Madhubani is a traditional South Asian art-form named after the district where it where it was born. In fact it is still only practiced in that region. Madhubani art was developed in the ancient and powerful kingdom of Mithila, which is now in modern-day Bihar and southern Nepal. The name, meaning ‘forests of honey’, was the cultural centre of Mithila and continues to be so today.
Madhubani paintings are traditionally done as aripana (floor paintings) or kohabar (on the wall). They were created in anticipation of a religious festival or a ceremony like a wedding. First, the surface is prepped with clay and is often coated with a coating of cow-dung. This ensures that the pigments, which are extracted from natural sources like minerals and plants, will remain fixed. It is important to prep the surface before painting because natural dyes do not stick to the surface as easily as their chemical equivalents.
Some sources of pigments used in Madhubani painting are vegetable dyes, lamp-black (obtained from burnt wood or coal), flowers or pollen, and minerals from rocks or mud. These are applied onto the prepared walls with brushes made from twigs.
Madhubani art is practiced primarily by women although now men also engage in creating these beautiful works. The images painted in this traditional practice depict nature and the balance between man and his environment. The paintings either focus on form, where a large subject dominates the frame or intricacy, where a large object or multiple smaller ones are adorned with detailed patterns that separate the different part of the image. Another strong feature is religious depictions of the Ram and Sita, since Mithila is the birthplace of Sita, and the for some time both Gautama Buddha and Lord Mahavira are said to have resided there.
The figures of Madhubani painting are two dimensional. The figures are painted with bold colours and no part of the painting is left open. This means that even parts of the image that is part of the background will have patterns and designs, making the perspective extremely flat.
In the 1960’s Bihar was hit with a devastating drought. Previously all Madhubani art was only practiced in its traditional form. In response to the drought, the women began to produce their paintings on paper in order to make up for the lack of income by selling their crop. This turned out to be a very lucrative idea because before that, this art was only known to people who had seen the work that adorned the houses and temples of the people in the region.
The move from painting on walls and floors to using a canvas that you could carry around with you changed the subjects that the women painted. More divers images of birds and nature became very popular and the medium began to focus on developing the art form while maintaining its cultural tradition.
There are three main types of Madhubani paintings:
This kind of Madhubani painting is always monochrome, meaning it uses only black and white or different tones of the same colour. Since it was mainly done in the wedding chambers of newly married couples, nature and fertility are the two main themes in this type of work. Representations of the lotus, snakes, bamboo groves, and fish are common elements of the Kayastha tradition.
The Brahmin Tradition
The Brahmin tradition as it is suggested focuses on imagery from Hindu mythology. Unlike the Kayastha tradition, they employ the use of a range of colours that are vibrant and reflect a festive spirit. The reason why the Brahmin tradition developed is because of the easy access to the sacred Hindu literature.
The Goidana Tradition
This type of Madhubani painting reflects the traditional and almost tribal nature of the practice. The painting is divided into horizontal lines and a them is repetitively drawn across all the lines. It was practiced by the lower strata of society and more closely resembles the Brahmin tradition than the Kayastha.
Even though Madhubani art has found a way into the modern art world it still uses traditional dyes andartists will even put a coat of cowdung onto the canvas in order to give the image a more traditional feel. The subjects of the painting are still religious icons and depictions of nature, staying true to its roots
Another art-form called Warli uses similar methods of creating art. Can you find out more about Warli and how it is different from Madhubani painting?
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