In 1949, when British art lover WG Archer wrote for the prestigious magazine Margin about the beauty and distinctiveness of Mithila painting, he did not call it folk art. Yet, over the past fifty years, Mithila painting has always been referred to as folk / ritual art and discussed by caste.
It is true that from time immemorial, throughout the Darbhanga-Madhubani region of Bihar, paintings adorned the walls (Kohabar) and floors (Aripan). However, in the past three decades, Ranti and Jitwarpur villages in Madhubani district have become important centers of Mithila painting, which is why the art form has received the name “Madhubani painting”. So far, seven Mithila artists had received the Padma Shri, of which, with the exception of Ganga Devi, six are from these two villages.
In 1991, the eminent painter Mithila, the late Mahasundari Devi of Ranti, had depicted Ram Katha in a traditional art form for Ravindra Bhawan, Bhopal, in a truly breathtaking way. In 2002, his nephew, the famous artist Santosh Kumar Das, a former student of the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, produced a series of paintings depicting in the Mithila style the riots in Gujarat, giving voice to a contemporary reality of the India. Santosh Kumar Das had learned this traditional art from his aunt as a child. Yet his political conscience has taken Mithila art to a very unique territory, which resonates and is shared among the young artists of his village.
Over the past two decades, young artists, many of whom were trained under Das, began to experiment with traditional and contemporary subjects, using the ancient techniques of Bharni or fill and Kachni or lines. They place the century-old art form in a new idiom.
Like Das, the young artist Avinash Karn was also trained in fine arts at the Hindu University of Banaras. With the help of Artreach India, a non-governmental organization, he is currently engaged in a community art project in Ranti. He trains Muslim girls from neighboring villages in Mahbubani art. Due to the confinement announced during the Covid-19 pandemic last year, he moved from Banaras to his village. This is the first time in the history of Mithila painting that Muslim women practice this art form and bring subjects such as community harmony (Sarwari Begum’s Eid Mubarak), the dowry in Muslim communities, the emancipation of women in the foreground. Karn says: “Muslim girls always nurtured the desire to paint but never had the opportunity to do so. I want to integrate my training into Mithila art and bring together young artists from disadvantaged communities.
Previously, the legendary artist Ganga Devi, who died in 1991 and originally from the village of Rashidpur, had experimented with modern themes. Das and Karn both recognize this contribution; Karn considers her to be a pioneer who established this popular art among contemporary artists. She introduced autobiographical elements into the art, in addition to painting the famous Kohabar of the Delhi Arts and Crafts Museum, which was sadly demolished in the name of modernization in 2015.
Jyotindra Jain, in her book, “Ganga Devi: Tradition and expression in Mithila painting“, correctly noted that Ganga Devi” transforms ordinary and mundane images of hotel facades, motor cars, national flags, ticket offices, roller coasters and people carrying expedition bags into imaginary objects and “fantastic”.
Recently I was in Ranti, where I saw many paintings by young university students Sarwari Begum, Saleha Sheikh and Sajiya Bushra in Avinash Karn’s modest studio. Sajiya and Saleha are first generation sisters and artists. When asked what they liked about this art form, Sajiya said, “Through this art I am describing the history of our life and our society. We see the differential treatment given to girls in our home which I highlight in my paintings. ”
Sarwari Begum loves the Kachni style of Mithila painting. She says: “Since I was in fifth grade, I wanted to paint in the Mithila style but I never had the opportunity. Now that Avinash sir has given me the opportunity to learn it, I want to go further in my life. Technically their paintings may not measure up to those of skilled artists, but it shows the eagerness of a new generation to experiment and innovate. In addition, it helps to bridge the community gap in society.
Like her contemporaries Ganga Devi and Sita Devi, Mahasundari Devi was known for her traditional motifs (Kohabar, Dasavtar, Aripan, Astdal) and mythical themes revolving around Ram, Sita and Krishna. She was also a remarkable guru as Dulari Devi, this year’s Padma Shri recipient for her contributions to Mithila (Madhubani) paintings, told me when I met her in 2011 in her village. It was the year that Mahasundari Devi received the Padma Shri. She said: “Shuru shuru mein main painting beech mein hi chhod kar bhag jati thi, leykin Mahasundari Devi hath pakad kar mujhey sikhati rahi– At first I would stop my painting job, but Mahasundari Devi held my hand and taught me to continue until the end. She is the third Padma Shri recipient from this village after Mahasundari Devi and Godawari Dutta (2019). However, his story is quite different from that of the two master artists, which is reflected in his brilliantly colored paintings.
Dulari Devi, 53, is from the Mallah community and has not received any formal education. She was working in Mahasundari Devi’s house in Ranti village near Madhubani when she encountered Mithila’s painting. She recounted how she became an artist in her book, “After my brush», Published by Tara Books. “One day I went to work in a new house as a cleaning lady. It turned out that the woman I worked for was not an ordinary person, she was an artist! I saw his paintings and I was so delighted that I forgot my own work… The next day, when I arrived at work, my employer was taking a painting class… I found the courage to ask him… could I learn to paint too? She said yes!”
As is known, the Madhubani / Mithila art form was largely the preserve of women from the elite Brahmin and Karn Kayastha communities. Women on the fringes of society, especially from the Dusadh community, introduced a new style called Godana or tattooing in the seventies. Later, Chano Devi, Shanti Devi and others began to paint folklores from the life of Raja Shalhes.
In the 1960s, Madhubani painting switched from murals to paper, making them easy to buy and sell. Thanks to artists as Jagdamba Devi, Sita Devi, Ganga Devi, Mahasundari Devi, Godawari Dutta and Bua Devi, he quickly caught the attention of art connoisseurs around the world. However, in the 90s, the art form began to lose its distinctive appeal with the growth of the market, as shown by some works available in places like Dilli Haat.
Armed with a new education and new networks, the young artists of Ranti attempt to innovate and revive the glory of this magnificent art form. A few years ago, Shantanu Das brought the famous Hindi poet and Maithili Nagarjun “Akaal Aur Uskey Baad”(Drought and after) living on a large canvas. Although the 14th century Maithili poet Vidyapati speaks of Kohabar (bridal chamber) in his poems, literary subjects were rarely considered for these paintings. Then there can be no disagreement with Shantanu when he says: “It is no longer a ritual art”.
The author is a freelance journalist and media researcher. Opinions are personal.