of the difficult conditions in which they work. They depict village or religious scenes to the finest details such as the late Ganga Devi, Pushpa Kumari, Karpoori Devi, Mahasundari Devi and Godawari Dutta. These two forms of Mithila expression, both due to women from the higher castes, embody traditional Mithila art.

The third group, the Harijan women, came forward in the 1980s. The women of the Dusadh and the Chamar were doing all forms of traditional paintings and art forms for ritual purposes and also for decorating their dwellings. Influenced by the entrepreunership and experiment of the Bramhans and the Kayasthas they experimented the godna28 and other bright colour in their depiction of paintings. Their pictorial alphabet began to include lines, waves, circles, sticks and snails, opening the way to stylization and more abstraction.  That also worked.  Jamuna Devi and Lalita Devi are famous Harijan female painters. Lalita Devi sews faces of deities like fruits; profusion of motives seems to rightly counterbalance the precariousness of existence, they transcend their daily lives to harvest new creations. And now women of all castes have been practicing this art as a job earning profession.

Being the folk of the villages, these artists rely on the kindness of nature for colors. It provides them with a wonderful range of natural hues derived from clay, bark, flowers and berries. The colors are usually deep red, green, blue, black, light yellow, pink and lemon. They create mood and hence played an important role. For instance, energy and passion find expression through the use of red and yellow, as monochrome crashed over large surfaces of the painting. Concentration of energy and the binding force is best reflected in red while green governs the natural leaves and vegetation. The Brahmins prefer the very bright hues while the Kayasthas opt for muted ones. For the Harijan style of paintings, hand made papers is washed in cow dung. Once the paints are ready, two kinds of brushes are used - one for the tiny details made out of bamboo twigs and the other for filling in or space is prepared from a small piece of cloth attached to a twig. In the beginning homemade natural colours were obtained from plant extracts like henna leaves, flower, bougainvillea, neem, etc. These natural juices were mixed with resin from banana leaves and ordinary gum in order to make the paint stick to the painting medium. Home made paints, though cheap, was time consuming and produced less than the requirement. The solution was at hand to switch to the synthetic colors available aplenty in the market. Now colours come in powdered form, which are then mixed with goat's milk. Black was obtained from the soot deposits by the flame of dibia29 dissolved in gum.

The kohabar is replete with paintings based on mythological, folk themes, and tantric symbolism. The paintings in this chamber are designed to bless the couple. The central theme of all paintings is love and fertility, though the approach may vary. It can commence with the story of Sita's marriage or Krishna - Radha episode with the ecstatic circle in which he leads the gopis. The people of Mithila, also known as Maithils, are Sakti worshippers with the influence of tantric rituals and so Siva-Sakti, Kali, Durga, Ravana and Hanuman also appear in their murals. Symbols of fertility and prosperity like fish, parrot, elephant, turtle, sun, moon, bamboo tree, lotus, etc., are more prominent. The divine beings are positioned centrally in the frame while their consorts or mounts or simply their symbols and floral motifs form the background. The human figures are mostly abstract and linear in form; the animals are usually naturalistic and are invariably depicted in profile. It begins with the flow of the brush without any preliminary sketching. Though natural colours and twigs have given way to brushes and artificial paints, the subject of Mithila paintings has changed enormously.

The commercialization has caused serious harm to this art. The women and men are learning this art from the markets in towns and metropolitan cities. The trainers themselves do not know the essence and aesthetic beauty of this folk art and they teach their students in utter ignorance. Some of them do not know the colour combination, obtaining the colour from the nature, preparing the background, relationship between rhythm, colour, songs, rituals, dance and the art of painting. The themes and designs of the paintings are, now, in most of the cases decided by the buyers. The buyer-centric approach has caused serious threat to the originality of colour, design, motif, and sensitivity of this great art form. In the name of the tantric painting, we see the women have painted something very different from the tradition of Mithila. Commercialization of this art has created the interest of several males in it. They have been now also painting without knowing the significance of women in it. For them it is an industry that can easily provide a job opportunity for them. They are willing to paint anything as per the requirement of the buyers in the name of Mithila painting.

But when we talk about the Mithila painting as folk or traditional painting, which is painted on a ritual occasion or any ritual painting of India we see many activities are combined. This combination, in fact gives special significance to the art. “Viewed at the level of perception and experience, all these local, regional, macro pan – Indian, and beyond Indian expression of art emerge and are held together by an integral vision that makes life an art, part and parcel of a single totality where life functions and creative art are inseparably intertwined. Painting, music, dance, poetry, and other functional objects are inseparable from myths, rituals, festivals and ceremonies. There is no dichotomy between the sacred and profane, life and art. The human and the divine are in a continuum, in a constant movement of interpretation and transformation (Kapila Vatsyayan 1996:6)30.”  When a painter paints a wall or a floor, she is supported by other women by way of singing songs and helping tunes. The lesson drawn from the folk stories and narratives also help her in painting the themes of various requirements. The tantric paintings for instance, are influenced by the famous narratives of the Madhusravani katha. This katha is narrated before a newly married bride on the occasion of Madhusravani for 13-15 continuous days by an elderly and experienced lady who is usually well versed in the art of narrative. She dramatises the stories in a very lively manner and narrates the origin of earth and various tantric stories. This festival is celebrated with songs, dance, ritual paintings; spell of mantras, etc. One such complete folk-cum-tantric story of Manasa Debi is given below:

Manasa Debi was a mind-born daughter31 of Siva. She was born of Siva’s semen left on a chikanipata32.  She is known as Bisahari33 and said to have extraordinary supernatural power to bless her devotees. She can also ruin and kill those who do not believe in her existence and offer their prayer to her. There was a very rich ship merchant, named Chanrakar. He was also known to the people as Chandu Saudagar34. He was a great devotee of Siva.  He had six sons and a happy family. He did not consider Manasa as a Goddess. Manasa Debi did not like this attitude of Chandu Saudagar and killed all his six sons by sending black snakes. However Chandu Saudagar did not relent. One day pleased with the devotion of Chandu Siva appeared in his dream and expressed his willingness to bless him with some great things as per the desire of Chandu. Chandu Saudagar asked him for a son. Siva agreed to bless him with a son but put a condition before him. “ If you want to have a son who will have long life, he would be a fool, lethargic and an idiot. Instead if you want to have an ideal, intelligent and handsome son he will die at the early age of 20”, said Siva, “now you tell me what exactly you want.” After a serious thought Chandu Saudagar opted for an intelligent son who would have a short life. Later, Chandu’s wife gave birth to a male child whose name was Bala Lakshendra or Lakhinder. Lakhinder was bright, intelligent and a very cultured child. Everybody was happy with his behaviour. When he reached the marriageable age his father wanted to solemnise his marriage ceremony with an equally qualified and highly cultured girl. After a great search, Chandu Saudagar saw Bihula.  She was very beautiful, meritorious, highly cultured and a homely girl. Chandu also came to know that according to her family tradition every woman dies as a sumangali and none of them would become a widow at any point of time. In this family tradition of Bihula, Chandu Saudagar saw a ray of hope for his dear and affectionate son Lakhinder and as a result he immediately decided to choose her as his daughter-in-law.

The marriage was solemnised in a happy atmosphere. Lakhinder was bitten by a dangerous cobra at the behest of Manasa Debi on his first night of the bridal-bed in the bridal chamber itself. Lakhinder cried in helplessness and breathed his last. The innocent but firm Bihula decided to remain with his dead body on a raft in the river Ganges. Chandu and neighbouring people made futile attempts to dissuade her. But she was determined. Finding no other alternative, Chandu gave permission to Bihula. She started her voyage on a raft along with her husband’s dead body.  The current slowly carried the raft. She had to face various difficulties in her journey, but she overcame them all. Ultimately she found a washerwoman washing the clothes by the side of the river Ganges. Her small child was disturbing her. Getting irritated with the behaviour of her girl child, the washerwoman killed her baby and started washing her clothes. Once she had washed all her clothes, she sprinkled some drops of water on the face of her baby and the dead baby became alive. Bihula took no time to understand the supernatural power of this lady and took shelter at her feet and narrated her the sad story.

In accordance with the advice of washerwoman, Bihula reached the Mahadeoloka35 with her. On the instruction of the washerwoman, Bihula performed a wonderful dance to please the Lord. The Lord was very impressed by her graceful performance and was moved by the story of her tragic life on earth and heaven. He called Manasa and asked her to give the reasons of her tragedy. Manasa vehemently denied that she was responsible for the tragedy of Bihula. However, Bihula succeeded in producing definite evidence. But Manasa insisted that she was not responsible for the sad plight of Bihula, and it was Chandu Saudagar, her father-in-law, who was solely responsible, because he always abused and disrespected Manasa Debi and did not consider her to be a goddess worthy of worship. Manasa then told Bihula that if Chandu Saudagar were to worship her, she would bring Lakhinder back to life. Bihula felt the hope of restoration of life for the corpse of her husband in the statement of Manasa and agreed to her proposal. Manasa then brought Lakhinder and other six sons of Chandu Saudagar back to life by chanting spells. At the humble request of Bihula, Manasa recovered all the boats of Chandu Saudagar along with the cargo and crew that had been submerged by the wrath of Mansa Debi. She thus fulfilled the desire of Bihula.  With all the seven sons and lost property of Chandu Saudagar, Bihula came down to the city in the earth where the old eyes of Chandu Saudagar and his wife were counting the days to breathe their last.  All of a sudden they received all their lost sons along with the cargo and crew.

Now Chandu Saudagar realized the power of Bihula and gave his consent to worship the deity – Manasa Debi. The goddess blessed him. He realized that there was none except Manasa Debi in these three worlds. Finally, he worshipped Manasa with offerings of various fruits and animals.

Thus, Chandu Saudagar, a devout follower of Siva, changed his religious ideas and became one of the staunch followers of the Manasa-cult, which was originally a tantric-cum-folk cult.

The other stories narrated during the Madhusravani are Satik Katha; Pativrata Sunaynak Katha; Bala-Basantak Katha; Gosaunik Katha; Chanai Bairsi Katha and Raja Srikarak Katha. The Madhusravani is celebrated in the rainy month of the Savan. Everywhere snakes and other poisonous insects are found in abundance. People try to please the deities and these serpent deities by way of offering puja, singing songs, celebrating festivals, invocating mantras etc., the place where the Madhusravani katha is narrated, is decorated with the ritual paintings. Some women sing some tantric songs36 during the decoration in a falsetto tone. Through the song the snake deity is being worshipped in order to bless the people, mainly the groom of the newly married bride.

The purpose behind giving the summary of one folk narrative, narrated on the occasion of the Madhusravani is to explain the interconnectivity amongst various activities in the creation of a ritual art. This interconnectedness get lost when the art is experimented as a commodity and sold in the market in huge quantum. A lady when painting the wall does not expect any financial return from anywhere but when she paints in order to sell her painting as a commercial production, she becomes a sales girl. Her entire attention shifts from culture to consumerism and she puts herself in the mercy of her buyers. She paints not to retain tradition but to earn better livelihood.

In the last twenty years, in order to get job opportunities, a very huge population of Mithila has migrated to the cities and mega-cities of India and abroad. This is a continuous trend. Many of them have settled in those cities. They are emotionally attached with their ritual and tradition. Marriages are solemnized in these cities in the banquets and hotels. And no traditional marriage can take place without kohbara painting. These paper and cloth paintings therefore solve their purpose. Now they decorate the banquets, hotels or any other venues with the Mithila paintings and feel very much rooted in their tradition. Such development has given a new and potential group of buyers to the painters.

Some individual painters i.e., Karpoori Devi, Ganga Devi and Jamuna Devi have innovated as per the requirements of their potential buyers. Ganga Devi has wonderfully depicted the Ramayana episode in her paintings.

Ganga Devi also depicted her journey from Madhubani, a small town in north Bihar to All India Medical Sciences, New Delhi she made in order to get treatment of cancer she was suffering from. The train, doctors, hospital, syringe, medical ward everything she drew delicately. Her innovations were excellent, appealing and unique in many respects. Some critics however did not appreciate such step thinking that it might disturb the originality of the folk painting of Mithila but majorities of them were in agreement with Ganga Devi. She did loose the originality of her style, brush, colour, canvas and thought processes in her creativity. 

Together with her brother Mitar Ram, but to a greater extent, Jamuna Devi has developed a brightly coloured style that has no equivalent in Mithila art. Jamuna Devi is self-taught and no rules apply to her work that evokes children's play and raw art. She delights in portraying animals - cows, for example. Her representations of the sacred animals range from a parody of anteaters to a hybrid combination of dancing angels and juggling balls. Many of her paintings can be viewed upside down, showing her total freedom from conventions. But she is very strict to maintain the tradition in terms of obtaining colour, preparing background of the canvas, depicting the pictorials etc.

These painters paint landscapes, rivers, and any other things their customers want them to paint.

In the villages of Jitwarpur and Ratni the Mithila paintings have emerged as a commercial activity where children can be seen engaged in arranging the hand crafted paper or fetching the colours. In my recent visit to Jitwarpur, I saw Jamuna Devi teaching her more than 15 students ranging from the Brahmans to the Harijan girls. On my enquiry she said, “I teach them as their mother. They feel they are at their home. I do not charge any money from the trainees. If I charge, my art will be polluted. The best reward that I get is when a Brahman girl after successful completion of her training touches my feet to get my blessings. I then bless her from the innermost core of my hearts and also issue a perfection certificate.”

Mithila painting is more than an art. Through this creative ability a group of women express their desires, dreams, expectations, hopes and aspirations to the people. If you ask them what they are doing they would respond, “We are writing this kohabar or gahwar37”.  For them their style is a kind of script through which they communicate with the male folk or with the people of the rest of the world. They are the creative writers who write their feelings through the medium of paintings. They are the creators and close to the god in the perfection. Because of money culture some men have also jumped into this creativity but in its essence and nature even today it is a women’s creativity.


Footnotes and References

17 A local plant

18 Plant as well as flower of lotus

19 A regional variety of indigenous grass

20 Newly married auspicious women whose husbands are alive.

21 Bridal chamber where the union between the groom and the bride takes place and several rites are solemnized. 

22 An earthen lamp - a symbol of happy conjugal life.

23 Paper, cloth, dress materials, readymade garments, movable objects, etc.,

24 Famine poetry

25 Spinning wheel

26 Sacred thread

27 Symbolic marriage paintings

28 Tattooing

29 Kerosene lamp

30 Vatsyayan Kapila, in the Preface Fisher Eberhard & Dinanath Pathy’s Muralas of Goddesses and Gods: The Tradition of Osakothi Ritual Painting of Orissa, India, New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, Zurich; Museum Reitberg, 1996.

31 Manasaputri

32 A leaf of lotus

33 Snake goddess

34 Merchant

35 Realm of gods in the kingdom of Shiva, Mahadeo

36 One such song called bini (prayer) is mentioned below:


Deep-deep hara jathu ghara; Motik manik bharathu ghara

Nag badhathu, nagin badhathu; Panch bahin bishara badhathu

Bal basant bhaia badhathu; Dadhi- khondhi mausi badhathu

Ashavari pisi badhathu; Basuki raja nag badhathu

Basukini maie badhathu; Khona-mona mama badhathu

Rahi shabda lai suti; kansa shabda lai uthi

Hoiet prat sona katora men dudh-bhat khai

Sanjh suti prat uthi; pator pahiri, kachor odhi

Bramhak del kodari, vishnuk chanchal bat.

Bhag-bhag re kida-makoda; tahi bate aotah ishvar mahadev, padal gadud ker dhath.

Astik, astik, gadud, gadud.

37 Hamralokani kohbara yaa gahavara likhait chee.