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Introduction to Madhubani Paintings

Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 2:47 AM

Madhubani forest of honey If you look at the map of the world you will not find the village of Madhubani on it. Even if you can trace the contours of the saried woman, which is the shape of Bharat Mata, you will not find the beautiful mole on her face called Madhubani. But if you translate the word Madhubani, you will soon know where it could be. The forest of honey, which is the literal meaning of the name of the village, could be anywhere in the vast landscape of our subcontinent.

Certainly, it was a very apt name in the olden days, when the greater part of our earth was full of dense jungles, in which the folk made little clearings and settled down in the eternal world of birth and rebirth, so they believed, according to their Karma, of good or bad deeds in the past life. The poetical myth, which is enshrined in the name of Madhubani may have been based on reality. In the trees of the forests near the village, the bees may have made beehives. The people may have gathered these hives and extracted from them the honey to sweeten their own lives and those of others. In the feudal centuries, there were terrible hardships in growing grain on small portions of land, with the wooden plough, in good weather and bad. Green harvests depended on the will of the gods. The honey may have been a constant source of happiness. And, in their innocence, they seized upon the perennial source of pleasure as the name of their hamlet.

The innocence, which seems to be obvious in naming the village, is also revealed in the traditional character of the folk of Madhubani. It may have come from a dim sense of the revelation of things from the obscure areas of the heart. This is the way in which men and women become aware of nature, as mother, hear echoes of the emotions they feel, which they put into words to signify the phenomena around them, so that the obscure feelings about the verdant earth, the sun, the moon and the stars, the flora and fauna, may become manifest to them.

But before they pronounce words they make images of their myths, dreams and fantasies. The myth of the name of Madhubani is one of the many fables through which the folk here, as elsewhere, have connected themselves with the cosmos. Some of these legends were invented by the local bards, but many of them were inherited from forefathers, and are part of the oral culture of our peoples, only varied somewhat in the telling, by the salt of the tongue of the teller. 
Madhubani Painting
Actually Madhubani has now become a market town and the village where most of the painters continue to paint is Jitwanpur, about three miles away.

Surrounded by mango and banana groves, the hamlet is outwardly just a typical north Bihar cluster of thatched huts beyond a green pond in which some buffaloes are cooling themselves, while children try to goad them out with little bamboo sticks.

Squatting on the cow dung plastered floors of their houses, some women daily paint pictures, under the shadow of the walls which they painted long ago.

In this and a few other hamlets they have been doing this ritual colour work for generations.

The primary myth about the origin of the world is known to every Hindu villager in Bharat. The Great God, Brahma, was filled with the desire to play. In this mood he played hide and seek with his consort Lakshmi, loved her and created the whole world. So the universe is the soul and body of the Great God.

The early myths of the Rigveda in which the Aryan ancestors had enshrined their poetical reactions, to the surroundings in which they found themselves, have been passed on by word of mouth, by father to son, and mother to daughter, for generations. As the Gayatri hymn to the Sun has been sung for centuries on the banks of the Ganga, not only during festivals, but every morning and every day, Surya has been worshipped through prayers, and also by the way in which the eyes bend down before the refulgent Sun, over joined hands, when Surya appears at dawn to give light, and before he departs into the twilight of the evening. The dawn is an experience for every peasant, who begins the ritual of everyday life by going out into the fields and to the river for his ablutions before sunrise. The god of thunder and lightning, Indra, is welcomed after long months of the parching summer. The moon is watched as it matures from the crescent into the full round shining face of Poornamasi, when the folk dance to celebrate the heightening of the nights to the splendour of golden light.

In this ritual, the aspiration to the connection with the gods becomes a vague sense of connection with the Supreme God from whom men and women are separated. And meditation on the pictures connects.

This organic relationship between the performing arts and the visual expression in images must be noticed as an important departure point in the making of images. In eastern India and in Rajasthan scrolls were taken in procession and unfolded before the folk with the myth or legend recited. This urge for connection, for absorption, and salvation, became the curve of the inner journey towards the Self through the outward strayings in the mundane world.

Even before the ardent stirrings in the soul of the Vedic poets, our primitive ancestors had looked for protection to the mother, and there had been evolved the myth of Saranyu, daughter of Tavstar, the god who made the cosmos and all loving things. In the Rigveda she appears as the Goddess who moved at great speed, rushing out of the creator into existence, but going back again to the gods. The name Saranyu means she who runs. She is the pristine goddess, the primary power, who once assumed human shape and became incarnate in other forms. The images of the mother goddess include: Sarama, Saraswati (the mighty river which went underground); Vak the goddess who sings of herself; Aditi the boundless sky, air, mother and father and essence of all the gods and goddesses, the five kinds of being that are born and will be born; the auspicious Lakshmi giving wealth, the lotus-born standing in the lotus, lotus-eyed, abounding in lotuses; Usha, the dawn, the virgin daughter of heaven; Durga, the gracious mother; Kali, the dark flame of fire who consumes the world and existence; and Devi, who takes the innumerable shapes and gives grace to all worshippers.

The mother goddess, in all her exalted incarnations, was worshipped by the folk as a fertility image, as the naked woman with the emphatic pudenda, shown squatting almost in the act of giving birth.

The mythical stories of the heroes and heroines of the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata were also inherited by the folk in Madhubani, through the recitation of these narratives during the yearly festivals.

Apart from Rama and Sita, the ideal pair, whose devotion to each other became the symbol of devotion between husband and wife, the hero-god Krishna seems to have been adored in Eastern India, specially as the twelfth century Mithila poet, jayadeva, celebrated the amours of this love god with his consort, Radha, in his Gita Govinda.

The various tales retold in the Puranas, or old books, rendering old stories, became part of the inheritance and fulfilled the desires of many peoples in different ways.

I take the forms desired by my worshippers,' Krishna said in the Bhagavad Gita. And there was always an answer in some vital story or the other, to the urge for alliance with the gods, against the dangers, the in clemencies of weather, and the forces of evil and death which may end life.

As the feelings, urges and stirrings towards security, longevity and prosperity, by alliance with spirits, were the curves of desire, but could not be easily fixed in words, so images in clay, in wood, stone and colour began to be made by the folk to define the contours of the wished for spirits. And these figures were often sanctified by prayers and the god or goddess incarnated in the material shapes and worshipped.

This struggle to invoke the spirits seems to have become a racial characteristic. Not only the Brahmin members of the hierarchy paint pictures in Madhubani, but the people of the lowest caste, also indulge in such symbolic expressionism. The child, or the primitive, creates an image in the likeness of what he or she wishes to become. Words are vague. They only affect the soul where they are rhythmically intoned or rhetorically delivered by an orator, or breathed in magical whispers by a priest into the ear as Sruti, inspired by God. Images are more precise because they are concrete. They picture vibrant feelings, metaphors and recreate myths, so that we may remember the shape, size and texture of the spirit which has hovered over the head, or is moving about in the soul, as a fleeting feeling. When made and put on the mandala and holified by puja, the image as icon affords the worshipper rest in the symbol, against the torment of not being able to connect with a god or goddess through changing emotions. For instance, once the imagination, recalling the memory of thunder and lightning, has conceived the image of the God Indra driving his chariot across the sky, so fast that the wheels create terrible sounds and spread sparks of fire, the spirit of this dynamic god becomes incarnate on a wall when drawn as a concrete expression.

And, then, He is not a mere sound of the rhetorical flourish of a hymn in the Rigveda, but the certainty of the divine presence, liberating the devotee, through expression, or the making of the picture, from the dread of the bursting sky with its loud crackling sounds and its piercing shafts of fire. The religious icon is, therefore, the complement of the poetical metaphor. The first language of the naive mind is in images, which are magical shapes that evoke the protective spirit when beckoned in meditation.

The art of Madhubani is thus mythology. Not art in the sense of 'significant form' of the West. The paintings are legends to which the folk turn to pray in the daily ritual.

The feeling, or energy, or emotion, or invisible stirring, is sought to be imaged as a vital flourish of lines and colours which enshrines the powers of the divinity and can be contemplated with a view to receiving those vitalities into oneself. In fact, the whole basis of Indian creativeness seems to have been to evolve images through which the worshiper desires to become god or goddess.

This kind of transformation of human beings into gods and spirits and demons through idols has, in fact, been the source of all achievements in the arts of the refulgent genius of Indian peoples.

The mother Goddess, Saranyu, of the Vedic age, assumed many incarnations. One of the later forms taken by the great mother, was Kali. She destroys the world, to recreate it. Swords in her hand with a bulging tongue, and distended eyes, she is a symbol of the righteous destroyer.The underlying idea of seeking alliance with the image, is enacted as a drama in a festival like Durga Puja. The images of the Goddess are made by the female folk or by the local craftsmen. They are worshipped during the special festivals, at a particular time of the year. The powers of the goddess are sought to be absorbed in one's own inner life through worship. And then the image is thrown into the river, so that it may become part of the cosmos, to be made again the next year, but leaving the residue of the feeling of its force in the worshipper, so that he or she can turn inwards and recall the image at will. The intention behind the ritualistic use of the icon made the whole tradition of the art of India possible. Every idol is for contemplation, in a dhyanamantra, or is meant to evoke the vision of a concrete divinity, by seeking whose powers, in the grooves of one's person, the awareness of the worshipper can extend itself beyond the everyday round, and thus acquire ineffable devotion to the higher self which may be exteriorised.

This kind of contemplation of a ritual image is quite different from looking at a work of art in the West, except in the early Christian art, where the holy figures were placed in church for bent-head reverence. These images were quite different from the pictures of the Renaissance art. Thus Raphael's Venus, modelled on a beautifully proportioned human female, is supposed to invoke, in the onlooker, the sensuous sense of her chiselled face, her gracious bent neck, volumes of the breasts and the excitations of the naked belly, the shapely hips and legs, as aesthetic delight. There is no doubt that the vision of Venus uplifts the spectator.

But the dramatic composition of Durga, as Mahismardini, showing her slaying the buffalo demon, is supposed to suggest the fight of good against evil, revealing also the power of the goddess, in all the intensity of her destructive force, to ally the worshipper with the protective mother, devotion to whom would quell all those forces which are inimical to life.

If the naturalistic form of Venus arouses mainly the senses, the vision which is behind the creation, destruction and preservation of the world is supposed to be part of the creative intuition of Hindu ritualistic-art-expression in the Mahismardini image of Durga.

In the cosmos every animate and inanimate form is to be worshipped. Specially those forms which induce fear which must be appeased. Nagini, the snake Goddess, is lovingly portrayed as a queen, with her body flowing into a lyrical mango-shaped curve and decorated with flowers, so as to seem to be the acme of grace. We cannot, therefore, equate the rasa, or flavour, which seeps into the devotee, with the aesthetic delight which is the ideal of Western art, though rasa includes appreciation of forms. But it denotes more comprehensive appreciation than the aesthetic term of Clive Bell's 'significant form'.

The creative energies in every work of art, in India, until the end of the mediaeval period, and in rural India until now, were dedicated to self creation, self-perpetuation and self-expression, as a part of the process of increasing awareness and thus to attain insights and heighten consciousness.

As Brahma had created the world, so every human being recreates his or her life, every day of the year.

This recreation takes the form of exalting the house above the decay of the previous day.

The dwelling is swept clean and plastered with the sacred cow dung wash. The rice powder drawing of flowers called alpona is traced by the hand on the threshold, by the mother of the family, the creator, before anyone wakes up.

The water of a holy river or stream is brought and sprinkled all over the house, or the Ganges water, fetched on the last pilgrimage to the mother Ganga, is sprinkled to purify the precincts.

The flowers, which have been brought from the fields, are put before the mandala, on which the favourite gods are arranged in images of stone, metal, or on paper.

The puja or meditational prayer, is then performed by all the members of the family, together or apart.

The incense or dhoop is taken around the house to all the corners, to smoke the evil spirits away.

The first portion of food is sent to the temple for the gods before the family is served the meal.

Almost every act is made holy by the frequent remembrance of the favourite God's name.

In everything, then the empirical Self is related to the higher self. The dream of every man or a woman is to rise above the earthly condition and become a god or a goddess. The family had already exalted every child, male or female, to the status of divinity, by naming the young after the celestials. A boy would be called Shiv Shankar, Krishan Lal or Vishnu Dayal. A girl would be called Savitri Devi, Lakshmi Devi or Parvati Devi.

This exaltation of the human self is integral to all cultures. In almost every part of the world, in all societies, some form of magic making, which is a poetical faculty, has been current. The pantheistic tendency to ascribe a soul to a tree, a bird, a river, a mountain, or a house, can be seen in the most primitive societies.


In India the daily self was reminded every day by the sloka of the Upanishads:

  • Whence are we born?
  • Whereby do we live??
  • On what are we established??? Under whose orders do we suffer pains and pleasures?
  • For obviously the ego is not a free agent
  • Being under the sway of happiness and misery

This questioning was literally adopted by custom by the folk. Because it was to give a jolt from the habitual life to every person, so that he or she may wonder why we are here and not there, why we were born at all, and who put us here.

The myth of Maheshmardhini, incarnation of Kali, riding a leopard-like tiger and killing the demon, evokes frequent ritualisation in Madhubani art. The materialisation of the figure of the Goddess in her terrible mood is always different. This painting by a primitivist painter has elemental effect. The artist has suggested the power of the Goddess by composing static torso and drapery with the dynamic eight upraised hands and the twisted body of the tiger, as well as the skull hanging from the Goddess's right hand. The naive artist notices fundamental characteristics and makes bio-physiological bodily movements into heroic human forms, suggesting divinities.
The earliest hunches had a vague sense of an omnipotent creator, so the path of meditation was advised by the priest to attain atma-shakti, the cosmic power of the Supreme God, the one cause of all the causes, through the appreciation of the qualities which the creator had imbued in all his creation. To rise from the lowest essence of tamask or crudeness, to rajask or heightening, and satvas or truth, is to emerge from the attachments of the lower life of ignorance, avidya, to illumination, above the decay, to those subtle areas which are beyond the threshold of consciousness.

The tendency to be attached to the world of dailiness, of samsara, has to be got over by discarding the standardised reflections, abhasa, and transcend to the mystery of being, by putting before oneself the image of the god into whose particular incarnation one may aspire to.

In the pursuit of the authentic life, as against the unauthentic habitual existence, everything has to remind the individual of the model of the grace of Vishnu, or the elemental force of Shiva, or the love of Devi.

As the spiritual presence which human beings seek is hidden behind everything, the sense of wonder has to be kept alive and rahasya, or the mystery, revealed. The realisation of the mystery may elevate one to ananda or transcendent bliss.

The painting of the forms of God's creation, or image-making thus become part of a way of life.

The folk often get their effects of power by obsessive repetition. They break the physical body to reconstruct it into an image, by suppressing details and emphasising the total form. The expression is achieved by exaggeration of faces. In this painting the naive artist shows perspicacity of observation of village folk in their angry moods, by distending the eyes of the five heads of Kali above the bulging tongue. The terror of the form is relieved by the peacock on which the Goddess rides and the crystals of foliage. The ritual painting is a simple process. Certain symbols had been handed down by tradition. The recreation of those in the alpana of the threshold or on the walls has been repeated day after day without much variation. Perhaps on a festival, the grandmother of the family, or the older aunt, may bring out, from the welter of images, a memory image from her own youth in another village. The form of some flowers, or the vessel in which the flowers are put, may thus become a variation on the old theme.

Occasionally, an individual talent may arise, like the now legendary Sita Devi, a Brahmin widow of three score and seven, who began scribbling in her girlhood. sShe might have been the odd woman out, who dared to dramatise certain forms, was perhaps emboldened, mischievously, to caricature Hanuman, to emphasise his powers and transgress the norms of the routine drawing, with brighter earth colours. She and her youthful companions must have gone to the village fairs, across miles of ploughed fields, along dusty roads to the riverside.

They had sung songs, as they bore the effigies they made of the goddess, after weeks of worship, and then threw them into the Mother Ganga. In the fair were the toys shops, selling images of the gods, and birds and animals, made by village potters, which may have come back as echoes. Then they would have been the itinerant players, enacting the yatra the rural theatrical performance, singing the story of the Ramayana, or the tale from the Mahabharata. And she and her own family would have come back singing songs on the journey back home.

The impressions of the faces of the brides, taken by the mothers-in-law to the fair, would have emerged in the hand of Sita Devi, as the heroine Sita and Rama would be dramatisation of her own husband in the painting she would make.

In talking to Sita Devi, I found that she is a natural naive painter, who has observed the malleable faces of the performers in the yatra, their movements and stances and their tableaux. Her hands move quickly around the circle of sun. She is so fluent in her drawing of curves that she goes on from rounder to rounder. Equally easily, she radiates from the orb little edges of rays, which she slowly embellishes with delicate lines into flower beds. Or she goes to connect the sun-faces, already emergent, with big eyes, and a sacred red mark on the forehead, to symbolic squares for drapery. And then she creates a little universe of lotuses, flame flowers, and peacocks dancing in the garden. One can notice that her dynamic fingers have a natural sense of design. Her eyes are concentrated. And she has immense patience with the minor lines and points, in the morphology of pontillism, which is her unique contribution to the composition. And the binding lines are energised beyond the prototypes.

The impression she gives is that her body-soul creation, is an original rhythm which she has initiated, a unique of Madhubani style of her own.

In so far as the forms recreated by Sita Devi are new beginnings of multiple relations of rounds, squares, triangles, and rhythmic binding lines, in overall patterns, we are struck by the pictures as novelties above the stereotypes.

A more primitivist interpretation of the dark God Krishna and his consort Radha, crystalises the figures with the symbolic cow in the jungles of Brindaban, into another non-stereotype. The process of picturisation seems to knit together the traditional flute player into the natural handsome dark man and his fair consort. The old gestures are resignified in a complex of foliage where the divinities become part of nature. The lyrical lines indicate the mellow flow of loving. There are other creative talents in Jitwanpur. In fact, almost every second person in a family paints.

Surya Dev, the son of Sita Devi, learnt from his mother, first by filling in the outlines of her drawings with colours. Since then he has developed a fluent line and can do even large scale paintings. He absorbs impressions from outside Jitwanpur and says he prefers the torried glare of the day, to the night when the monsters of the dark swarm around. He is conscious that he comes from a family of priests who used to perform death ceremonies. Yama is everywhere, he whispers, and must be driven away with all his doots.

A nearby neighbour, Bana Devi paints surrounded by children. Two young girls help her, learning from the elders as in the past. The littlest ones are given paper and colours to play with. They are luckier than Bana Devi, who was married at the age of five and was a maid-of-all-work until she matured and began to earn money with her paintings. Shyly covering her demure round face, she concentrates on a smiling moustached sun, obviously an ambivalent symbol of happiness itself, the protective father image.

A perceptive collector discovered some Harijan painters. In the pictures of these 'lower' peoples, the deities and the victims coincide.

All the painters are aware that the loving adoration of the preferred spirits liberates them through the recreation of the traditional myth as a personal myth. Besides, there are the incipient urges to rise above the dailiness of ploughing, washing, cooking and doing the chores, in the seemingly changeless samsara, to authentic life of the future from the urgency to be immortal.

The body itself in its colourful clothes, is so treated in the colourful Madhubani world of paint, that life impulses are glorified with ease. Here the bride, being carried in a palanquin, is flowering into happiness. Space if filled with foliage to complete, by suggestion of smiles, the inwardly eagerness of woman going to man. In the deeper layers of such creativeness, is the intent to offer the sacrifice of one's self to the gods. It is conceivable that though the ancient Aryan Yajnas or self sacrificial ceremonies by burning clarified butter, so that the heat of the passion should rise to the heavens and the earth be purified.

Racial memory gave place to image worship. The instinctive urge to go to pray was transformed into the struggle to beckon the gods. And the energies of the body-soul were sacrificed in the magical act of drawing, painting or sculpting.

This struggle to invoke the spirits seems to have become a racial characteristic. Not only the Brahmin members of the hierarchy paint pictures in Madhubani, but the people of the lowest caste, also indulge in such symbolic expressionism.

And, curiously, the same family gods and goddesses appear in Harijan paintings as in the free-hand work of the 'twice born'. The sameness of the theme confirms the process of hieratic art, as also it emphasises the notion that the Harijans are also offering prayer and sacrifice as part of the fourfold Hindu order, even though they are considered beyond the pale, because of the menial work which is their function.

This enlarged crystallisation of the Goddess as bride unfolds, in wide space, a human body, uplifting itself by the gestures of the four hands (of Kali) into the action of divine woman reaching out with the sense of wonder in her eye, riding on a mythical bird, who also has wonder in his eyes. The natural forms are heightened by the action, into God's space of the ritual images. Actually, if we go to the sources of creativeness in our civilisation, we find that the gods and goddesses being our own higher incarnations and near neighbours, the invocation of them is a purely human act, subject to no other law, except the vitality of the rhythmic impulse which creates forms in different proportions, contours, with emphasis on colours according to the individual talent of the painter.

Thus though the family gods are the same, because of mythical contours of divinities are fixed, the forms by the 'upper' hierarchy are thinner and the colours of the 'lower' peoples are thicker. The lines of the former are more curved, while sharp triangular lines are visible along with roundings in the latter. The Brahmin paintings tend to be decorative, while the Harijan works are more expressionist and passionate.

If on the surface the symbols of both strains are similar, the thickening of tones in the works of the Harijans imparts a certain vitalism to their compositions. The dark necessities from which thick paints are imparted seem to inspire in men and women, urges towards freedom of action beyond the oppression of millenniums. It seems that each God forgotten by the God-forsaken is being recalled, in all innocence, perchance He may deliver the Harijans by the renewal of their faith in Him.

In every creation of man there is implicit the ambiguity of the relationship between the originator and his work. While the painter may be revealing the mysterious idol in a recognisable shape, the bent of his own empathy turns or twists the forms.

This variation of the Radha Krishna theme if the reverse process. Here natural human beings with all the concrete details of life, are defined in terms of the traditional spectacle of images in a shrine with worshippers offering flowers. The brides and bridegrooms of the village may have seen themselves in the romantic welter of the worship house, exalted to divine status above their mudhouse.Unlike other folk of other areas, the Madhubani painters, both Brahmins and Harijans, venture into the realm of the gods, to dissolve their fears in the continuous resurgence of the hope of receiving from the beneficent holies, for their body-souls, a certain depth in which may be resolved the daily predicament of being-in-this-world situation.

If the creations of the craftsmen of the courts lapsed, because there was no patronage left after the alien impacts, the arts of everyday life of the folk have, fortunately, survived wherever the myths of a faith are sung or recited or enacted in dance-dramas.

This organic relationship between the performing arts and the visual expression in images must be noticed as an important departure point in the making of images. In eastern India and in Rajasthan scrolls were taken in procession and unfolded before the folk with the myth or legend recited.

The core of the relationship is in the connection with the old symbols, which die from repetition and must be made alive, to appease the makers and the onlookers, through the battlements, the miseries and the challenges of the daily life. The personal recollection of a moral tale is, indeed, a repetition of an eternal human attitude, accepted in uncritical, blind worship, in answer to every baffling new situation. But the drums and cymbals renew the memory and make for the warmth of a living connection between the worshipper and the god, even in the shells of the old fables.

Flowers are gods, as are humans and animals. So each part of the foliage bursts into smiles. The painter gets out of the naturalistic expression by the twist and turns of stems and flowers, which gives the painting stylistic consistency and symbolic form. The folk in a village find that they have to survive in the hamlet on their own mental and physical resources. Some of the questions of the daily life have been answered in the recitals. All the desires, emotions, frustrations, aspirations, lusts, greeds, jealousies, have been expiated in the myths about the gods, who were originally based on heroes or exalted fantasies of behavior, which were models of angels against the evil demons. And behind the gods, there is lurking, always, the Supreme God, the exalted, the unreachable, the impenetrable, who has inspired the essence of the good, the beautiful and truthful in all creatures from which they can hark back in yearnings and desire, which become myth, and which are the means of reaching him in moments of ecstasy that is to say in being oneself.

The sources of folk art of Madhubani lie on the dim areas of silence, of the approximation to the heightened moments of creation itself.

Writer – Mulk Raj Anand
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